Thanksgiving wasn’t about having a turkey and all the trimmings for us as children. But it was about being thankful. It wasn’t about watching the big game on the television, but it was about family and friends. It was about providing. Providing for our families with what we did that day.
Providing a place where neighbors and families got together and helped each other. Providing a foundation for people to make it through the winter months with meat on the table and warmth in their hearts – knowing that hard work and friendship made it possible.
When Thanksgiving morning dawned there wasn’t the scent of turkey roasting in the oven or pumpkin pies cooling on the credenza. It was the last of the sausage frying in the huge cast iron skillet, ham sizzling right next to it. Cornbread with cracklings and fresh butter warmed from the heat of the kitchen.
Grams would be hard at work in the kitchen when we arrived. Everyone knew to bring their own coffee, as it was known that she made the worst brew in several counties. But it mattered little; they knew when they pushed back from her table groaning with the weight of the food, you’d be full for hours.
Pancakes were not present at this feast, but nearly everything else was. Ham and red eyed gravy, sausage and eggs, biscuits and cornbread, there would be mounds of fried potatoes with thick sliced onions. And gallons of fresh milk, taken from the cow at the neighbor’s barn just hours before.
The food,however,wasn’t the real reason for this gathering. Before we sat down to eat, the men would have been busy digging a pit to put the large vat over to boil water. The pit would be six feet long and several feet deep. I could never tell how deep because the men who worked on it never stood in it when I was around – but I’d say three feet at least. It would then be filled with wood – fallen trees that needed clearing and branches from the spring storms. Cords of wood stacked close to keep the water hot over the next several days.
The water would need to be carted by hand from the hand cranked pump. I don’t remember ever seeing a hose, though I’m sure they had been around. Once it was going well, then we’d converge on the kitchen in the main house.
Mostly the younger men would be responsible for the fire while the adults would be doing the actual job in the paddock
My Grandpa had a special knife that was used. It was honed to a precise edge and sharp enough to cut a sheet of paper that was dropped over it. It was not used for any other time of the year or for any other purpose than to kill the hogs.
We didn’t use a gun because we had been taught to never waste anything. So to use a gun to kill them, would ruin the brains that my Grams and Mother loved to eat with their scrambled eggs.
My dad would simply walk among the pigs that had come to trust him. A trust he had encouraged specially for this time of year. He would walk up to the ones that had been chosen and slit their throats.
I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that it was a sad affair and often made us upset for several days afterward.
Once the hog had died, he or she would be pulled out dipped in the boiling water to strip off all the mud and then make it easier for the course hair to be shaved off. Then hung from the rafters of the barn to be finished dressing out.
Over a week’s time we would work cutting and dividing. Preparing the meat to be ground into sausage or hung in the smokehouse to be preserved for the rest of the year. Careful marks were made on the hooks to ensure that neighbors got their meat, though no one had ever thought my Grandpa would cheat them.
My Grams would save the funny sheets for weeks before the day in hopes of keeping our attention for a few minutes during the days that followed. She would tell us that Santa would leave us special gifts if he chose our brightly colored pictures in lines across the sheets. It worked too, every year and every Thanksgiving.
Her manual sewing machine would clang along sewing the sausage bags together to be filled with the delicious concoction. I’ll never forget taking a stack out to the sausage house to have them filled only to find she had sewn all the openings closed on the entire stack. When I took them back, she said that she had meant to do that. If they were going to make her stay in the house with all of us kids then they’d have to take what she gave them. She paid each of twenty-five cents to take the tiny stitches out for her – not each bag, but for the entire job. We loved her that much.
At the end of the two weeks, there would be no more trucks in the yard, no more fire blowing up and sparking in the night sky. The blood would be washed away, the tools cleaned and put away until the following year. Plans would have been made to breed the sow’s that were left and which neighbor would be bringing their male over to cover the female. The tractor would be back in the barn and it would be closed up tight against the cold.
My Grandparents are gone as I’ve mentioned before. I miss them terribly and wonder what they would think of my family if they could see them. I’m sure they would be proud. I know that I am. I’m also sure they would fuss. I’d welcome that too.
From our home to yours, have a wonderful Thanksgiving.