Illustration by Adam Macauley
One crisp November afternoon in the late 1980s I drove to Mississippi to have Thanksgiving with my family. I was cranky. The last few months had been frantic; I had gone from one job to the next without any downtime, and I wasn’t organized, so I had packed poorly. I also had not changed the oil in my car as my father always told me to do.
“If you don’t take care of your car at all, at least change the oil,” he used to say. He was usually eating when he made that pronouncement—country ham and biscuits, maybe, or kielbasa. He liked both, and he was in an excellent mood when he had something good to nosh on. My family was what I’d call “town and country”: we had our roots in the South, but we had tasted enough of the North to have fun with it, too, especially when it came to the food from those cultures.
Our annual Thanksgiving feasts were not to be missed. Or as my father also said, “If you don’t come you’re out of the will.” And so I was glad to leave the chaos of my life in Cincinnati behind and drive south a couple of hundred miles to Memphis, where the dreary skies began to break up somewhere around the exit ramp to Beale Street and the bend in the Mississippi River. The sky, suddenly pink, was a backdrop of shot silk, and the sugar maples—some of them still bright yellow—popped with color like an editorial in a fashion magazine. I stopped at a gas station with a lunch counter and ordered a pimento cheese sandwich with pickles while the attendant filled my tank, cleaned my windshield, and checked my (unchanged) oil supply. The air was sweet, and I took off my coat and hummed “The Sweet Sunny South” all the way into Corinth, Mississippi.
My parents lived in those days in a colonial-style house near Tupelo, surrounded by a tall, dark curtain of pine trees. The grounds were dotted with magnolias, the leaves brown and curling like palm fronds in the autumn light. When I got inside, my family was putting down sleeping bags on the living room floor. Daddy insisted that we all stay under the same roof, and though we groaned every time he made the edict, it always turned out to be fun. I knew the small children would be up early, pulling at my blankets, ready to get a move on, but I was glad to be there, and early in the morning still seemed far away. My niece and her husband were assigned a rollaway bed in the guest room. I didn’t know where Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred would be sleeping, but I knew I would hear them snoring before long.
That night we ate pulled pork barbeque and sat around telling stories of other Thanksgivings, other times. Like Asians, we never forgot our ancestors, but we remembered them in funny stories. Daddy recounted the tale of our Aunt Parelee riding in the first Model T in Henry County, Tennessee. When the Model T slowed down to take a curve, she thought they had stopped and opened the door and got out. “It was five minutes before anybody missed her,” he said, laughing until the tears rolled down his face. After a few games of Charades and a few songs, we started the business of bedding down for the night, roosting like chickens, washing our faces and changing into pajamas whenever we could find a little piece of privacy.
I’ll never sleep a wink, I thought. I was a musician, and in my time away from home I’d grown used to late hours and the excitement of city nightlife. But the warm house and the busy evening worked their magic; I was out like a light by the time Uncle Fred started snoring.
On Thanksgiving morning, Daddy was in his bathrobe, his hair standing up, his toes curled in pure pleasure inside his Thom McAn house slippers. “Get up, everybody,” he said. “We’re having quail for breakfast.”
I had heard the older folks talk about traditional quail breakfasts, but I had never tasted one. I felt myself sag for a moment under the sheer pleasure of Thanksgiving. Dragging myself up from six solid hours of sleep, I tugged on my blue jeans and made it to the kitchen in time to see Daddy slipping a few dollars in my purse. I let it go. On the one hand, I had my pride; on the other, I was broke. “Who’s cooking?” I said.
“Your Aunt Dot is dredging the bird,” he said, and there she was, an apron tied around her waist, up to her elbows in flour. I hugged her from behind. Her red hair was shining full of lights except where she’d smudged a few dabs of flour.
“I can’t believe you’re up this early,” she said, beaming at me. “It’s good to be home, I’ll bet.”
“Yes,” I said.
“This quail looks fresh and good,” she said, throwing one piece into hot oil in a black iron skillet. Uncle Fred took a shot of Canadian Club and got out his fiddle. “Lord a’mighty,” Aunt Dot said, “I wish I could go home for Thanksgiving, see Daddy and Mother. The times we used to have…” As she talked, the quail sizzled and popped in the hot grease and gave off a tantalizing aroma.
My mother was in the laundry room doing a load of wash. She smiled when she saw me. “What are you doing up this early?” she said. When I hugged her she smelled as sweet as vanilla extract.
The utility table on her screened-in back porch was a cornucopia of food—fresh vegetables, homemade yeast rolls set out to rise, and an ambrosial fruit salad with nuts and oranges, waiting to be crowned with a cloud of coconut. The turkey occupied the center of the refrigerator like a giant pasha, flanked by baking pans of cornbread dressing swathed in Saran wrap, waiting to be popped in the oven.
“Wait til you see the cakes and pies,” she said, and I groaned at the memory of the custards and homemade cakes the women always worked on so hard. When I was little, they used to get out an old-fashioned sausage grinder and run dates and figs through it for Lady Baltimore cakes. Then there was the fresh coconut cake, my Mother’s special contribution to the feast. The one I was looking at now stood three layers high, held together with toothpicks beneath the heavy frosting.
“Mother, you have cooked for an army.”
“There are teenaged boys here,” she said. “It won’t last long. Look at Mason.” She gestured toward my 4-year-old nephew. His mother was dressing him in a light jacket for a day outside—no playing video games in the house. She got him out the door and broke into a little dance, a rock and roll twist and shout. I laughed with her.
I could smell the freshly perked coffee and I could hear the sweet Southern accents of my family, falling like notes of music on my ear. The light was so bright for late November, the sky so blue, we could only have been in the South. I could see my nephew walking with his Dad through the piles of raked leaves. I may have only had a few hours of sleep, but this is what I’d come for. I didn’t want to miss it.
In my family, feasting binds us. We love the finished product, but it is the process that we remember year after year, the making of the food that holds our attention. “Lay the sage to that dressing,” Aunt Dot said, just as she always did. We paused, smacking our lips like Julia Child, and invoked the wisdom of the women before us: “I think Mother added a little more salt and pepper,” and “Miss Nancy put more vanilla in the boiled custard.” We couldn’t have told the difference in the taste, more than likely, but by paying attention to the details we were honoring those women. It was important that the quail be prepared exactly as my grandmother had cooked it, even if that meant frying it in lard. Lard, Daddy said—“It’s the best. Ask any French chef.
“Besides,” he added, “we’re going to work it off by halftime.”
By the time I had washed my face and hands, my sister was setting the table. Plates and flatware appeared from out of nowhere, and I could smell the delicious aroma of homemade biscuits browning in the oven. I watched as Daddy scrambled the eggs, pretending to have to hold them down. “These eggs are so light they’re trying to fly away,” he said, laughing.
The table was groaning with dishes of
every shape and size when Aunt Dot began cooking a brown sauce for the quail: thin but flavorful, the texture just right for the “short” biscuits Daddy preferred. He didn’t like biscuits to be overly doughy. “A mouthful of flour,” he’d say, “Bah!”
Frankly, I usually ate Cheerios for breakfast, but this was something special: a trip back to a time when farmers worked hard enough to eat biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, and vegetables each morning. Just as we sat down, Mother said, “I almost forgot,” and she ran to the garden to get a couple of homegrown tomatoes. I was completely surprised. Surely no place but Mississippi would have produced anything as exotic as homegrown tomatoes as late as Thanksgiving. “Yes,” Mother said as she peeled and sliced the tomatoes, “we’ve still got corn, too.”
No one spoke again until the food was passed and the quail tasted and praised. “Mouthwatering,” someone said. “Absolutely delicious,” announced someone else.
And it was. The quail was so tender you could cut it with a fork, the biscuits were perfection, and the thin béchamel sauce that my family calls “gravy” was equal to anything Jean-Robert might have whipped up. We ate happily, laughing and talking about our trips home. Someone had gotten a speeding ticket, but we were able to throw it off like a wet dog shaking water from its coat. Having everyone gathered around that table was sheer bliss, and love was as accessible as the tomatoes my Mother gathered so casually from the garden—still in season, regardless of the weather.
Then cousins, sisters, nieces, and nephews headed outdoors. Daddy and Mother took us to the park and put us through basketball drills. We ran in place. We shot hoops. If there had been an outdoor stadium, I’m sure they would have had us sprinting up and down the wooden steps—anything to burn off the quail breakfast so we could prepare for the Thanksgiving dinner ahead.
While we were exercising, Aunt Dot and another aunt were back at the house making the delicacy we called boiled custard. My well-traveled sister says it is very much like a French dessert called floating islands. It is light and spiked with brandy at the last minute to give it a kick. These days, my sister’s children and my son make the custard the same way that Aunt Dot did—reading the original “receipt” written in my grandmother’s spidery hand, following it as carefully as Madame Curie handled uranium. They are apprentices in a long line of good cooks and custard makers.
I have no memory of that night’s Thanksgiving dinner itself. I’m sure it was what you might expect: saying grace, then diving into turkey, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, and English peas. After it was over I remember we got out Daddy’s guitar, and Aunt Dot took to the piano. Uncle Fred probably had to be coaxed to get his fiddle out again, but he did, and I can remember him bracing the tailpiece on his knee so that the violin was facing him while he twisted the pegs up and down to adjust the perfect pitch.
Watching him tune by ear, Aunt Dot, who held her husband in high regard, poked me with her elbow. “He would have been as fine a violinist as Heifetz,” she whispered. I nodded solemnly.
Mother took off her apron and stood in back of the piano, ready to add her low alto voice to the mix. “Ridin’ Down the Canyon” we sang, and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” We found sheet music in Aunt Dot’s Cavalcade of the Forties book and sang on. “I found a million-dollar baby,” we harmonized, “in a five and ten-cent store.” We didn’t stop to assign parts or make arrangements; we just went purposefully from song to song, as we had done all our lives. Some songs we sang a capella because they just sounded better that way, just as some food tastes better without a lot of seasoning. We sang “On Moonlight Bay” like that, sliding into “Shine on Harvest Moon,” led by Aunt Dot and Daddy. Uncle Fred sang a rich bass part, and my sister, Jackie, whose soprano voice was fragile as spun glass, sang over the top of the rest of us, skipping along effortlessly.
It isn’t only food that makes a gathering memorable, of course, nor music and entertainment. It is all those things combined with the fellowship such an occasion provides. (You might throw in a little magic if you have it on hand.) That day the food was exquisite, transcended only by the joy of being with family, where everybody knows exactly who and what you are.
As it turned out, that was the last Thanksgiving we were to spend with all of us together. We had other times as a family, but Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred grew older, no longer able to travel, and my father’s death followed theirs in 1990. We tried, but it took a few years before we could face Thanksgiving without them. Now, when we fix Thanksgiving dinner, that breakfast is the gathering all others are compared to. “Lay the sage to that dressing,” my sister will say, laughing, just as Aunt Dot said all those years ago. “Add just a little salt and pepper to the gravy,” she’ll say, or, “more vanilla in the boiled custard,” pausing for a long time, putting her lips together expertly.
Our family learned the love of food and music and fellowship. I can see us now—like still photographs, animated, arms reaching, mouths open, smiles glowing, as if we had been stopped in mid-air, a moment frozen like a fly in amber. I see those years like slides: my sister buying canned gravy base at one of those fancy kitchen chain stores and saying, “Don’t tell Mother”; the year the coconut cake—burdened by its own rich weight—finally fell completely apart despite all the toothpicks; the time the dishwasher broke; the holiday when the boys finally got the boiled custard exactly right.
Each year was a milestone to be measured out in memory, to be savored for its time, then to vanish from the present with the click of a camera.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue.