I was driving to Tupelo for a book signing last week and was struck with the strong sense of déjà vu. It was late November and I was traveling North on US 45. It is a route I traveled often as a child, usually around this time of year.
My earliest Thanksgiving memories are set in Brooksville Mississippi. My grandfather’s family, or at least what was left of them, lived there. Early on Thanksgiving morning my family would drive from Hattiesburg to Brooksville.
What struck me most in those early trips out of town were the leaves of North Mississippi. Somewhere around Electric Mills and Shuqualak the pines gave way to hardwoods. As a kid, growing up in the Piney Woods, my life was filled with pine straw. In Brooksville there were thousands of leaves of all shapes, sizes, and colors. I spent most of my time outside on those Thanksgiving trips crunching in the fallen leaves and playing football with my cousins. Only journeying inside to eat lunch or to catch the score of the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game on the radio.
Thanksgiving 1968, I was seven-years old. Charlie Shira’s Bulldogs were playing Johnny Vaught’s Manning-led Rebels in Starkville, just a few miles up the road from Brooksville. We listened to the static-filled AM-radio transmission as Jack Cristal called the game. Avenging a 17-17 tie in Oxford the previous year, the Rebels beat the Bullies 48-22. Déjà vu, part two.
As my Brooksville relatives died off, we began spending Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house in Hattiesburg. It is the house in which most of my early food memories are located. My grandmother served a very formal Thanksgiving dinner. She also made the best rolls I have ever eaten. In 22 years of professional cooking I have not been able to duplicate those rolls.
To this day, when I walk through the Purple Parrot Café kitchen and smell the aroma of a roux being made, it takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen and her turkey gravy. The toasty smell of oil and flour being combined in a cast-iron skillet has strong connections to my youth and those early Thanksgivings.
My grandmother was big on congealed salads. The biggest collective Wet Willie ever given to the nation of kiddom was the dreaded congealed-salad hoax. It was a dreadful scam. It looked like Jell-O, it shook like Jell-O but it had vegetables inside. Great aunts and grandmothers all over the world spent years devising this deception. They disguised their creations with names like “aspic” and “molds”, but we knew them for what they really were: tomato-flavored gelatin with carrots inside, a lettuce leaf on the bottom and a dollop of mayonnaise on top.
In those days, my grandmother’s post-church Sunday lunch rotation always included a turkey and dressing dinner. One Sunday a month we ate turkey. Her Sunday turkey lunch was exactly like her Thanksgiving meal. It is not until this moment that I realize how lucky I was that, as a kid, I had an entire Thanksgiving meal once a month.
I think of crunching leaves, heated rivalries, and turkey and gravy. I think next year I’ll go back to my grandmother’s rotation and eat a Thanksgiving meal once a month. I might even make a congealed salad.
2 lbs Asparagus, fresh
1 /4 cup Olive oil
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
1 tsp Pepper
1 /4 cup Almonds, sliced and blanched
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet lined with wax paper. Bake 12 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the almonds over the asparagus. Return to the oven for an additional five minutes. Remove and serve immediately. Yield: eight servings