Best of all, the delectable taste of tradition

‘Now, although all the cooks except for me are gone, I continue to have an inner compulsion to make it all happen again every year, just as it was when we were all together’

I didn't have a grandmother who lived ''over the river and through the woods,'' as the song says, but in my mind Thanksgiving was indeed a cornucopia of country good stuff.

Long before I understood the culinary artistry of my grandmother's and mother's simple but elegant cooking, I understood the spirit of the event and danced with anticipation of the visiting, eating, smelling of good things, conversation with people of all ages about all sorts of things, and endless football. For many years, we visited old family friends in the country from our suburban home and Grandma's urban one.

I remember those times as really exciting, from the year I put my first penny on the railroad tracks to be flattened and shining when it was retrieved, to our first taste of wild turkey harvested by our friends' dad, to the year my brother fell in the pool.

He was about 5, and I still don't know exactly what he was thinking, but in he went with his little bow tie. Three grown men dove in after him, also fully clothed. He emerged sheepish, wet, bow tie intact, and hungry for turkey.

* * *

Whether at home or away, my grandmother, the matriarch of our family with no living grandfathers, was central to the feast and the festivities.

When we were away, my grandmother was just as involved in the kitchen the night before as if she were hosting the meal. She whipped up her famous butterhorn dinner rolls that surely contained several pounds of butter. And she could be counted on for mince and pumpkin and apple pies, creamy pearl onions with just a hint of bay and cloves, and cranberry jelly from scratch, formed in a shiny copper mold that always provided a thrill as it slithered out: a perfectly formed heart.

We arrived with baskets and boxes and bags crammed with goodies.

At home, we made the whole groaning board that included a large, juicy bird with herbed stuffing, moist and fluffy and oozing with flavor; a giant cloud of real whipped potatoes; savory orange whipped sweet potatoes for pizzazz; mashed turnips or rutabagas with just that touch of sugar and an egg at the end, dripping with butter; coleslaw made from scratch, and a green bean casserole. Of course, with onion rings.

* * *

It was too much, of course, but it was our tradition. And now, although all the cooks except for me are gone, I continue to have an inner compulsion to make it all happen again every year, just as it was when we were all together.

Thanks to my grandmother's annually tying a large bib apron - green-and-white pinstripes that fell to my ankles even when it was doubled over - around me each year to help her, I know how to do that.

I still remember the first time Gram gave me the job of sewing “the bird'' closed after it was stuffed - literally with a sewing needle and thread. Perhaps we were dallying on the verge of dread disease, but I don't think so. What was yucky - and still is - was the squish and push into the slimy bird skin.

And they knew it, too, my mom and Gram. They understood the slimy stuff and the huge work of the whole maxi-meal, but they did it, again and again. I guess for the love of tradition, and us.

And the bird was king on Thanksgiving. We washed it and poked at it and patted it and wrapped it in a towel and lovingly dotted it with butter.

And while it was cooking, we bent over it and stared at it, got someone to help hold the giant roasting pan, and bathed it in its own juices. We did everything but sing to that bird.

* * *

Little did I know as we paid such homage to food, that my mother and grandmother were passing on to me a host of not only food memories, but kitchen and home attitudes, a scattering of recipes, and a few - too few - times to remember of the three of us together in the heart of home.

Out of the kitchen, it was the table presentation that sang to me a Thanksgiving siren song not unlike the tune that Martha Stewart must hear.

First came the heavy, pale-mint-and-cream linen tablecloth that dated to my great-great-grandparents' time. Then the matching napkins, large enough to practically blanket us kids.

Then my mother would unzip the plate keepers and drag out the box of sterling silver, setting me to polish them and the gravy boat, creamer, and sugar bowl.

When the Limoges china, porcelain fine as a baby's skin, was brought out, even my little Blue Willow pattern tea party dishes paled in comparison as I beheld the delicate pink floral pattern so carefully placed on the white background.

Having belonged to my great-great-grandmother and probably hers before, the china set, then and now, was of the old school of dining and entertaining, with separate butter plates about the size of a half dollar, gracefully shaped soup bowls with lids, and a large butter dish with holes in the bottom for ice and also with a lid. Every serving dish seemed to have a lid.

The silver collection also held odd and interesting pieces.

Fascinated as I was by the different sized forks and knives, it was an olive fork that captivated my brother and me.

It had a mechanism much like a Pez candy dispenser that would eject the olive delicately onto the plate instead of stabbing around for it with a fork, and we managed to spear every olive - which we didn't even like the taste of - in the dish at least once before the meal started.

There were ladles of all sizes, cranberry servers, sugar spoons, serving spoons - all with various family monograms and delightfully detailed designs.

Of course, once we had every food imaginable cooked or cooled, and every pot and pan in the kitchen filled, and every piece of Limoges we could still figure out how to use placed, we sat down to say grace.

That brings memories, too, such as the year my brother, even younger than the year he went swimming, bowed his head, clasped his hands and, after a considerable silence said, “Grace.”

That was also the year he tied my uncle's shoelaces together under the table.

* * *

This year, it will be a different Thanksgiving, as they all are. Especially now that I celebrate alone or with a friend, no family in sight.

Maybe I won't use the Limoges. Maybe I won't bake as many pies.

But I'll still pour a cup of sugar into a pound of fresh cranberries and look for that old, green-handled sieve and pour the liquid into the heart mold.

I may have a fresh-killed, home-grown turkey, and I'll think about what a kick my grandmother would get if she knew I once met the man who raised it.

I'll probably make a few creamed pearl onions to remember Uncle Joe, and the rutabagas in Dad's memory and the cole slaw for Gram's, and the stuffing for Mom's.

And when I sit to eat, I'll hear my Dad's voice in my mind saying, “What a lot of work,” as he ladles gravy onto his plate with a big smile.