On the 100-cow, southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, two hearty helpings of Holsteins were always on the Thanksgiving Day menu. In between came other entrees — church, usually a turkey, pie, a nap and, often, a pinochle game.
The turkey was the “usual” dinner centerpiece, but not always, because I remember one or two Thanksgivings that featured a shoe-leather tough Canada goose given to us by Orlie, the rarely employed brother of hired men Howard and Jackie.
Orlie meant well; he was just supplying his bachelor brothers with holiday meat. And, since he shot the game off some slough or coulee of our Mississippi River bottom farm — poached, actually, since licenses and seasons were never an inconvenience for Orlie — he tithed a goose or two to their boss.
Funny that I should remember him and the once or twice he brought goose for Thanksgiving and not the dozens of times Grandma cooked turkey. Mark it up to the unforgettable leather an over-cooked goose. That was at least 45 years ago and, maybe, sometime in the next 45 I may try goose again.
Grandma’s end of the Thanksgiving spectrum, however, were table-cracking tributes to German Lutheran cookery. When you entered her kitchen after a stern hour of stern thankfulness courtesy of our stern minister, everything wonderful in the world was baking or boiling.
I can still smell candied sweet potatoes and buttery, mashed potatoes, “inside” and “outside” dressing, turkey and, sometimes, even beef roast. Why beef? Why not?
The aromatic mix also carried the earthiness of cranberries, green beans, cole slaw and Grandpa’s smelly, nasty lima beans.
Thanksgiving wasn’t Thanksgiving — in fact, dinner at Grandma’s wasn’t dinner — without sauerkraut.
Then came the pies. Thanksgiving was the Big Casino of pie: chocolate and lemon meringue, pecan, pumpkin, gooseberry, cherry and peach. And you could have as many and as much as you dare. And whipped cream. Wow.
Where Grandma learned to make such a feast is a mystery. I do know, however, that her father, my great-grandfather and the town’s retired blacksmith, was not a gourmand. Indeed, family lore claims Grandpa Schuette required only two items to make any meal a meal. They were, surprise, pepper and vinegar.
The legend is more fact than fancy because I clearly recall him wanting to put both on the hotdogs Great Grandma had made for lunch in the early 1960s. When I balked, he poured each on his as tears came to my eyes. I don’t remember if I cried from the smell of pepper and vinegar or the idea that a hotdog needed anything more than mustard.
Her parents, then really, really old: maybe in the late 70s, were Grandma’s honored Thanksgiving guests. So were her sisters, Adele and Luella, Aunt Del and Aunt Lu to us children, and their charming, laughing husbands, Uncle Ches and Uncle Pete.
Others always present were my father’s sisters and their spouses — Vicki and Cliff; Suzanne and soon-to-be-dumped Old What’s His Name — and friends of Grandma and Grandpa’s who were alone or forgotten. And us, the grandchildren, who ate in the small room off the kitchen because the dining room was too packed with china, silver, linen and pie for even one 9-year-old to fit.
Later most of us played pinochle. It was cutthroat; Grandma’s house, Grandma’s rules, and Grandma hated to be out-bid. Then, too quickly, dusk arrived and we returned to the Holsteins.
This Thanksgiving I’ll remember all that wonderful food and all those wonderful people as I remind all gathered around my family’s holiday table the true lesson of Thanksgiving: If someone ever offers you a free goose, run to Grandma’s.