On the night of her Nana’s arrival for the holiday, Alexis found herself sleeping on a pallet, which her mother made up on the window-seat of her bedroom, so that her grandmother could sleep comfortably in her bed. Bennie was bedded down on the sofa in the studio, to make room for Betty Sue, who no longer had any family living in Misty, but didn’t want to spend the holidays apart from her best friend again. Alexis couldn’t remember ever having shared a room with anyone, and found it hard to fall to asleep, listening to her grandmother’s breathing from across the room. Bennie, downstairs, didn’t have any trouble falling asleep, as he was safe and warm, not tucked into a doorway, or sleeping on a fire escape as he had spent many a cold night.
The next morning the farm was abustle early as the hands came to help Kelly with the stock before hurrying home to join their own families in preparing the harvest celebrations. Eileen arrived early, serving her men a light breakfast since they would not be going out to the fields that day, but would be following Eileen later, carrying her home made relishes, jams, pickles, and preserves from their pantry.
With so many women filling the kitchen, Kelly and Bennie escaped to the barn where they saddled two horses, and headed out for a ride. “Do you think we should have brought Alexis with us, Kelly?” asked Bennie, as he let his mount have its head and fall alongside Kelly’s older mount, which was a natural leader.
“Normally I would have said yes, but she seems to be having a great time helping her Nana cook. You know, even though Alexis is about as much of a tom-boy as a girl can get, I think she is going to turn out to be a really good cook,” said Kelly, glancing at his watch to determine what time the two should turn back to arrive at the farm just before dinner.
While her father and her de-facto brother were out riding, Alexis didn’t miss them. She was busy standing by, ready to jump in and help Louise, Betty Sue, and Eileen as they crafted the feast. Alexis would always remember this thanksgiving as the bench mark for what a proper thanksgiving should be. For the rest of her life, she would always find herself trying to recreate it, as if she could keep her life from slowly changing if she could recapture this one event.
The women diplomatically worked together to decide, which of them would cook what dish. The roasted turkeys were a given. Having recently been running around the turkey-run at Eileen’s farm, she took responsibility of their cooking. Before dealing with the turkey, Eileen worked on the stuffing, as to have it ready for the birds just before putting them in the oven. She made the cornbread a few days ahead, feeling like the more stale the bread was, the better the stuffing would be. Her recipe was quite simple. She crumbled the cornbread, mixed in an onion that had been cooked down in ham fat, a large beaten egg from that morning’s batch, dried thyme and sage, salt pepper, and finally enough milk to make the whole thing stick together. Ignoring Louise and Betty Sue’s advice to use chicken stock rather than milk, she produced a stuffing that was true to her mother’s.
Rather than a Tom turkey she brought a brace of fresh young hens that she coated inside and out with butter, salt and pepper before stuffing them with her signature cornmeal dressing. She put the hens in roasting pans that fit side-by-side in the roomy oven, each covered with a square if cheesecloth, she kept moistened until a half an hour before the birds were finished. The last half an hour of cooking was done with the cheesecloths gone, so that the breasts of the birds were nicely browned.
Betty Sue was cooking her family’s recipe of Corn Potato chowder. Eileen said that it wasn’t what she considered a Thanksgiving dish, but Louise backed up Betty Sue, after the other woman insisted the chowder was her family’s Thanksgiving Favorite. Alexis was put to work slicing onions, and dicing potatoes, once Eileen assured Betty Sue that Alexis’ skills with a knife far surpassed her age. Betty Sue cooked bacon until it was crispy and put it aside for later. She drained most of the bacon fat out of the kettle, leaving just enough to cook the onions that Alexis sliced. When the onions were sizzling and cooked to translucent, filling the kitchen and the rest of the house with their fragrance, Betty Sue added the potatoes and boiling water, leaving the chowder to simmer while she moved on to other dishes.
Genevieve was glad to find her grandmother’s recipe, which she had been saving since she was a teenager. It was the dish her grandmother made every Thanksgiving for all her grandchildren. Genevieve never tried to make the dish, but carefully guarded the old sheet of paper. She made a copy of it, which she gave to her mother-in-law, expressing how much it would mean to her to have it included in the meal; the first thanksgiving she ever hosted. Louise looked over the recipe for Sour Cream Cabbage, and cringing a little assured her daughter-in-law that she would make sure it was made.
Betty Sue went back to preparing the Chowder and after making sure the potatoes were soft added milk she previously scalded, along with corn kernels, which Alexis carefully cut from cobs, which Kelly brought in from the corncrib that morning. When the soup was finished it was set in a warmer to keep until dinner was served.
When Alexis was finished helping Betty Sue she went over to her Nana, who showed her how to cut up the cabbage for Genevieve’s dish. When the cabbage was ready, Louise set it to one side and marked it on the kitchen chalkboard as needing to be finished just before service.
“Oh, Eileen, I just checked in the pantry. There are no cans of cranberry sauce,” said Betty Sue in distress, wringing her hands on her borrowed apron.
“The cranberry sauce is in the Frigidaire. Bennie made it from fresh cranberries he brought all the way from New York,” said Eileen as proudly as if Bennie was one of her own sons. “There are also some trays of bacon Wrapped Chicken Livers in there too. Bennie said we are to pop them into the oven and warm them up, before putting them out just before the meal.”
“Won’t that ruin everyone’s appetite?” asked Louise.
“Well, I guess having drinks and snacks before dinner is all the rage in New York. He is such a sweet boy, let’s just humor him,” said Eileen, smiling, knowing that no amount of snacks would hold her boys back from eating a hardy dinner.
“Really, I do declare!” said Betty Sue, as she always did when she really couldn’t think of anything to say.
Alexis, not doing anything to help for the moment, heard a car door slam, and dashed out through the saloon doors, down the hall, and across the living room, coming to a stop at the front door to watch the newcomers come in. Wendy Giffin made her way awkwardly up the front steps helped by Bennie as her husband, Jessie, followed carrying a large basket of food. Bennie saw Wendy into the kitchen, followed by Alexis before turning her over to her mother-in-law. He made is way to the dining room to help Jessie unload the food from the basket, separating out the dishes that could go straight to the table from the ones that needed to go to the kitchen for heating.
“Wow, the cake looks good. What is it?” asked Bennie as Jessie placed a cake complete with stand and cover on the sideboard
“That is my bride’s pride and joy; cream cake with coffee icing. She just learned to make it from my mother.” Jessie said proudly.
“Well, I can’t wait to try it,” said Bennie, sincerely.
Emma and Luke were the next to arrive. Bennie was glad to see that they didn’t bring too much more food, only one side dish and another cake. Emma joined the other women in the kitchen, making the normally roomy facility seem quite cramped, as her husband wondered outside to find Kelly who was making himself scarce to the unaccustomed horde of women.
When the Milsteads arrived, dragging a reluctant Toby with them, Bennie was surprised to see that the driver Jack, dropped them off and drove away. “Didn’t anyone ask Jack to dinner?” asked Bennie.
“Why of course we did,” said Milstead, lying and shooting looks at his wife and son as if to challenge them to call him out on his lie. “He is heading home to be with his folks now.”
Bennie raised an eyebrow at this, knowing that Jack’s parents were no better than they had to be, and were probably celebrating Thanksgiving with a bottle and Winston’s over TV dinners. Any remark he might have been thinking of making was cut short, by the minister thrusting a basket of wine into his arms and instructing Bennie how to take care of the wine, as if he thought the young man was his nephew’s servant.
Carol followed her husband to the living room where she took a seat next to him, pointedly not getting anywhere near the kitchen, and exchanged cold looks with Eileen’s silent sons, who were shoed out of the kitchen by their mother, to await dinnertime. She began smoking a cigarette, when Eileen called out to her boys to come to the kitchen, and was looking around for an ashtray when Kelly and Luke came inside, Kelly figuring that he better not leave his uncle unchaperoned in the house.
“Oh, Carol, I am sorry you are going to have to go outside to smoke that. The doctor says we can’t have smoke in the house. Alexis gets terrible bronchitis when anyone smokes around her.” Kelly informed her.
Carol was just walking out the front door, when Louise, Betty Sue, and Eileen crossed the living room headed for the dining room. The three women shot looks of disapproval at the woman they would always think of as Darrell’s second wife, second always being inferior to the first. They were carrying dishes for the table, and were followed by Bennie, Genevieve, Alexis, Wendy, and Eileen’s boys, each carrying a dish for the feast.
Once all the dishes were in place, the three women looked over the table with pride, knowing that if half the town of Misty were to drop by unexpected, there would be more than enough food for them all. The cold roast ham glistened with glaze next to a terrine of raisin cider sauce, which Eileen thought went particularly well with cold ham. Betty Sue brought a jar of her green tomato Chow-Chow carefully all the way from Florida, telling Louise the whole trip that the Florida sun made the tomatoes so tasty that it was much better than any Chow-Chow made in Texas.
A basket of brown-sugar cornbread sat at one end of the laden table and another basket filled with fragrant yeast rolls, which were baked while the turkey was resting, was on the other. The two turkeys were placed at each end of the table were Kelly and Mr. Giffin, respectively could do the honors of serving. Up and down the table filling in every conceivable place, were side dishes comprising the combined families’ favorites; green bean casserole, candied yams, peas and onions, fluffy buttery mashed potatoes and bowls of extra stuffing, which Eileen called dressing, since it wasn’t stuffed in the birds. The sideboard, as Eileen called it, or the top of the china cabinet as Genevieve called it was ladened with pies and cakes that Eileen and Louise were in competition making for the last few days.
“My goodness look at all this, you folks are all going to have to take a lot of food home with you when you head out. If you don’t I am going to have to invite the hands in for lunch, every day for days,” said Kelly with admiration seeing all the food he heard about for days coming together in one room.
The family and friends gathered around the table, holding hands while the grace was said. It finally ended when Milstead’s hunger overcame his enjoyment of trying to turn a prayer into a sermon. Kelly took a deep breath and started to carve the turkey, always feeling that he could never carve the bird as well as his father, and would be found lacking by his beloved mother. Glancing down to the other end of the table, Kelly relaxed noting that Eileen’s husband was no more skilled in the effort than he was. Balancing the first succulent piece of breast meat between the knife and the large fork, he reached over and deposited it on his mother’s plate.
“Oh, it’s just lovely Kelly, thank-you so much,” his mother said, as if he was the one to cook the bird, rather than just cutting it.
“Wendy when is the little one due?” asked Betty Sue, quietly, under the rumble of the general table conversation.
“Any day now, Mrs. Pitts, the little fellow is kicking up a storm,” said Wendy, proudly, laying her hand on her belly in a protective motion.
Alexis observed the women’s body motion and realized that they were talking about the baby. She was torn about the idea of Wendy becoming a mother. Over the last few months the young woman paid so much attention to her that she had become quite dependent on her emotionally, not that she would have put it that way, but she knew that Wendy was her friend, and she was afraid that once the baby came Wendy wouldn’t need her anymore.
“You better slow down on what you are eating, Jessie, Momma made her Gingersnap Pumpkin Pie for dinner.” Jessie’s brother Max said.
“Really I don’t remember her making that.” Jessie retorted.
“She made it over here you knucklehead. Somebody would think that you didn’t notice that Momma likes Mrs. Archie’s oven better than her own,” said Max, as Kelly smothered a laugh at the idea of the oven belonging to Genevieve, who couldn’t be relied upon to say, which was the stove and, which was the washer.
“Well, you don’t worry about me, I already saw that Momma’s Molasses Pecan Pie is over on the sideboard, I bet you I can eat a slice of both and still have room for a slice of Mrs. Louise’s Rhubarb Pie.” Jessie said, seeing his ability to pack away the food as manly.
Kelly leaned over Alexis to his wife and whispered, “It looks like the state-fair rivalry is still going strong between my mother and Eileen, look at all those pies and cakes.”
“True, but that nice looking white cake was made by Wendy. Make sure you have a piece and make a fuss over it,” said Genevieve, smiling across the table at the new wife who was beaming at her husband, as he tucked into his second helping of turkey and dressing.
Conversation remained lively even though the speed of eating slowed. The ladies belched discreetly into their napkins, admiring the quality of Genevieve’s table linens, only Louise knowing that it was she and not her daughter-in-law who was responsible for her son’s table boasting such nice ones. The men sat back and loosened belts before tucking into more slices of pie and cake. Alexis imitating her father, leaned back, slapped her belly and let out a huge belch.
“Alexis!” chided Louise.
“What?” asked Alexis in mock innocence.
Smothering a little laugh, Wendy broke up the tension by asking. “Where would I find the lady’s room, Mrs. Archie?”
“Oh, I need to go to, sweetheart, I will show you the way,” said Eileen, rising from the table, knowing that Mr. Archie would take care of the clearing and cleaning up.
“Oh, dear, Mr. Giffin, Jessie, we had better get going,” said Eileen, surprisingly calm, when she returned from the bathroom without her daughter-in-law. “The baby has decided it wants some turkey!”
“What? The baby’s coming?” Jessie asked, shoving his chair back and causing his flatware to clatter to the floor. His look of horror switched quickly to joy. “I am going to be a father! Come on Dad let’s get going. Where is Wendy?”
“She went straight out to the car to wait for you. I am going to call your doctor, and let him know. You go on, I will follow with your brothers,” said Eileen, and brushing off the good wishes of the assembled guest, hurried her family off to the clinic in their several vehicles.
“That was rather exciting,” said Kelly, as Carol surprised him, with volunteering her family to help with clearing the table, and taking the dishes into the kitchen. In the kitchen Bennie was setting up to wash the dishes, while Genevieve was stuffing the leftovers that must be refrigerated into the Frigidaire.