Of all the family holidays, Thanksgiving has been the one that most often has departed from the norm for me, adding a touch of adventure to the day.
My early Thanksgivings in my hometown of Athens were pretty traditional. My grandmother and Uncle Larry came to our home, and, after the meal, we usually wound up playing football in the front yard.
It was, however, football that provided me with my first departure from the usual Thanksgiving, as I joined a Sunday school group attending the 1966 Bullpups vs. Baby Jackets charity freshman football game played on Thanksgiving for 60 years at Grant Field.
Three years later, I missed another family gathering for one of my most memorable Thanksgivings, flying to Chicago that morning as one of a half-dozen staffers from my high school newspaper attending a student journalism convention.
That evening, instead of seeking out turkey and dressing, we dined at the Berghoff, a long-established family-owned German restaurant near the famed Palmer House, where we were staying.
I ordered grilled fish (trout, I think) and was surprised that it came whole, complete with the head! I had no idea how to go about eating it. As my intended meal and I were eyeing each other, a gentleman at a nearby table came over and kindly showed me how to insert my knife at the tail, cut up to the head, flip it open, and remove the backbone.
Five years later, I again was absent from the gathering in Athens as my girlfriend and I enjoyed a lavish Thanksgiving buffet at the Stone Mountain Inn before attending a George Harrison concert that night at Atlanta’s Omni, the first time I saw a Beatle perform live.
A year and a day later, I married my date for the Harrison concert. My memories of that Thanksgiving are chiefly of last-minute wedding preparations.
For a decade after that, my wife, Leslie, and I traveled to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Thanksgiving at her elderly grandmother’s house. The family was Italian, but the only Italian touch to the meal was the serving of a predinner antipasto, with pickled vegetables. In addition to the usual Thanksgiving offerings, her grandmother also made a faux “mincemeat” pie (with apples, cloves and cinnamon).
After Leslie’s grandmother eventually gave up hosting Thanksgiving, we settled back into celebrating it with my parents.
Although born in Britain, Mom went all-American for Thanksgiving, preparing a huge repast that included turkey, ham, gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato souffle, squash casserole, cranberry congealed salad (or, sometimes, either sliced jellied cranberry sauce, or a cranberry apple compote), her renowned brown bread, and yeast rolls. Some years, to change the menu up a little, she’d add a Wellington made with turkey (instead of beef) or turkey divan.
However, the stars of the meal definitely were the desserts, which included pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, and pound cake. As my brother Jonathan recalled, “Mom had a way with pies.”
My daughter Olivia said her chief memory of those gatherings is “Grandma in the kitchen early on Thanksgiving Day.”
My dad, who wasn’t really a fan of turkey, admonished his sons each year, “Take some turkey with you. Otherwise, I’ll be eating turkey sandwiches, turkey stew, turkey hash …”
The day after Thanksgiving, we usually stayed over in Athens for shopping. And, my daughter recalls, that was when Mom got out her collection of Father Christmas figures to position around the house. “That was always a highlight for me,” Olivia said.
One year, we missed the Athens celebration when Leslie was sick. I wound up having a solo Thanksgiving lunch sitting at the bar in a neighborhood tavern.
That was depressing, but my least favorite Thanksgiving definitely was 2008. My mother had died suddenly 10 days earlier, and we were preparing to move my dad into assisted living the next day, much to his consternation. As my brother Tim put it: “Definitely not a day in the happy memory book.”
Funnily enough, the only time Leslie and I ever have “hosted” a Thanksgiving feast was for the first three years after Mom’s death, when my family and brother Tim gathered at my parents’ old home for a meal overseen by my daughter, and centered around a grocery store-cooked turkey and fixings.
Since then, for the past seven years, we’ve traveled to the North Georgia mountains for a large country-style family celebration hosted by Leslie’s niece and her husband, Maggie and Richard Johnson, at their 23-acre Blackberry Farmstead, near Toccoa.
The vast menu for the meal, which usually feeds 25 to 30 guests, features contributions from many family members. As Maggie told me recently, “The young and unwed aren’t asked to bring anything. Once their status changes, we usually start with something small, like sweet tea or a veggie tray. If they prove to be responsible enough to bring the less significant items, we graduate them up to something more substantial.”
Thanksgiving afternoon is spent with Maggie and Richard’s kids — Delaney, Dylan and Fern — guiding us around a virtual petting zoo of animals that roam the farm, including goats named after country music legends (Maybelle, Dolly, Kitty Wells and so on), a pair of potbellied pigs (Buzz Lightyear and Hollywood), Great Pyrenees dogs, guinea fowl, chickens and ducks. Cuddling the baby goats is a particular highlight for Olivia, as well as our son Bill and his wife, Jenny.
The Toccoa celebration was my daughter-in-law’s introduction to the family a few years back, and she remembers “my first reaction was just amazement that so many people could all fit in one room!”
Jenny said she also was surprised (and delighted) to see Maggie’s kids being so confident with the animals. “I commented on one of those chickens with the crazy-looking feathers that looks like a silly hairdo (Polish chickens), and the next thing I knew, Delaney had grabbed one and was handing it to me!”
The Toccoa gatherings wind up Thanksgiving evening, with hot dogs and s’mores roasted over an old-fashioned bonfire.
That may not be the usual holiday fare, but it’s right in keeping with my family’s rather untraditional Thanksgiving tradition.
Read more Thanksgiving memories at Bill King’s Quick Cuts blog: https://billkingquickcuts.wordpress.com/2019/11/15/our-thanksgiving-tradition-is-change. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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