One of my sisters stopped calling it Thanksgiving Day several years ago when she realized that it had become, not a day of gratitude, but one of gluttony. She’s called it Turkey Day for a long time now, and I thoroughly understand why.
As I remember Thanksgiving dinners from my childhood, those were focused on food rather than faith, and there was always at least twice as much of the former as our family and guests could possibly eat at one sitting. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t try. I remember everyone, even myself, being quite miserable as we left the table. Mother and we girls (and any adult female guests) felt obligated to help clear the table and put away leftovers. This involved, not only the rest of the huge roasted turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce that were traditional, but also all the little “extras” that Mother considered essential for celebratory meals. These included both green and black olives, soft dinner rolls from the bakery, which she warmed in the oven in a brown paper bag sprinkled with water. There were strawberry jam and grape jelly (both homemade.) There were also tiny, tangy sweet pickles, Mother’s paper-thin bread-and-butter pickles, and thickly sliced, crisp dills. These were presented in a three-compartment dish which was always accompanied by a little ivory-colored “pickle fork” which we all assumed was made of real ivory but which suspiciously resembled the plastic clones I’ve since seen in bars and restaurants.
Aside from the mashed potatoes, there were other vegetables; scalloped sweet corn, green beans with bacon, sweet baby peas and candied sweet potatoes. Salads were limited to an assortment of raw vegetables (carrot and celery sticks, radishes, little green onions) and a large bowl of Waldorf salad consisting of diced apples, walnuts, pineapple chunks, seedless grapes, thin celery slices, and marshmallows, all soaking in a sweetened mayonnaise and cream dressing. First served at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, this fruit salad became the rage during the 40’s and 50’s and there were nearly as many versions of it as there were cooks. Some, including my mother, sometimes added chopped dates, diced peaches or pears, mandarin oranges, banana slices, and at Christmastime, red and green maraschino cherries.
As if all this wasn’t enough, there would be an assortment of desserts. My dad never insisted on a dessert with every meal, but he expected it (even breakfast wasn’t complete without a doughnut, cinnamon roll or at least a cookie or two.) So, aside from the usual pumpkin and mincemeat pies, there would be dishes of chocolate or butterscotch pudding topped with whipped cream, angel food cake with thick swirls of seven-minute icing and possibly a chocolate cake with fudge frosting. And ice cream, of course — at least two flavors to choose from.
Thanksgiving dinner was always served at the dining room table extended to its full three-leaf length, and set with the eggshell china that was kept in the heavily carved china cupboard. There were thick pads that had been custom made to fit the table with its rounded corners and each of the extension leaves. The pads were covered in brown vinyl so, to keep the brown from showing through the white linen tablecloth, there was a white cotton “underskirt” to cover the pads. The crisp linen tablecloth had matching napkins which had to be folded “just so” to please Mother and my older sister before the centerpiece, candles, and place settings were added. There were only six place settings of sterling flatware, which were arranged at Dad’s place at the table and those of any adult guests. The rest of us had to settle for the everyday silver-plate.
The eggshell china consisted of 12 place settings, each consisting of dinner plate, dessert plate, bread and butter plate, salad bowl, soup plate, cup and saucer. There was a full compliment of serving dishes, from large and small platters to round and oval serving bowls and a divided vegetable dish; a sugar bowl and creamer, gravy boat, butter dish and matching salt and pepper shakers. Mother seemed obligated to use them all. By time the leftovers had been dealt with and all those dishes washed, the men had roused themselves from naps in the living room and migrated to the kitchen to seek out the makings of turkey sandwiches and a second piece of pie.