From a Southern Table: On Being Thankful

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Foodie memoirist and critic Eileen Mouyard Sessoms joins the Savannah Magazine crew to share her adventures blazing the trails of Southern cuisine. This month, she dives into her childhood for a bite to read (and eat). Photograph by the author. 

My grandparents had a couch in their carport and a kitchen big enough for two.

However, in all my Thanksgivings spent at their home, never once were there less than eight people in the kitchen and nine huddled around that carport sofa, smoking skinny cigarettes and clanking together beer cans or small glasses of Lambrusco in the cold, glowing November weather.

My grandmother made so many cloverleaf rolls that the only place she could store them until supper was in various plastic grocery bags; stuffed until nearly bursting, then tied ever so delicately at the top by the handles. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, tossing bags like beach balls to make room for a cousin or someone holding a baby. My grandfather would wield an electric knife to slice down a turkey the size of a small child, being sure not to miss even a hair’s width of meat from the bird; his leathered hands shiny from all the drippings and his smiling eyes bright behind thick square glasses as he’d hand me a piece of salty skin.

There were card tables set up—nearly sprawling the length of the big room—that held nothing but pies and cookies and cakes. Pumpkin, apple and pecan; plates full of soft gingerbread, tins holding fudge and Tupperware stocked with Aunt Terri’s cookies. I would stand over that table and gaze lovingly for as long as I could, meticulously planning out the inventory of my dessert plate. I think I would even close my eyes and draw out the plate in the air and count cookies on my fingers.

I suppose many people have such memories of Thanksgivings past from one family member or friends’ house along the way. And to those who do not have such memories, well, you probably would have found my family traumatizing so consider yourself saved from having to listen to 13 story lines shouted simultaneously while a child pounds the piano and a baby cries. Oh, and all the while, my Pap continuing to up the television’s volume so he (and the whole damn house) can hear “the game.”

Crazier than an outhouse rat—or so the saying goes—yes, that is what my Thanksgivings were made of.

They were also comprised of trips down into my grandparent’s basement for some reason or another.

“Go get another can of cranberry sauce!”

“Go get another box of crackers!”

“Colleen, there’s more dish soap downstairs…”

“Mom, where inahell’ are all the potatoes?”

“Go get some more napkins!”

“Go get more coffee!”

“Eileen, where inahell’ is that jar of beans?”

Everything was always in the basement.

Pull open the cheap wooden door off the kitchen, flick on the light and creep down the paint-chipped stairwell into the sanctuary that seemed to protect and shelter what held us together as a family.

It was food. Or perhaps it was the safety of having food.

My grandparents (like many grandparents or great-grandparents) were products of the Depression, products of immigration and products of a hard-knock life.
Food represented well-being and warded off hunger while simultaneously emboldening causes for celebration and counting many thanks for another day.
My grandparents stocked their basement like it was still 1947, and they had eight mouths to feed (with another six to come) and at any moment, it could all be gone. There were shelves—rows deep—with everything from three bottles of “catsup” to six canisters of oatmeal to 19 jars of put-up fruit and corn from the summer before to 11 blocks of lard to 12 bags of sugar and two boxes of salt. And the list went on to include stacks of magazine articles about how to make crackers from just three ingredients and “Vinegar can do WHAT?” and newspaper recipes from “Ask Ann & Nan.”

My grandparents wasted nothing and used everything. Leftovers were saved down to the last ounce and onion skin, and if you had a teaspoon of sauce left but didn’t know where to put it, it landed in the freezer for which to become that little something that made that meal next month truly come together. When there were too many bags and containers in the freezer to fit anything else, you made soup.

The security of knowing where the next meal is coming from and having the ability and know-how to make that meal happen is a trait, I am finding, I am most thankful for absorbing—a blessing, I think. All of those Thanksgivings spent in awe of what my grandparents had built, both in terms of a massive family tree and a massive family meal, is a quality of life to which I have built my own foundation.

I’m founded on food, I guess you could say. But more than that, I am founded on being gracious enough, curious enough and humble enough to give my cultural food ways their due respect. The moment we take food—and those that enable it to get to us— for granted, we have failed those who came before us and those who will come after.

So, to “the hands that prepared this food,” the hands that stood in the sun, planted and pulled weeds away from this food, to the hands that raised and slaughtered this food, to the hands that will save this food— we give thanks.

 

Two recipes, from my table to yours.

 

Pumpkin Pie (as it should be)

 

Pie dough for a 9″ pie

2 cups cooked puréed pumpkin

1 cup dark brown sugar

6 eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/3 cup Cognac (I use French Armagnac because it is my favorite, but any good Southerner is bound to have some bourbon laying about and that works well, too. Point being: Use a brown liquor that you have and that you like!)

4 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger (optional: sometimes I have it, sometimes I don’t)

 

Line a 9″ pie tin with pie dough and place foil on top. Fill with dry beans and bake in a 400° F oven for 10 minutes. Remove the beans and foil. Combine the pumpkin with the sugar, eggs, cream, seasonings and Cognac and blend well. Pour through a strainer or sieve; pour custard into the prepared pie shell. Sprinkle with chopped candied ginger and bake in a 375° F oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the pumpkin is just set. Serve slightly warm with cheese (Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill is great alongside this!) or whipped cream, or hell, both.

 

Seafoam Candy, from the kitchen of Elizabeth “Betty” Mouyard (1921-2015)

 

3 cups light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup boiling water

2 egg whites, beaten until fluffy with soft peaks 

1 teaspoon vanilla 

1 cup black walnuts 

 

Dissolve sugar and salt in the boiling water. Cook without staring to 225 degrees or the “hard ball” stage. Remove from heat and gradually pour over the egg whites, beating constantly while pouring. Continue beating while the candy begins to cool. Add vanilla and nuts. Continue being until the candy begins to hold its shape. Drop by spoonfuls onto wax paper and shape into little mounds with a swirl on top. 

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