I hear that old Thanksgiving classic Over The River And Through
, Im transported to a Norman Rockwell
vision of a joyous ride in a one-horse open sleigh through snow-dusted
woods down a path that ends at a country home. Here a smiling, gentle
grandma in a flowered apron greets a laughing happy family grateful
to be in out of the cold. Of course, shes cooked up a storm.
Senses are overwhelmed by the aroma of a mouth-watering feast baking
in the oven, while sweet fantasy grandma doles out hugs and sage
advice along with pumpkin pie and hot cocoa.
contrast, Thanksgiving trips to my grandmothers house consisted
of my twin brother Benny and me fighting in the back of a Chevy
Bel-Air station wagon. My Father navigated from our house on Long
Island over the Belt Parkway and through Brooklyn to a brownstone
in Besonhurst that always seemed to smell of week-old chicken soup.
As we made our way past the heavy iron gates and through the entrance
at the top of the stoop, my grandmother often celebrated our arrival
with a welcoming cry of Close the door, dammit!! You think
Im heating the whole neighborhood!
grandmother, Josephine, whom we called Nanny, was my mothers
mother. She was not a gentle soul by any stretch of the imagination.
Nanny had worked hard her entire life, and, along with my grandfather,
Papa Joe, she ran a business in the garment district through the
Depression and into the 70s hers and the 19-70s.
When she lost Papa Joe to a sudden heart attack a few months after
I was born, she picked up the reins and ran the business on her
own for over 20 years. Whatever gentility and soft grandma genes
she may have had were blocked from developing by the wheeling and
dealing necessary to run a company in the rag trade. Its
a tough business, shed say, Where pennies on a
yard of cloth can make the difference between apples on the table
for dessert or for selling on the corner two for a nickel.
mom was an only child. Because her mother and father were busy with
the business, she was raised by her grandmother, whom everyone affectionately
called, Mama. Except my father. He used to refer to
her as the Italian Warden because of the close eye she
kept on them and her oft-repeated phrase: Checking, Checking.
mother always held a special place in her heart for my great grandmother.
She still quotes her fondly every chance she gets. The memories
of her own mother take on a different tone, however. Late nights,
tough negotiations, keeping people employed through the Depression,
the wars and the booms and busts that followed do not make for a
Hallmark grandma. Nanny was a tough cookie whose opinions were held
as tightly as her purse. And her opinions on the proper
Thanksgiving dinner, were the tightest held of all.
had to be yams not sweet potatoes although how she could
tell the difference, Ill never know--- without the marshmallows,
if you please; the stuffing MUST contain cornbread, raisins and
ersters -as she called them- not sausage. She wasnt
too concerned with the vegetables as long as they included a nice
garden salad and steamed string beans topped with almond slices.
dessert? Apple pie. Not pumpkin. Not sweet potato. Apple. For years
it was nothing but apple-- until the Thanksgiving of 1937 when pecan
pie was added. It seems that year a buyer from Atlanta had spent
the holiday with her and my mother after an early storm snowed him
in. He INISTED on showing some southern hospitality by baking up
his mothers special recipe. A real southern gentleman,
she would say. Papa Joe had spent that thanksgiving stuck in Chicago
where he was making a sales call of his own. I was told that even
though he had a sweet tooth the size of his ample belly, he soon
lost his appetite for pecan pie and would excuse himself into another
room whenever one happened to appear on the table.
brings us to the turkey. Since 1963, the turkey HAD to be a Butterball.
Previously whatever the local butcher had in stock would have done,
but when Giraldos Fresh Meats went out of business after a
disastrous Thanksgiving when half the neighborhood came down with
salmonella poisoning, and the store mysteriously burned to the ground,
a colleague had suggested Butterball and so, Butterball it was and
4 decades, my grandmother ruled Thanksgiving with an iron ladle.
It was rare anyone was permitted in her kitchen unless summoned
for some particular task such as retrieving a pot or serving dish
she couldnt reach. The year after my parents got married,
my mother was finally allowed to experiment with the vegetables
introducing cheese sauce topped broccoli and cauliflower,
artichoke hearts and on one ill-fated occasion brussel sprouts.
Once she enlarged the table to include Benny and me, my mother was
also given responsibility for the pie. She always made apple pie
in deference to her father -- avoiding pecan because of her nagging
suspicion that more went on with the southern gentleman that fateful
Thanksgiving than she had been led to believe. But, the Turkey?
That was left to her mother, guaranteeing an oyster-stuffed Butterball
cooked inside a paper bag to ensure efficient, self-basting moistness.
holiday, my father Benny and I would sit together in the small living
room on a plastic-covered couch awaiting her trademark call of Come
you wont regret it! And for the most part
we didnt. We ate our full til it was time to go and
then feasted on the leftovers that tempted us on the hour-long trip
1974, Nanny shut down the business. My parents had made it their
mission to get Nanny to live with them on Long Island. She finally
moved in with them right before the Thanksgiving of 1975 and reluctantly
relinquished the Holiday to my mother. Mothers joy at finally
being handed over the Thanksgiving mantle was short-lived, however,
as Nanny still insisted on preparing the turkey - the Butterball
- the right way.
year, Thanksgiving subtly started to take on more of my mothers
personality. There was the switch to chestnut stuffing, the introduction
of Boston Crème pie and, God help us, the return of Brussel
Sprouts! But the biggest change of all came when Nanny was no longer
able to handle the turkey and my mother made the switch from Butterball
to fresh free-range birds bought at a local poultry market.
in Nannys footsteps, my mother made the kitchen a forbidden
zone except for what she referred to as constructive help.
Benny and I got married in a double ceremony in the spring of 1978
-- adding our own new additions to the table -- so, as tradition
dictated, that Thanksgiving we were honored with the responsibility
of preparing the vegetables. We arrived with a cornucopia of vegetable
delights: candied carrots, creamed corn, squash both green
and yellow snow peas and whole water chestnuts. Taking turns
holding our serving spoons high, we defiantly declared Death
to brussel sprouts!
Nanny looked on as her role went from Thanksgiving queen and chef,
to advisor and finally to reluctant observer. But when her beloved
Butterball had been replaced, she protested in the only way she
knew how: Sitting at the table, shed take a small taste of
turkey, make a disgusted face and announce, This is NOT a
Butterball! The first time this happened, my mother tried
to explain the benefits of eating fresh turkey raised without chemical
feed. How much healthier and flavorful it was
but Nanny would
have none of it.. So you say, dear, but this is NOT a Butterball!
and with a cry of Remember Giraldos! she loudly
scraped the turkey into the serving platter, sat back in her chair
and remained stone--faced. No amount of logic or cajoling would
mother tried everything to get Nanny to eat the turkey until she
finally gave up in frustration and screamed that SHE and not her
mother was in charge and will damn well have Thanksgiving HER way.
agreed to disagree.
rest of us dealt with the situation by accepting the annual pronouncement
of This is NOT a Butterball! as part of the Thanksgiving
we gathered again for a family Thanksgiving in 1983, my wife was
nine and a half months pregnant - due, as they say, any minute.
We had settled down not too far from Nanny and my parents, so we
took the risk that wed make it through dinner without having
to rush to the hospital -- tempering that decision with the knowledge
that we werent any further away than if wed stayed home.
the years my wife and Nanny had developed a very special relationship.
Being a strong woman herself, and having come to the family with
an objective eye, she may have understood Nanny better than anyone.
So to celebrate the soon-to-be new addition to the table, and to
honor the gathering together of three and a half generations, she
baked a special mystery dessert, and didnt let
on as to what it was even to me. This was HER contribution,
she told me. After I had finished cooking my share of that years
vegetable dishes she sent me out on innumerable errands to
keep me out of the kitchen until she was finished. Its
a surprise, she said, but I do need your help. I want
you to cue me when you think the turkey thingy is about to begin.
being her eloquent way of referring to Nannys battle cry,
This is NOT a Butterball!
arrived at dinner a little later than scheduled balancing six Tupperware
containers filled with veggies and a mysterious plain brown paper
bag. My mother greeted us at the door with her patented annoyed
mother look. Then, a veritable Thanksgiving prima ballerina, she
noted the time grabbed the Tupperware, kissed us hello and seated
us at the dining room table all in one graceful motion. No one even
noticed the mysterious paper bag I placed on the floor .
the antipasto and stuffed clam appetizers - my mothers newest
additions to the Thanksgiving tradition - the turkey arrived. My
senses became keener predator-like as I looked for signs
of the impending Big Butterball Debate. As I spotted
Nanny taking aim at the turkey, I gave my wife the signal. She quickly
whipped her surprise dessert out of the bag and plopped it down
right in front of Nanny with a loud clank that brought everyones
attention to the center of the table.
was a pie. A Pecan pie.
mother dropped her fork onto her plate. Benny and his wife, my father
and I all gasped in disbelief. Nanny stopped mid-sentence, This
is NOT a But
We all just sat there staring at the pie.
mothers lips tightened into a thin slit. She excused herself;
slowly rose from the table, and marched out of the room followed
dutifully by my father. Benny and his wife looked as if they were
watching a tennis match as they would first look at the pie and
then at us, then at the pie -- all the while sly smiles overtaking
their faces. Nanny was frozen. I watched her closely as tears welled
up in her eyes and she whispered, A real southern gentleman.
a loud scream. It was my wife. DAMN! My water broke.
this day, I have no idea what happened after we rushed out the door
and sped off to the hospital. Our daughter was born at 5 minutes
to midnight: a Thanksgiving baby. The labor was hard, but Mother
and baby made it through fine. I didnt do much but watch and
be supportive as is the fathers lot in these situations,
but I made it through fine as well.
is much I remember about that day: the babys miraculous entrance
into the world, the tears of joy mixed with pain on my wifes
face; The rush of love I felt for them both.
yeah. And one more thing
the words Nanny uttered when she first held little Josephine in
THATs a Butterball!
2004 Tom Romeo..