Tahlequah Daily Press

November 27, 2013

Family gatherings

Local residents recall their Thanksgiving traditions

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Thanksgiving traditions vary across the United States, and sometimes across the street. But the memories made each year come up in conversations time and again, as family and friends gather to celebrate.

Favorite foods often boast cultural family flavors, from coastal seafood to Native American roots.

Dressing made from kanuchi and “wishi,” or mushrooms, is part of the traditional meal Nora Justice recalls fondly from her past, as all the grandmothers and aunts cooked it from scratch.

“I make my dressing like hers [Grandma Lydia Dawson], but it’s never as good as hers,” Justice said. “The meringue on her banana pie was just right.”

Everybody would show up at Dawson’s house, and Justice tries to keep the tradition alive.

“We put up our Christmas tree right after we finish putting away the food and dishes,” said Justice.

Melissa Keller enjoys hospitality with friends, so she eats with Ralph and Polly (Peterson) Winburn each year.

“They have food from around the world, from Morocco to New York,” Keller said.

Meals with international inspiration always grace the table of Molly and Jerald Peterson. The couple worked in places like Paris and Mexico, and their daughters say the tradition they like most is never knowing what the meal will be.

Sharing with  others is what counts

For Molly, though, sharing food with those in need is crucial. In Mexico one time, as they were sitting down to a traditional meal of stuffed turkey and all the trimmings, a friend whose wife had been in the hospital stopped by.

“We sent half of our meal and a gallon of wine home with them. Several days later, he stopped by to thank us for the meal, and especially the wine,” she said. “We were grateful to be able to share.”

They don’t really like turkey, so other roasted meats are often served.

“One of the most fun things to me is finding out what we will do each Thanksgiving,” said daughter Ellie Vega. “This year, I think it’s carnitas, pork chunks cooked in lard.”

In Mexico, before Ellie married husband Martin, the couple invited his sisters over for Thanksgiving and made pork loin with bacon, onion and cream, with cheesy potatoes.

Another year, Jerald and Molly went to New York to visit Ellie, who was hosting the meal. When the Petersons arrived, it was almost time to eat, but the turkey was still a long way from done.

“We cut it up, boiled it and cooked it with green tomatillo sauce and cream,” Molly said. “Everybody said it was worth the wait.”

The weirdest thing Ellie ate one Thanksgiving was at the home of a Dominican Republic family in New York.

“They served san choco, a stew; fried plantain and mangu, or mashed plantain with pork skin and onions, and a big pork loin,” she said. “After we ate dinner, instead of cleaning it all up, they wrapped the food in the tablecloth and said, ‘This will be for breakfast; it’s the tradition.’”

Ellie’s sister, Polly Winburn, said when they lived in New York, she liked going to the home of Ralph’s aunt and uncle in Maryland.

“They made turkey necks, which he still loves today,” she said. “He smokes turkeys for people and keeps the necks if they don’t want them, and I have about 24 to make for him.”

Ralph grew up in Parma, Ohio, in the Parmadale St. Anthony’s Home for Boys orphanage after his mom died. The Knights of Columbus provided the meal for the boys.

“It was turkey and all the fixings,” he said. “I really liked the black-eyed peas, cranberry sauce with real berries, and we were allowed to drink coffee.”

Jerald, who grew up near Edmond, recalls all the relatives coming over to his grandmother’s home.

“It would snow and we’d go hunting for rabbit, quail and ducks, if any were on the pond,” he said. “We’d skin them and the women would cook them for Thanksgiving dinner.”

New Orleans  cooking was king

Craig and Patsy Clifford, who are originally from New Orleans, appreciate the “substitute families” they have gotten to know over the years.

“We had someplace to go for a special day and have gotten to be good friends,” Craig said.

Her grandmother’s French cooking was always delicious, Patsy said.

“We always had gumbo with sausage and ham, chayote [mirleton] squash and mirleton stuffed with shrimp as a casserole, daube [pot roast with a tomato base served over rice] and oyster dressing, “ she said. “I never had stuffing or giblet until I went to my husband’s house across town.”

Originally from Chicago, Garrett Barnett enjoyed driving with his mom to visit the relatives in Minnesota.

“Dad was a pilot, so he was not always home. Sometimes heavy snow would cause mom to white-knuckle it,” Barnett said. “I was the youngest and it was an adventure.”

Dressing was one thing he hadn’t had until coming to Oklahoma with wife Brandi Bryant.

“Brandi’s mom takes drippings from the turkey to make gravy, and dressing is a big thing in the South,” he said. “The Thanksgiving staples are the same, though.”

Brandi considers Thanksgiving a favorite holiday for the family focus, with no stress of getting the perfect gift.

“It’s about family and gratitude for our blessings,” she said.

Any meal was special in Vietnam

Another international dinner, recalled by former State Sen. Jim Wilson, wasn’t as fancy, but it was truly appreciated.

“In Vietnam, we spent the nights in foxholes we had to dig. For Thanksgiving, they brought the food out in the field in big, metal, thermal containers by helicopters,” he said. “We were so appreciative of the command for providing it and the cooks for fixing it.”

Today, the Wilsons share Thanksgiving with their children in Broken Arrow.

“We take a spiral ham and orange cranberry sauce,” he said. “[Son] David [Moore]’s bringing yams.”

Helping his friend, Jim Wilson, put away the boxes that hold Christmas decorations at the Thompson House, Gary Snyder also shared an unusual meal memory. His parents were from Oklahoma, and Snyder was stationed in Altus, having served in Spain, Greenland and England.

“We were flying oversees to Madrid in an aircraft carrier and had boxes of turkey and dressing we heated,” he said.

Desserts are often the favorite foods for a family meal.

Grandma Faye Johnson’s chocolate pies are what Tahlequah High School senior Kaley Ogle loves most about Thanksgiving dinners.

“My mom [Vicki Johnson] makes really good cheesecake, and we have turkey and ham,” Ogle said. “I have time with my cousins, and we watch football.”

Former State Rep. John Auffet recalls being 7 or 8 when a dessert caused him a problem.

“I got in trouble for laughing at my grandmother’s pronunciation of pumpkin pie as ‘mumkin pie,’” Auffet said.

Shirley Auffet, talking with sister, Glenda McCullom, explained how their mom, Wanda Blakemore, would always remember the homemade cranberry sauce in the refrigerator just as they were sitting down to eat.

“The older people went by the signs, like planting potatoes on March 17, and would kill a hog for Thanksgiving,” McCollum said. “Mama would pray for rain so she could go to her folks’ instead of having to help with the hog.”

Trouble seems to follow Whitney Gonzales during the holidays.

“I always seem to injure myself. I remember playing tag with a cousin and falling down the stairs,” she said.

Chicken and dumplings takes the cake

Chicken and dumplings were favorites when going to her grandmother’s house in Braggs, Linda Isbell said.

She remembers how happy everyone was, how good the food was, and listening to the stories the grownups told.

“We played outside with the cousins and helped granny in the kitchen,” she said. “Grandmother Isbell made traditional food and spaghetti for the kids. They lived three blocks apart, so we could go back and forth.”

One year, Shawn Arthur rented a place on the beach in La Jolla, Calif., and spent the whole weekend drinking hot chocolate and hot toddies with a girlfriend and her mom.

“We had dinner at George’s at the Cove,” he said.

Travel has become a way to make special memories for Donna and Tom Tinnin.

“I’m good at eating and watching football,” she joked, “but I wanted my kids to have more meaningful memories, so we took Thanksgiving on the road.”

They took a cruise one year and went to Disney World another.

“Tom and Travis played golf, and Gillian and I went to the Animal Kingdom,” she said.

Now they spend the holiday with Tom’s family in Missouri.

“I’m so thankful to have all of us together,” Tinnin said. “And when I’m not hosting, it’s more time to enjoy the family.”