Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Over the River . . .

. . . and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go."

Thus begins an old holiday song that had particular significance for me as a young child.

Over the River and Through the Woods

It was our family custom to travel west into the Mohawk Valley on Thanksgiving, to celebrate this typically American holiday with Grandma Minnie and our aunts and uncle from my Dad's side of the family. Of course, we didn't travel by horse-drawn sleigh as portrayed in the video, but instead by car over the highway. Even if the road was sometimes snowy, most often it was plowed.

When we arrived at Grandma Minnie's house, after warming up with snacks and beverages, a dozen or more family members would seat themselves around the large table in the dining room, extended out to its maximum length for the occasion.

The table boards seemed to groan under the weight of the turkey and other dishes prepared once a year for this special feast. Minnie would always prepare creamed oysters for Dad, and there would be several varieties of pie for dessert  --  pumpkin, blueberry, and mincemeat.

After dinner we would retire to the parlor, where Aunts Glenadore and Charlotte would entertain us with piano and violin, until it was time for us all to gather around the old Victorian era upright with its trilling tremolo, to belt out, "Swing the Shining Sickle," a harvest song from the 1920's.

Only then was it permitted to turn on the television for the inevitable football games, which Dad watched while we kids dozed on the sofa, overcome by a surfeit of soporific turkey flesh and other goodies.

My earliest memories of these holiday gatherings include my great-grandmother, Kittie Van Slyke, who was born in 1868, and who lived to be 94 years old. It was she who owned the book of household hints and recipes, "Queen of the Household," which has been passed down to me along with Minnie's handwritten notebook.

Queen of the Household - Frontispiece
While leafing through the crumbling pages of this 120-year-old volume earlier this afternoon, I wondered how families in the Mohawk Valley celebrated Thanksgiving in Kittie's young adulthood. The holiday was declared an official day of  thanksgiving and praise by President Abraham Lincoln a few short years before Kittie was born. Perhaps by the time her cookbook was published, some traditions had already emerged.

Sure enough, on page 531, in a chapter entitled "A Year's Bill of Fare," I came upon a suggested menu for Thanksgiving dinner:

                                                Thanksgiving Dinner

Oyster soup                    
Roast Turkey, with Cranberry Sauce
Mashed Potatoes
Baked Sweet Potatoes
Mashed Turnips
Roast Pig
Carrots With Cream
Boston Baked Beans
Minced Cabbage
Pumpkin Pie
Plum Pudding
Fruit, Nuts, Cheese
Tea and Coffee

With the exception of the roast pig, plum pudding, and perhaps the oyster soup, the menu is not so different from the typical Thanksgiving fare of today. Stay tuned; perhaps I'll try out a recipe or two this Thursday . . .

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