A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Thanksgiving brings back fond memories of friends, family and feasts of rich food

I’m in favor of the Thanksgiving season to be termed the most important holiday that Americans celebrate. The theme of gratefulness is a universal one, not held back by the narrow lines of religious, or other, differences. It’s a time when, at least theoretically, we show appreciation for the good things around us (the bounty) rather than to focus on what we’d like but don’t possess. Out of that feeling of joyfulness should spring forth acts of unselfish giving, even as we culminate the season with an iconic feast of rich food.

For many, this time conjures up special memories.

Looking at my own Thursdays past (the day all Thanksgiving Days fall) as a child growing up in Claryville, I remember Mom often serving baked chicken rather than the traditional turkey. Not sure why she did, but it was sure tasty meat, so not having turkey wasn’t a downer. I loved her “angel rolls,” dressing, green beans, and I developed a real taste for the cranberry sauce.

No meal was complete, though, unless Mom fixed a family favorite she brought to the marriage, that being the delicious ribbon salad, consisting of individual layers of red and green Jello sandwiched around cream cheese mixed with small bits of pineapple. I continued to request the dish way into adulthood until the year she passed.

Steve Flairty with Butterball

It wasn’t until later years that our family of four made it a practice to come together with other relatives. That’s because Thanksgiving time occurred during the end part of the tobacco stripping process for our annual burley crop. We’d literally walk out of the dusty “strippin’ room” in our detached garage, walk across the yard and sit down to our meal.

How Mom managed to work in tobacco on the same day she prepared that batch of viddles, I’ll never know. Fortunately for her, the next several days meant that she only had to reheat the leftovers.

I recall that our 1963 Thanksgiving season happened in an emotional fog, as it did for most across America. The Kennedy assassination tragedy had occurred on November 22, six days before Thanksgiving Day. And though Kennedy’s funeral had passed, one could still feel the sadness in the air. America’s president being shot and killed was something that would never happen—but did. So we kind of went through the motions of being grateful that year. It would take a while before some sort of normalcy returned. Ask anyone in America who was alive then.

But for most people and for most times, I’m guessing that Thanksgiving is an “up” time, replete with fond memories. I checked around recently to find out for sure and received an abundance of such stories.

Take Jamie Vaught, a college teacher and author from Middlesboro who administers the online sports website, KySportsStyle. “During my younger days, I always remember our old Thanksgiving tradition when we—especially the men—watched the Detroit Lions as well as the Dallas Cowboys on TV after our delicious Thanksgiving meal,” said Jamie. Whether it was the turkey or the usually lopsided ball games, Jamie added that “sometimes we got kind of sleepy.”

A former student of mine, Michelle Greer, Berea, brags bigtime about her Mamaw’s yellow dumplings, made that way using food coloring. Michelle claims that not her or any of the other grands will eat white dumplings.

Bettie Ockerman, a retired registered nurse from Lexington, continues to treasure the family pictures taken before the big meal, where every member brings a dish. “It is meaningful to look at all the photos and remember those who are no longer with us, and to see how our family has grown through marriages and births of our newest little members,” she said.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion for the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state and still enjoys doing those one-dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Growing up, Thanksgiving Day was also “Hog Day” for Dory Hudspeth, Bowling Green. That’s when many men in the family who worked in factories were off work at the same time. They worked together to gather and load the swine for a final trip to the slaughterhouse. “I’ve seen my uncles skiing behind hogs in the muddy hog lot, holding onto hind legs while the hogs were zipping around. Everyone, no matter how mud-covered, had a place at the table,” said Dory.

Sometimes those moments thought only incidental at the time become highly memorable events. Tracy McIntosh, Lexington, remembers being with her father interviewing him, formerly a doctor in Vietnam, for a Library of Congress oral history project. “We ate animal crackers and talked late into the evening,” she said.

From the northern Kentucky town of Ft. Thomas, the actions of a two-year-old provided a cute recollection. Deb Stalhut talked about the occasion she made a small turkey for her husband, Bob, to enjoy while he missed the family celebration because of job duties. The tot, the couple’s only child at that time, saw Deb rinsing off the turkey to prepare for baking.

“When she asked me what I was doing,” said Deb, “I told her I was washing the turkey off for Daddy’s Thanksgiving dinner. I left the kitchen a minute or two to take care of something else and came back to find our daughter pouring dishwashing liquid over the turkey.” Mom inquired about what she was doing. ‘Helping you wash the turkey’ was the quick reply.

“That was the cleanest turkey Bob ever ate for Thanksgiving,” noted Deb.

Jeana Pillion’s favorite tale of the season is quite humorous. “Several years after Grandma could no longer host the big Thanksgiving meal, her relatives tried to duplicate her Thanksgiving ham without success,” explained Jeana. “They all had tried and surmised the reasons it was so juicy and delicious. She must have slaved in the kitchen.

So the relatives unanimously agree to visit in the nursing home and get her secret. With her memory loss, no one was certain if she would remember. But suddenly alert Grandma reveals ‘Oh, that damn ham never would fit in my baking pan, so I gave the end pieces to the dog. I just poured a Coca-Cola on top and let it warm up.’”

Brandenburg resident Gerald Fischer waxes nostalgic about growing up in the tiny community of Drake, Kentucky, and being a part of the festivities, calling it “a special Thursday.”

There were true challenges, however.

“If the weather was cold, ice had to be broken for the stock to drink, fodder pitched in the mangers, chickens fed, wood brought in and a chicken or two killed for Thanksgiving supper,” explained Fischer.

The time also coincided with the opening day of rabbit season. “Visitors from Louisville would come down for that day. Some would arrive the night before and sleep on the extra beds.

“Everyone would get up early to help Papa Bryant with the chores. Mama Bryant, Helen, and Virginia would build a fire in the cook stove, put on gallons of coffee, fix cornbread and biscuits, side meat, bacon and sausage.”

Gender roles were pretty much defined then in the area, with girls learning cooking skills from women and boys were taught by men to do things not as much of a domestic nature. “After the chores were done, the men would see to their dogs and guns to hunt rabbits,” continued Gerald. “The older boys would tag along to be with and learn the ways of men. Their job was to jump on the brush heaps and flush the rabbits.”

The harvesting of animals meant that the males and females would work together in the afternoon to prepare the meat. Then the females noted Gerald, “set the table with mix-matched cups and saucers, plates, mason jars, jelly glasses and depression ware. Special guests got the jelly glasses. Papa would say a longer blessing than usual and the men. Women, boys, and girls would sit and eat a special Thursday meal. After the table was covered by a pretty oilcloth to keep the flies away and the afternoon hunt completed, the feast was restarted with newly fried game and warmed over side dishes.”

Decades later, Gerald Fischer mused: “I miss those times.”

Marcus Lynn, minister at the First Christian Church, Versailles, commented on a tradition called the “family memory jar.” It’s become very meaningful.

“We have a jar where those present for dinner on Thanksgiving write out a family memory or two,” he said. The memories are passed around for each to guess who wrote them, and “then we go back into the jar and read past entries. Pretty special to read memories from my now deceased mom and grandma.”

When possible, I like to finish off my columns on an upbeat note. Anne Carmichael, Nicholasville, fills the bill this time with her sharing.

“We’ve had many wonderful meals and large family Thanksgiving celebrations over the years,” she said. “Most of our family has now either passed or moved away, but this year, albeit small by headcount, will be the one for which we are most thankful.

“My granddaughter, 24, was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma in September and we just got the news this morning that her cancer is completely gone. She will still have another eight chemo treatments to ensure that they’ve got it all, but she was so ill three months ago, we weren’t sure she’d even be here for Christmas. Very thankful.”

For sure, a big part of the joy of the season is to rejoice in others’ joy. Hope y’all are “gobbled up” with gratitude on this Thanksgiving Day…and keep those things in treasured remembrance!

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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One Comment

  1. Gerry Fischer says:

    Thanksgiving is uniquely American, but the tradition goes way back in many cultures and countries. I’m glad I could help some. Thanks. Gerry

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