Thanksgiving visit was a trip back in time

posted Nov. 27, 2017 8:58 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Sara Bredesen, Regional Editor |

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“Over the river and through the woods to Grandfather’s house we go.”

Yes, it was over the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers and through the Jackson County Forest, but it was a Chevy Cavalier, and Grandma was doing the going.

Still, travel for Thanksgiving this year had the right elements needed to get me headed into the holiday spirit. The weather was cold, there was a threat of snow, and somewhere at the end of the trek was turkey, stuffing and the pumpkin pie promised in the familiar poem-turned-song penned by Lidia Maria Child.

I was surprised to find in the original poem printed in 1844 as “A New England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day,” that it was Grandfather’s house, and Grandmother doesn’t show up until the last two stanzas, which talks about the food to be served. That’s probably not a surprise, considering the division of labor in most homes of that period and the expectation that the woman of the house would do the cooking.

My growing-up memories of Thanksgiving more than a century-and-a-half later were much, much different. Grandma and Grandpa lived seven hours away in Michigan and only got a Thanksgiving visit on rare occasions. 

We tended to stay home, and Dad did much of the holiday cooking. It always involved a very large bird, two ovens, two refrigerators and a lot of preparation in advance. He was a family doctor and somehow managed to get a day or two off before Thanksgiving. Either he or one of his five minions (we kids) peeled potatoes, squash, yams, turnips, carrots and radishes and stashed each root vegetable in a gallon glass jug of water in the refrigerator like so many specimen jars. When it came time to cook or set out the relish trays, things were pretty much ready to go.

The turkey was intended for several meals and always ran well past 20 pounds. The roaster was big enough to bathe a baby and usually took up an entire oven from the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning until mid-afternoon. Anything else that needed baking either had to be done ahead or in the oven in a second kitchen. Yup, I grew up with two kitchens.

On the “stuff it” or “don’t stuff it” debate, Dad was a stuffer. Over the years, he tried out every stuffing recipe from plain ol’ sage bread crumbs, through wild rice and sausage, to oysters and cornmeal. There was always a second option in a casserole dish just in case the stuffing du jour was too weird. 

There were also two options for gravy. Dad was the only one in our family who liked the turkey giblets, so he made a white gravy with chunks of giblets for himself and a brown one for the rest of us. We always snickered when one of our many exchange students showed a preference for his precious giblet gravy.

Meanwhile, Mom had her own duties. She supervised the relishes, polished the silver and set an exquisite table with her best china. But the talent for which she will always be lauded was for her apple pies. It took two generations for anyone in the family to get brave enough to even try to match her. She would be proud to know that at least two grandsons and two granddaughters inherited her crust-making genes.

Dad always carved the turkey, which was appropriate for his surgical skills. He joked with one guest that anybody can carve a turkey, but it takes a doctor to put it back together afterward. Eating the meal was everybody’s job and generally took much less time than the preparing. Afterward, the men headed to the TV for football, and the women and children cleaned up.

It took years for Mom to get a dishwasher, but it didn’t make any difference. Neither silver nor Wedgwood go in the dishwasher. We did it all by hand.

I remember the first and last time I heard my mom swear. It was the Thanksgiving Day that she picked up a towel without realizing it contained a china plate and it tumbled to the floor.

It was a hearty, “Damn!”

Nearly another half-century after those childhood days of Thanksgiving, I found myself taking the garden squash and several loaves of homemade bread over the rivers and through the woods to my daughter’s house. The dapple gray of Child’s poem would never have made it by dinner time, but I could imagine as I pulled into their driveway, “Hear the bells ring, Ting a ling ding, Hurrah for Thanksgiving day!”

Sara Bredesen can be reached at

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