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All of my family will be home on Thanksgiving Day, our three girls and our sons-in-law, and our six grandchildren. I’m short four seats at the dining-room table, and will have to convince the youngest to eat out in the kitchen. The friendly ghosts I’ve invited demand places, too, so we’re going to have a big crowd around the groaning board. My mother’s pretzel salad, that’s really a dessert on the lam, will be here as it has every year since about 1970 when she first stumbled upon the recipe in Kentucky Living magazine sent to her mailbox by the Owen County RECC. My grandmother’s soufflé-like turkey dressing--the secret is to toss not stir the breadcrumbs and drippings together—will, as always, be an honored guest. And of course when Grandmother’s dressing is in attendance, G-Aunt Bessie’s story insists on coming too. That’s the one about the time she threw all the uncooked dressing out to the cats and started over from scratch when Aunt Elizabeth accidently stirred instead of tossed.
My other grandmother’s claim to fame - blackberry jam cake with caramel icing - will squeeze in somewhere along with my Daddy’s absolute must, old country ham. Oh, how he loved old country ham! Our 11-year-old granddaughter Eliza will insist on inviting the wax Pilgrim candles that decorated our hotel room long before she was born, the year our family found itself homeless between houses and job changes and had to make up Thanksgiving as we went along. And my blue enamel roaster with the slightly bent lid, the one Ernie and I bought at Heck’s Discount Store over 40 years ago, will escort Tom Turkey to the table.
The ghost who takes up the most room, however, is my grandfather, George Hudson. It’s his pride in setting a good table that pushes me to work myself into a frenzy, cooking outsize quantities of food that we can’t possibly consume, and way too many dishes, each guest’s favorite.
Set a good table – that’s a phrase so long out of fashion I feel compelled to explain that Gran never lifted a dish in his life. His wife and daughters did the cooking and serving. No, for Gran Hudson setting a good table defined his ability to provide well for his family and guests. In his world, the quality and abundance of food at his table was a mark of both a man’s success in life and his character.
I don’t know if Gran ever went hungry, but he was born in 1879 when the deprivation of the Civil War still echoed in Kentucky’s rural countryside. He worked through years when his tobacco crop sold for a penny a pound. Hunger, or its cousin “barely enough,” lurked around the corners of his life, threatening to ambush him if he made a false step.
Setting a good table was about more than satisfying hunger, though. It was about pride, a little ego maybe, but mostly satisfaction at being able to please those he loved and liked. No one, even the unexpected drop-in visitor, ever left his home hungry or unimpressed by his hospitality. “Won’t you stay for supper?” he’d ask in a voice that convinced you nothing would please him more. Or passing the prime dish to a guest the third time, he’d say, “Have a little more. It’ll go to waste if you don’t.”
Meat, and plenty of it, topped his list of must-haves, home-cured bacon and sausage and aged hams pulled from their hooks in the smokehouse, turkeys plucked fresh from his feedlot and fried young chickens in season. The garden filled the table with a cornucopia of fresh vegetables in the passing seasons, tomatoes and green beans and corn on the cob in the summertime, later cushaw squashes, yams and potatoes.
His house was surrounded by fruit trees, the orchard he called it, apple and plum and two magnificent pear trees that still bear fruit a century after they were planted. There was even a mulberry tree hanging with berries straight out of the nursery rhyme. In season, the fruit turned up in fine pies and cobblers. In off months, it filled the preserve jars that danced with my grandmother’s light as air biscuits.
Oh, there would be cakes, too, made with the sugar and flour he carried home and cornbread from the cornmeal. He would gather nuts, mostly his favorite black walnuts, to flavor Grandmother’s candy . And popcorn—he loved popcorn, dishpans full of it, and grew it on the farm, too.
Gran Hudson’s goal was to set a good table every day of the week, not just at holidays. There were those in our community, however, who couldn’t do what he did. They would come to his door, after dark, and call him out to ask for help. They never left without the money they needed to buy groceries for their families, a loan Gran said, understanding that a man who needed a hand-out didn’t need to have it called that. During the year he lay dying, felled by a mysterious blood disorder, one man drove a hundred miles, from home to Lexington to home again, to donate blood once a month. “Pay-back to George for keeping my children fed,” was all he said when my mother tried to thank him.
Oddly, despite his insistence on abundance, Gran Hudson was not a big eater. He was a tall man without an ounce of extra flesh on his body. His passion for food was not about gluttony, but about pride, perhaps better called self-respect – and about love.
And so I’ll cook too much for our Thanksgiving Day feast as I always do. I’ll fix everyone’s favorite dishes. I’ll even boil some peas especially for 20-month-old Georgia Jane. I’ll think about Gran as I work, and I’ll remember it’s not about the food but about setting a good table for my family, then and now, and maybe for a few who aren’t yet born.