Reminiscing on One Family's Thanksgiving and Christmas Feasts
“Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat ....” This popular holiday song recalls a British tradition of serving roast goose for the holiday feast.
In my family, the main dish on our holiday table has always been intertwined with the stories of the women in the family. Despite the fact that my great-grandmother, Idamae Ward, raised geese around the turn of the century in this country, no one descended from her daughter (my grandmother Daisy, born in 1903) can recall ever having roast goose served for Christmas Day dinner. Maybe that’s because the geese represented an important cash crop for Idamae at the time. As recently as a decade ago, Idamae’s grandchildren still recalled how mean the geese were, the birds having attacked my mother’s aunt as a child and done serious injury.
On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it was common for farm wives to raise some sort of poultry that were a source of egg money as well as Sunday dinner from time to time. Daisy’s mother-in-law, Emma Hudson, raised turkeys, and the family did eat turkey on special occasions but most were sold to folks in town. Daisy herself raised chickens, including some Bantams. Her husband, Sam, raised a few hogs which they smoked and stored to feed the family all winter long, long before I was born.
By the time I came along, Daisy was almost 50, gratified to finally be a grandmother. As a child, I spent part of every holiday at her home enjoying the bounty spread on her table. To me it was entirely normal to have the table set with three entrees and a host of vegetable dishes to be followed by half a dozen dessert choices. As I grew older, I learned that the custom of meat, poultry and fish was common along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, although Daisy took to extremes because she undertook the work to have everyone’s favorites for holiday meals.
Whether it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, a holiday feast at Daisy’s house included a turkey, because that was expected, and she always managed to get a good price at the “American” store. But she did not consider the pan drippings from the turkey rich enough for making dumplings, so there was a chicken set to boil, too. Even without hogs of their own, she always served pork roast or a ham along with the turkey. And, we always had oyster fritters, too.
I always thought the holiday custom of serving seafood along with meat and fowl stemmed from my grandfather’s habit of fishing on Sundays instead of going to church with his family. When he farmed the land that is now E.A. Vaughn Wildlife Refuge, near Stockton, Md., he spent Sunday mornings harvesting oysters and clams from the bay and bedding them down in the creek that cut inland from the bay toward the farmhouse. He marked the locations and retrieved his catch so the family could enjoy shellfish during the winter. He also set a seine across the creek at high tide and caught fish as the creek flowed back to the bay. These were cleaned and packed in barrels with plenty of salt and later used to make fish cake suppers.
When I was old enough to connect the dots, I realized that the “local food movement” was not new, just a rediscovered tradition. Back when I was young, the foods we enjoyed year-round, but especially at the holidays, were all local and many of them home-grown by our family or harvested from the bay.
Our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals were always rounded out with home-grown produce, some of which had been canned as summer came to a close, and buttermilk biscuits. At the holiday feast everyone in the family had their favorites. We had green beans (for me), corn pudding (for my mom, Frances), stewed tomatoes, greens with vinegar (for Ed), turnips, carrots, mashed potatoes with gravy (for little Sam), baked white Hayman sweet potatoes, candied sweet potatoes (especially for Kenny) and sweet potato biscuits. Cranberry sauce might have been required but we also had pickled watermelon rind, cucumbers and peaches, as well as sweet pepper relish.
I was in my 20s when I discovered that this habit of serving meat, poultry and shellfish together was not just a custom in my family but considered critical to hosting a festive dinner on the Eastern Shore. My boss, Roy Tolbert, was from Chincoteague Island, a few miles south of Stockton and the first conference I helped to organize at my job featured a dinner of chicken salad, baked ham and single-dipped oysters — he planned the menu. The only thing that changed was how the same favorites were prepared from one season to the other.
Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners called for delicious desserts, too. Based on the grocery store ads that appear from November through the end of December, I would hazard a guess that pumpkin pie is the universal favorite. Daisy always made one, but our family preferences were for sweet potato pie (for my dad) or mincemeat (for my uncle), and they were always available. No one remembers where the mincemeat tradition came from so we may have to credit our British ancestors, but this had to have been an extravagance during the Depression since some of the the ingredients — suet, raisins, spices and orange rind — were not local. The sweet potatoes for the pie were local, however — White Hayman sweet potatoes from Somerset County are famous, at least around here. We also had applesauce cake and a traditional fruitcake, that my mother loved but which I studiously avoided.
Daisy eventually had four grandchildren. As we grew up, her grandsons started their own families and we were introduced to other holiday traditions. Sam III married a woman of Italian heritage who introduced us to cookies that had always been part of her family’s holiday celebration. Now Christmas is not complete without Italian wedding cookies. A friend of my parents shared her recipe for pumpkin pie made with sour cream that became a favorite. Mom’s stepmother introduced us to the world’s best coconut cream pie. I had pumpkin cheesecake at a restaurant and proceeded to try to replicate it. Mom found a recipe for carrot cookies that she tweaked, and it became a favorite with the toddlers.
Mom was a recipe collector. I eventually followed her habit of experimenting with the recipes we inherited. My mother’s applesauce cake, based on her mother’s recipe, beat all the others hands down. That became a Christmas breakfast tradition at our house, spread with cream cheese and eaten with bacon or sausage. Aunt Elsie Fleming’s sweet potato biscuits were the best — and she shared the secret with me. Aunt Ethel Burke’s bread-and-butter pickles were peerless — I wonder if her daughter has the recipe? But no one made dumplings like Daisy!
When I try to make a holiday meal, it’s a pale imitation of those I remember from childhood. I don’t use the heavy guardian service that Daisy favored because she could set three wedge-shaped pots on one burner to keep multiple vegetables going at the same time. But then I don’t attempt six or eight vegetable courses at one meal, either. I have discovered that one of the secrets to her feasts was that she never sat down. She took pleasure from watching us eat the favorites she had lovingly prepared. I, however, look forward to sharing the meal with my loved ones.
Kitchen smells stimulate memory. The smells of Christmas extend far beyond the scent of evergreens and peppermint to include the aromas of those foods we associate with the holiday. No doubt that’s why we preserve family food traditions long after the cook that developed the recipe has gone. I never taste a dumpling — even my own pitiful imitations — that I don’t remember my grandmother with love.
Ann Wilmer and her mother, Frances, wrote a cooking column together for “Rural Living Magazine” in the 1980s.