Thanksgiving 2020: This Thanksgiving offers the space and opportunity to be in appreciation of everyone who has impacted my life, quietly and reflectively. While I miss a bustling house of loved ones, the change allows me to experience the old traditions in new ways. Today’s post was written in 2014. ~Love, Kate.
Seven large Granny Smith apples, cinnamon, sugar, salt, flour and butter sit on my kitchen counter and await transformation into a golden-crusted apple pie. This day, the day before Thanksgiving, begins my 40-year ritual. Many have asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just go buy your pies?” Yes, it would; however, it isn’t about the pie, it’s about the process. Pie making connects me to my childhood and the memories of my grandmother and her kitchen. Savoring the unconditional love of family and friends on Thanksgiving fills my mixing bowl before any other ingredients are added.
My dad built my grandparents’ home on ten acres in the San Fernando Valley, before he met my mother and before he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. My first memory of this home dates back to early April 1947, when my grandfather lifted me onto his shoulders and gingerly stepped into the flowerbed to the bedroom window so I could glimpse my mother and new baby sister, Cynthia, who’d just arrived home from the hospital.
After the war, we lived with my grandparents for a year or so and always entered through the back door that required climbing seven steep steps and a skeleton key to unlock the door. Once inside, another seven giant steps took me past the wringer washing machine and the icebox to my grandmother’s spacious kitchen. A Gaffers & Sattler white enamel gas stove, with four burners and an attached double oven was its center. On cold mornings my grandmother lit the stove’s pilot light with the Diamond Strike matches that sat atop the warming hood and turned the oven on. The oven door gaped to spread the warmth throughout the room. The doors to the dining room and the bedrooms remained closed to keep the kitchen warm. The Maytag refrigerator was a recent addition. It had a small freezer that continually needed defrosting, an improvement over the icebox that required weekly visits from the Union Ice man. He would grab a large block of ice with enormous tongs from his truck, hoist it up the steps to the service porch and drop it with a thud in the icebox. My sister and I waited expectantly at the tailgate of his truck to be handed shards of ice as he prepared to leave.
Many mornings my sister and I would grab a basket from the kitchen counter and gather warm eggs from the rows of chicken coops that stretched beyond the house and barn. Sometimes we’d venture into the orange orchard that bordered the porch to pick oranges. In the winter, cold air and dew-covered leaves hastened our efforts and our return to the warmth of the kitchen. My grandmother sliced the oranges in half and squeezed them one at a time into our glasses. Frequently, as we sat at the kitchen table, she prepared Cambric Tea for us—hot water with cream and sugar—with just a dip of a teabag. We felt grown up and important in this center of conversation and cooking. This is where my education in pie making began.
Sunday dinners and holiday meal preparation required a special succession of steps. Methodically, I set the table starting with forks, then knives, spoons, then napkins from the yellow four-drawer chest in the dining room. The long-rough-hewn table and raffia seat, yellow ladder-back chairs looked festive with dishes of yellow, orange, green, red and turquoise. I meant to ask my grandmother if she actually bought them in Mexico; the answer to those unasked questions remain a mystery.
Living on a chicken farm, you can guess that fried chicken was the obvious choice for Sunday’s dinner. In the morning, I’d tentatively peek out the service porch window onto the backyard as my grandfather selected a chicken, grabbed it by its neck, swung it over his head three times and dropped it to the tree stump where he chopped off its head with an axe. The chicken ran around a bit before collapsing. My grandfather hung it upside down for a time to drain the blood before bringing it into the house. In anticipation, my grandmother spread a double layer of newspaper on the counter. She and I plucked the feathers from the bird before she carved it up for frying. Once cleaned and carved, the innards, feathers and miscellaneous parts were rolled up in the newspapers and removed to the incinerator.
In order of meal preparation, baking came first. Not long after breakfast, with the oven already heated, we began our pie making. No canned goods were part of any recipe. Pumpkin pie came from pumpkins, apple pie from apples and lemon meringue pie from homegrown lemons and hen house eggs. The piecrust required special instructions: just the right amount of flower, salt, Crisco and water mixed gently.
Collecting the scraps of dough after the crust was placed in the pie pan became the first step of my pie making apprenticeship. I’d roll the dough scraps into a ball and place it on the marble form used for piecrusts. I took the large wooden rolling pin with both hands, rolling in one direction then turn the rolling pin slightly, rolling again forwards then backwards, guided by my grandmother. A flat round piece of dough formed. I can still hear her voice, “The dough must be thick enough to hold together yet thin enough to keep the crust light.” Those small circles of dough were dusted with sugar and cinnamon and baked. The aroma in my grandmother’s kitchen and the anticipation of the warm crunch of piecrust provided my first lesson in self-restraint. Her love and compassion and her joy of baking were contagious. No medication could calm you like her gentle spirit. Her positive attitude and patience empowered me.
We had 50 minutes to clean up the kitchen while the pies baked. We’d wash counters, bowls and utensils and carry the apple peels to the garbage can outside; there was no garbage disposal. Later in the day we’d mash the potatoes, prepare the salad, steam the vegetables, fry the chicken, and make the gravy. ‘The dance of the kitchen,’ the effortless preparation of each dish readied simultaneously, provided a secondary lesson modeled by my grandmother. When it came time to eat, everyone stood behind their chairs and waited for my grandmother to sit. Once seated, my grandmother said Grace and the food was passed. After pie, everyone stepped away from the dinner table feeling grateful and content. The men retired to the living room while the women cleared the table and put the kitchen in order. I loved my sense of belonging and accomplishment and felt taller in my grandmother’s eyes.
On Thanksgiving, I perpetuate my grandmother’s joy of cooking and unconditional love.