I received an email from the Times Free Press on Wednesday that informed me the “semifinalists” in the newspaper’s ”Best Side Dish” for next Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast were mashed potatoes and dressing. While I enjoy both very much, I can never remember eating mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving Day. Dressing, oh sure, But when I was growing up, our dressing was always loaded with oysters because I am very proudly a son of the South and – year after year – the best dish on the sideboard was creamed hominy.
We would always have a huge crowd and Thanksgiving dinner was such a production it would begin right about now – a full week ahead – and there would be more side dishes than most restaurant menus.
My mom, quite famously, wrote the Helen Exum Cookbook and my dad, who was raised on a huge cotton plantation in central Mississippi, both had a great affection for the ageless delicacies that had fortified the Deep South many years before the Civil War. Once a year at our house it was evermore showtime and the turnip greens were heavy laden with chunks of country ham. The sweet potato casserole had a thick layer of melted marshmallows on top and down inside was loaded with so many candied pecans you had to pick to find the yam.
There were festive tureens of soup – one oyster stew and the other either mock turtle or Manhattan clam – a tray of various cheeses, platters of fruit including real pomegranate and then the meats; always two turkeys soaked with melted butter, and about two dozen dove breasts wrapped in tooth-picked bacon and hot off the grill. Always a thin-sliced tenderloin – beef and pork would alternate every year – and a fresh-boiled ham – and only a Smithfield would do.
With the meats would be the sausages, anything from “very fresh” whole hog to chunks of Louisiana Andouille, and if Providence smiled, some marinated backstrap. With the meats would be several gravies, chutney, cherry glaze for the pork, and “from scratch” cranberry and pear sauces. Some saffron, thick ocean salt, and lots of heavy-ground pepper. We would bring the extra sideboard down from the attic for all the vegetables and salads. We had two dressings, sage and oyster depending on one’s palate. Then there was buttered corn, the turnip greens, baby peas and onions, blanched green beans, scalloped potatoes so full of cheddar they would drip, chilled beets, five different olives, artichoke hearts to accent the tossed salad, and, lordy, anything else you could dream up. Anchovies atop the salad .. get three strips.
Dinner was always about 4:30 in the afternoon, so as the meal wound down, the empty serving dishes would give way to fresh-grated coconut cake, a heavy caramel four-layer white, and pineapple upside down still soggy. Pecan pie, made with mule-turned molasses, was the hands down winner, of course, and mother made six or seven every year, plus tarts with blender-whipped whipped cream for the young. There was a huge bowl of ambrosia, the fresh grapefruit and oranges delicately hiding the secret that several liqueurs were passed beneath the white sheet of shaved coconut innocently covering the top. The other secret? Anytime you serve freshly sectioned citrus, a pinch of Sweet ‘n Low, carefully sprinkled, will change every facial expression at the dinner table.
Like I said, creamed hominy was the perpetual favorite, although few first-timers had ever tasted it before. What is it really? You take dried whole kernel corn and you soak if for a day or two, then you take a caustic like lye and stir it in. Lye is poisonous but it makes the outside shell on each kernel go through a chemical process called “nixtamalization,” a word that proves to the biggest cynics that you’re really pure-blood Southern. You wash away the lye with a garden hose in the yard, and now the kernels are swollen to twice their size. Then you cook it up, stirring the whole cream down over the heat to near-like heavy gravy, drop about two sticks of butter cut into easy-to-melt chunks, and splash on Tabasco “until just before you can taste the hot.” That gives the hominy some ‘hold,’ and, cousin, have at it.
My brother Jon was the hominy-master in the house, and I don’t know how many gallons he would make, but we would always run out. Every year, so help me. Almost from the get-go we found out it was easier, and safer, to buy canned hominy at almost any grocery store than endure “nixtamalization” and here’s another truth. If you take a mess of whole kernel hominy and chop it up real fine, you’ll wind up with a far more popular and beloved product you can find anywhere below the Mason-Dixon line – we call it grits.
Probably the most fun is that every year Mom and Dad would invite complete strangers to our feast table. Mother would get the younger kids to put on a little show featuring Pilgrims and Native Americans. Franklin would recite a tale about the Indian Squanto, and we’d pass out little song sheets so Martha could play, “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.”
Our big dining room table would seat 24. We had another table in the living room that would handle maybe 20 and then the young crowd would gather in the den with football on TV. We were always ultra-careful that it should never become a cocktail party so there were Cokes and cranberry juice as people arrived. When dinner was called there were rather discretely two bottles of red wine and two of chilled white in the corner on a table with a heavy-starched linen tablecloth There were stacked linen napkins and a bountiful number of elegant, cut-crystal glasses. The bottles mysteriously were always full and artfully chilled (Jon was the wine steward) and then there was “Little Roy” and the hall closet.
Dad would casually mention to our new friends that I could supply any libation desired and I would instantly show up with a napkin-wrapped cocktail and oh, I was a “heavy pour,” believe you me. There were always two or three pastors in the crowd and about half employed my services. A visiting Catholic priest asked what selection I had to offer, and I told him “anything.” But then I said quietly, “Father, I have some Bushmills 16. (Irish whiskey)
“Would you prefer ‘rocks’ or a splash?” He immediately rewarded me with the church’s highest blessing, one of seven that night, and he soon captivated everyone at the table, sharing his love and joy. He had the knack of listening to others, of encouraging the quietest to speak, and then quietly guided what turned to be some magical minutes.
This priest, on temporary assignment, mind you, was adored by everyone at the table in short order, and he didn’t let it slip until almost the end of dessert when he revealed he’d spent 18 months in a German concentration camp at the close of World War II. He wasn’t bitter, resentful, or “Why me?” He was thankful for the God who had then given this priest a life of meaning. He was a complete stranger in our midst. As he stood and blessed the merriment, you could hardly breathe. His thankfulness was stunning. “Lad … just a half,” he said as he reached his glass as he sat down to applause. The Father got a full.
“Miss Zella” Armstrong was far and away one of Chattanooga’s most revered citizens when one year she was seated next to “Mr. John” Chambliss, the father of Reflection Riding. “Miss Zella” visited us a lot and, nearly 90 a long time ago, she had her perch in our living room’s softest chair and would order any one of the children, “Dear, fetch me a refreshment.” Well, with six of us kids living in the house there were any number of chums over every day and we would tell the bewildered, “get a wine glass” and we’d pour her a sherry from the hall closest. “Dear, I’ve loved you from the day you were born,” which all the kids thought was uproariously funny because they wouldn’t recognize the old biddy in a dictionary.
So, one year we’re gathered up to count our blessings and “Miss Zella” suddenly shrieks with a whoop. “My God, is that a Chinaman across there!” Trust me, the whole house erupted in gales of uncontrollable laughter and a visiting Japanese scientist who was at Chattem, bolted from his seat next to Mother, rushed around the table and, flush with the joy of the moment, kissed her right on the lips. Miss Zella didn’t skip a beat. “Well, my God, that was worth it!” About three people fell out of their chairs.
We had some famous people. My parents were strict that we children must never brag who were our guests in those 20 years of unmitigated wonder and joy but there was a governor, an astronaut, an ‘outed’ lesbian (whose inner peace was a testament), several notable felons, a bunch of recent male and female divorces, more than six whose significant other had passed within six months, and a handful of visiting professors from UTC, Covenant and Sewanee. Seriously, around 60 was the average crowd. My best friend was Bobby Caldwell. His family celebrated the day at noon every year so for two decades he was the official “greeter.” He insisted it was better than any prime-time TV show and, no, few noticed his napkin-wrapped glass at the front door.
There were two or three years when more people showed up than expected. That was when us children would password, “Family don’t eat.” As our guests would leave, the wizards in the kitchen would slow-fry hamburgers, gleaning what few leftovers they could find, and the family would finally eat at one end of the tables, all marveling at the collection that had just passed our way. These times, looking back with a 20/20 view, were the richest I think.
It has been wisely noted that “Such memories are the roses of winter.” This Thanksgiving will be different, won’t it? From whatever view you may behold, kindly remember the happiest days are not gone, they are only ‘on hold’ next week. I am as confident they will return as I am that someday there will be A Great Reunion in the sky. Our vaccine from this pandemic is on its way. “Where two or more are gathered so am I” We have not been deserted, not been forgotten, nor been forsaken. If you read this you are still among us, and let’s give thanks for the gentle but sure hand that’s led us each this far.
Would you mind passing the hominy?