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Turkey is still a treat for this farm boy 90 years later


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I’d guess that most farming people ‒ and maybe most everyone else ‒ view the time from Thanksgiving through Christmas as the “family season.” 

Thanksgiving dinner kicks the holiday season off, and school vacations soon follow with Christmas and New Year’s close behind. To be honest, my thoughts on the season are still framed by my days as a farm boy on that small dairy farm in Dane County. 

Turkey was a treat for this farm boy

The Thanksgiving Days of my youth meant a  family dinner at home ‒ a big event even though there were usually only five people involved, my parents and us three children (me, Donald and Audrey).   Mother worked for days getting the pies made, cranberries cooked and potatoes peeled. Turkey was the traditional and much anticipated main course and was probably an even bigger treat then because it was a sort of specialty product not available 365 days a year at a cheap price like today.

 On rare occasions, a large goose was the main course if a combination of weather and goose decision-making brought a flock of migrating “Canadians” to the sometimes ponds on the neighboring farm or in our cornfield and Dad had met them with his seldom used twelve gauge.

Celebrations change as children grow older

During my own family’s “growing up” years, our traditional Thanksgiving dinners continued but pretty much on a single-family basis (Christmas was the bigger family get-together) with Jan’s delicious dinner rolls and the other traditional foods. (My wife was an outstanding cook!) Often we would spend Thanksgiving at my brother Don’s home or at my sister Audrey’s house if she lived in the area. (Note: Her husband was a minister and they moved several times.) In later years the kids lived further away and couldn’t make the one-day holiday.

Tiddlywinks and turkey

Our Thanksgiving dinner was at noon on the farm (supper was at night and lunch was what we carried to school in a lunch box or paper bag). Actually, on that special day, we ate a bit later, maybe one o’clock. What took Mother and sister Audrey most of the week to prepare was consumed ‒ and so enjoyed ‒ in just a few moments. 

We then all sat down in the living room for a bit, reading, napping or sometimes playing checkers, cards or Tiddlywinks. Then, of course, it was chore and milking time while the women did the dishes. (Question: Does anyone else remember Tiddlywinks? Is the game still around? Let me know.)

Is a traditional Thanksgiving dinner still a thing?

What about farm families, is the traditional Thanksgiving dinner still a thing? A number of years ago I called several farm families to find out and the answer was a strong yes. A dairy farmer with about 500 milk cows said, “Yes, we have a big family that gets together at our house on Thanksgiving.” “There will be my wife and me, our six children and fourteen grandchildren eating turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie and all. It’s a very traditional Thanksgiving day for us with everyone bringing food to share at the meal. And of course, there was a lot of talking with everyone talking at once.”

A beef farmer in southwest Wisconsin agreed. “My three children and their families come home for Thanksgiving – it’s a great family gathering.”

Thanksgiving is not so traditional at Larson Acres near Evansville. “It’s sort of a ‘hodge podge,’ for our family,” general manager Mike Larson said some years ago.

“Everyone sort of goes their own way. I’m going to my daughter’s home in Illinois. Christmas is our big family get-together. It moves around to different family homes, and this year we will gather at my Mom’s house. It will be crowded but we’ll make it work.“ 

Mike says the family had a tradition that lasted for over 50 years.

“Our big family get-togethers were based on breakfast. My dad, Don, made French toast and sausage that we ate whatever time of day we got together. We gradually added turkey and ham and then we realized we had too many leftovers so we switched to a variety of foods. We even had pizza one year.”

A new way to celebrate the holiday

Family Thanksgivings always give way to age as the children are away at college or have new jobs and can’t make it home for the one-day event. Instead, a long phone call home gets things moving toward the family conversation and plans are made for a big family Christmas get-together and all is well.

In my family, my wife and I turned to restaurant meals when the kids were gone. I remember several Thanksgiving brunchs at Madison’s Sheraton Hotel, a special meal at the Cardinal Bar/Restaurant and a few other places, often with our youngest daughter Laurel flying in from California.  We found out that eating out worked well, especially with less work for my wife.

No one leaves the table hungry

A couple of years ago I had a big Thanksgiving dinner at my son John’s wife’s nephew’s home at Cottage Grove. Eighteen people all told, eating a 20-pound turkey, dressing, twice-baked potatoes, salads,  pumpkin, apple and pecan pies along with a wide display of appetizers and drinks. A great dinner marred only by the absence of my wife Jan who died several years prior and my two California residing daughters. As with all meals where the eaters each bring a “dish to pass” there was too much food – but we tried our best to empty all the dishes and pans.

Army memories of Thanksgiving

I do vividly remember two other Thanksgivings, both unusual at the time. 

One was at Oakland Army Base in California, where I, as a newly commissioned Army 2nd Lieutenant, was stationed. I was invited by a civilian worker to his home for Thanksgiving dinner – I think he felt sorry for me, the farm boy so far from home.

I was to arrive at about 1 p.m. which I did. As might be expected, he served drinks of some sort, maybe beer, wine or mixed, which I guess I enjoyed. I don’t think I’d eaten much breakfast, knowing I’d be eating a big meal at dinnertime. But, then as I got hungrier and hungrier and a bit sick to the stomach from the drink I’d consumed, I realized that dinnertime to this friend was supper time to me. I guess I made it through and probably enjoyed the meal but the sick-to-the-stomach feeling I had that day is still clear in my mind.  

Then there was the Thanksgiving at Uijongbu, Korea where my small railroad unit cook received 13 turkeys from the supply people for our 30 GI’s Thanksgiving. I remember telling the mess sergeant to see if he could trade some extra turkeys with a nearby army unit for something we could use. He did well – trading 10 of them to the neighboring army unit for some paint and other supplies we needed.  We ended up with plenty of turkey eaten in the mess tent while thanking the cook for his efforts. The “Army way” worked again.

A new way to celebrate

Several of my conversations suggest that children often live far away from where they were raised and don’t get home very often, nor can they host family dinners especially the one-day holiday that Thanksgiving is. They also thought more people were eating out at restaurants in recent years.  “Many of the younger generation don’t even cook but eat a lot of ‘take out’ food as a regular thing – young women often are working full time and don’t even know how to cook,” they told me.   

Breaking bread in Costa Mesa

My son and his family will gather at his North Dakota home and as I did last year, I’ll be having my Thanksgiving meal at Laurel’s home in Costa Mesa, California with her sons Trace and Cameron and some friends. I’m not sure of the menu but I’m sure it will be a mix, a surprise and very good.

The first Thanksgiving meal held in 1623, has over the years shifted its dates in different states until 1941 when President Roosevelt signed the law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. So it has remained. Happy Thanksgiving!

Reach John Oncken at jfodairy2@gmail.com

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