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Thanksgiving: the way it used to be

By Jason Offutt




Thanksgiving mornings, Mom's kitchen glowed like the radiation leaks in comic books. Window shades pulled up and the room awash in air that moved in waves because the kitchen was at least 400 degrees hotter than the rest of the house. Every part of the stove, every Crock-Pot, every electric griddle was on and cooking. Yeah, it looked like a comic book radiation leak, if radiation leaks were golden brown and smelled of sage.

She'd have been up for hours when my sisters and I finally rolled into the kitchen, our eyelashes flecked with sleep, not knowing whether we should risk a bowl of Coco Puffs on our hungry stomachs, or if we should tough it out to wait for the once-a-year feast Mom was going to bury us in for the Thanksgiving dinner. The food's aromas lulled us into that room. A pie, some years pumpkin, some years pecan, already cooling on the counter, the turkey still sitting in the speckled black roasting pan on 350 degrees as it would be for another hour or two, and the strips of raw bacon draped over the green beans just starting to wrinkle. The potatoes were skinned and in a pot of water, but they weren't boiling yet. There'd be plenty of time for that. Mom had Thanksgiving Day down to a mathematical equation. Turkey equals Time. Simple as that. Everything else could be done while the turkey cooked. Dishes that took the longest were wrestled with first, everything else followed by order of preparation and cooking time. All she expected of us kids was to leave her alone and stay the hell out of the kitchen.

"Get your nose out of the oven," she'd shout just as one of us would crack open the oven door to catch a scent of the Thanksgiving bird. "You'll let all the heat out."

My middle sister would always be good for a few olives snitched off the tray Mom placed on the kitchen table. I think she put it there to keep us from getting into the really important food. We felt like we'd gotten away with something if we came away with a green olive, or maybe a sweet pickle before the whistle blew and we could fill our plates.

Most years a few relatives would show up, my grandparents and whatever out-of-stater was in town for the holiday. More relatives meant my sister's and I would get stuck at the card table in the living room instead of sitting at the dining room table with the grownups. I didn't mind sitting at the kid's table. Nobody was there to tell me to "quit eating so fast, you look like a farm hand." Of course, an errant pea airlifted from my plate onto one of my sisters' plates might get me a punch in the arm, but it was worth it.

Having relatives over also meant dishing up our plates wasn't the free-for-all it usually was at a normal Offutt meal. The kids would always go first, followed by the women, then the men, although Mom usually went last –cook's prerogative. We'd file by the turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy, loading up on the good stuff before we hit the sweet potatoes and green beans, although one of us kids would usually fight over the strips of green bean bacon.

My favorite was Mom's stuffing, chunks of it heaped on my plate in uneven piles like broken masonry. Of course, if I'd known what it was made of, I might not have liked it. I hated soggy bread. My sandwiches had to have a protective layer of meat before any mustard or mayonnaise went on for fear of making the bread mushy. But I didn't know. All I watched out for in Mom's stuffing were the onions which seemed to find their way into everything she cooked.

I didn't dislike onions. I just had to make sure they were well cooked before I stuffed a big forkful into my mouth. I hated biting into something crunchy in a dish that was supposed to be soft. Sometimes when I was playing outside in the summer, I'd sneak off to the garden and pull up some of the little green ones, well before they grew into the huge, white tumors Mom stuffed into old panty hose and hung from the ceiling in our basement.

After dinner, bellies full enough to puke, all the men – boys included, which usually meant just me – went into the living room to watch the Lions or the Cowboys play football, most of us dozing off. Meanwhile all the women –sisters included – cleaned the kitchen, wiped cabinets, and put leftovers in used margarine containers Mom saved just for this week's worth of leftovers. The dishes, and I never knew where all the dishes came from there seemed too many to fit in our kitchen, were all Mom's. She insisted on washing them herself even though it looked like all the extras from "The Ten Commandments" had just stopped at our house long enough to make sandwiches and leave.

After everything was cleaned, the grownups headed back in the kitchen to drink beer and play pitch, usually sneaking another bite or two of turkey. Every Thanksgiving afternoon, I was sure I wouldn't eat for at least a day, although I always ended up having supper later that night.

The laughter of grownups, poured from the kitchen into the rest of the house as someone took a hand, or foot, or whatever it meant to win. I'd go in the kitchen sometimes just to watch, the sharp, smell of cigarette smoke smothering the last of the morning's Thanksgiving smells. I knew I'd be a grown up when I got to sit at the kitchen table and play pitch. But, I didn't mind waiting.

Copyright by Jason Offutt

* * * * *

Jason Offutt is an award-winning humor columnist. You can subscribe to Jason's (more or less) monthly newsletter and buy Jason's e-book "Didn't life Used to be Easy?" on the World Wide Web at:

Jason Offutt has been writing longer than he can remember. Rumors are there are notes for a column written on his mom's uterine wall, which he really, really doesn't want to think about.

In his career, Jason has been a newspaper editor, general assignment reporter, photographer, newspaper consultant, bartender, farm hand and the mayor of a small Midwestern town. He's been named humor writer of the year by the Missouri Press Association, humor writer of the month by the Erma Bombeck Workshop of the University of Dayton, Ohio, and his family thinks he's kind of neat, too.

Jason currently teaches journalism at Central Missouri State University and works for a magazine in Kansas City, Mo.

His humor column "As I was saying" is published in a couple of newspapers, but in not nearly enough


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