‘Twas the Day Before Thanksgiving … Virginia Family Traditions

[Editor’s note: When this was posted in 2015, my stepdad left a comment: “Well, it was all worth all of y’all’s efforts, since we now just sit back, enjoy the company and food, and the always birthday fun with granddaughter Emily who had the good sense to be born always just before, after, or on Thanksgiving day, depending on the year. This year it was ON (11/26), and turning 20 makes her no longer a teenager. Where has the time gone??? Thank you both for all the labor, being the ‘hands that prepare’ all the vittles. Keep on experimenting, and we’ll keep on testing, knowing that time-tested ‘traditionals’ are always going to be presented too. YLSF”

“YLSF” was his sign-off in emails that stood for “Your Loving StepFather.” We lost him on April 24, 2020, at the age of 93, to Covid-19. Those empty chairs, he and my mom, are ever-present as we all gather together again this year.]

‘Twas the day before Thanksgiving and all through the house
Lots of goodies were cooking (but not the mouse). 
The pies were all set on the counter to cool
While Ma in her apron was a holiday-cooking fool.

That’s my sad attempt at putting a poetic spin on the holiday as I swirl around the house on Thanksgiving Eve.

Like many, I’m in the kitchen today prepping for tomorrow’s big meal with family. My sister Lori and I traditionally take on the cooking and baking, something we both enjoy, as we incorporate old favorites along with the occasional new dish.

We broke tradition three years ago when we roasted a chicken, a new idea that carried over last year and will continue this year. Lori’s cooking the bird along with a spiral ham, and she and her husband Jon are adding their own side dishes including sweet potato casserole. As for me, I make passed-down family favorites from aunts who are no longer with us: macaroni and cheese, and chocolate pies. This year I’ve added a very veggie garden salad and dressing, fresh steamed kale, mashed potatoes, and crustless pecan tart ramekins.

It’s comforting to stay in touch with family and Southern traditions by using familiar recipes. My Aunt Ola made the best baked mac and cheese you’ve ever wrapped your lips around. It’s a lot of cheese and many memories, a reminder of fun family dinners at her house when there were so many of us that we barely fit, and we had a children’s table in the kitchen and a grown-up table in the dining room. I think I was in my 30s before ever graduating from the children’s table which, sadly, meant the grown-ups were growing older and leaving us. There’s many happy memories of those years at the children’s table especially after I had my own children and we were all sitting in there together.

The chocolate pies were always anticipated at holidays from my Aunt Ruth. These aren’t pudding-from-a-box pies. These are — pardon my language — “stir-your-damn-arm-off” real chocolate filling (as it was deemed by my sisters and me because it took forever to thicken and you couldn’t leave it unattended or it would stick to the bottom of the pan and burn) that was poured into a homemade crust. I fudge on the crust — I don’t like making it and really don’t want to spend the time after being at the stove so long stirring — and one year I made phyllo pastry crust for something new and a little — emphasis on “little” — healthier. The pie is a meringue-topped decadent chocolate fantasy so after Aunt Ruth passed away 19 years ago, I carried on the chocolate pie tradition.

That’s what holidays are — traditions carried on by families from generation to generation. My aunts were fantastic cooks from a large family and my sisters and I learned their tricks of the trade. One slice of pie or a serving of macaroni and cheese unlocks special memories, and tomorrow that will be going on all over America.

The food is delicious, the baking is fun, but the best part of Thanksgiving is being with family. Though my father passed away years ago leaving behind daughters who were 13, 20, and 22 at the time, another dad came into our lives when Cal married our mother, and so we are grateful to celebrate with the two of them who are now at the youthful ages of 88 and 89.

To the military members who are stationed around the world and away from their families, a special thanks and prayers for them and their loved ones. We can never repay their dedication, sacrifice, and service to our country which allows us the freedom to celebrate Thanksgiving in a peaceful land.

As I head back to the kitchen to finish food prep, here’s wishing a Happy Thanksgiving with gratitude for our friends … and to those who are traveling for the holiday, be safe out there.

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