I don't know about you...maybe your favorite Thanksgiving dish is pumpkin pie, chestnut stuffing, green bean casserole even a cranberry and orange jello mold. Mine? It was always Auntie Dorothy's celery! This story was first published in 2010 in Thanksgiving Tales: True Stories of the Holiday in America.
Spellbound by Swanky Swigs
By Terri Elders
This past November I laid in a good supply of cheese spreads…for stuffing celery for Thanksgiving dinner, of course. My grocer still stocks those little Kraft jars with the savory olive pimiento and roka blue flavors I’ve always loved, but I regret that now they’re sold in plain little glass jars, not the glamorous red tulip or blue cornflower juice glasses of my girlhood. Even so, I could hardly wait to get the jars home and once again sample my favorite canapé.
Of course, if they were still around, Grandma and Mama probably would laugh at my nostalgia, just as they laughed at those glasses in their l940s heyday, and at Auntie Dorothy who always toted them to our holiday feast. Even as a girl I realized that when it came to holiday dinners, my female forbears were culinary elitists with rigid ideas about appropriate bills of fare. Cheese-stuffed celery, in their view, was just plain cheesy. And Grandma and Mama could be downright catty.
Looking back, it seems as if every year as soon as we set aside the candy corn and jack-o'-lanterns, Grandma and Mama would huddle in the kitchen to conduct their annual Thanksgiving dinner debate.
One year when I was twelve, the awkward age, too old for toys, too young for boys, I joined the women in the kitchen, volunteering to peel potatoes or shell peas. I had seen Grandma pull her writing tablet and yellow pencil out of her purse, and knew that the confab was about to begin. The two would bicker and banter on the venue and the menu…and then get down to the real family gossip as they discussed who would bring what. I didn’t want to miss a word.
“We’ll do it again at my house, since I have the larger dining room,” Grandma began.
“But our house is so much more accessible,” Mama countered.
“I have a kitchen table for the children,” Grandma parried.
I smiled to myself. Grandma always won this argument. Never in my memory had the family gathered elsewhere, but Mama always felt obligated to put in her pitch. I’d overheard her tell Daddy she didn’t know how she’d accommodate everybody if Grandma ever actually gave in.
“I’ve been thinking about the menu. Maybe a ham would be nice this year,” Mama ventured, winking at me. I knew she loved to tease Grandma.
“Oh, Mama, that sounds wonderful, and with pineapple garnishes!” I chimed in, conspiratorially.
“For heaven’s sake, it’s Thanksgiving. We’ll have turkey just as we always do,” Grandma folded her arms and stared at the two us as if we’d both lost our senses.
Mama nodded. “OK, I’ll bake the pumpkin pies.”
“And I’ll make lemon meringue, since you know that the boys don’t like pumpkin.”
Grandma tapped her pencil on the table. “Should we ask Joe and Julia if they’d do the sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes? Joe always eats three times more potatoes than everybody else put together, so maybe if they’re in charge they’ll bring enough to go around.”
Mama and I grinned. Burly Uncle Joe could be counted on to ensure there’d be no leftover spuds. When he’d ask for his fourth helping, Aunt Julia would pass him the bowl with a big smile, proud of her trencherman spouse.
“And what about Teddy?” Mama loved her bachelor stepbrother, but knew he couldn’t cook worth a whit.
“Let’s ask him to bring some wine,” Grandma said, gnawing on her pencil. “He makes plenty of dough, so maybe we should suggest champagne.”
Mama brightened. I don’t think I’d ever seen champagne at a family feast, and I don’t recall Mama and Daddy having any even on New Year’s Eve.
“Poor Opal can bring the green bean casserole,” Grandma continued. I perked up, waiting for more information. It was true that Auntie Opal always looked pale and tired, but I wasn’t certain why.
“Well, the way Jim drinks, Opal has to look after the house, the jewelry shop and raise those kids practically on her own. It’ll be a wonder if she finds the energy to open a can of onion rings,” Mama observed.
Grandma stared at her tablet and scribbled a few words. “I’ll do the turkey, stuffing and gravy, and you can make some rolls. I guess Dorothy will bring the celery,” Grandma said, looking up. “And she’ll think she’s done something special when she brings that dreadful processed cheese in those dinky little glasses.”
Mama snickered, but I held my breath. I loved helping Auntie Dorothy stuff the celery, and adored the elegant flowered glasses she said were mine.
Mama sighed. “Just because she and Roy never had children is no reason for her not to learn to cook. She should be making decent suppers for her husband instead of expecting him to live on baked beans and bacon sandwiches.”
I set down my potato peeler and waited expectantly. I couldn’t imagine Daddy’s reaction if Mama put such a meal before him, but it sure sounded tasty to me.
“Roy has the patience of a saint,” Grandma said, shaking her head. “Imagine that woman off to the church every day to play the piano for choir practice, when she should be cleaning that little apartment.” I’d been to those practices with Auntie Dorothy. The choir even let me sing along, even though I knew I wasn’t quite on pitch.
On Thanksgiving we gathered at Grandma’s. Uncle Jim greeted us jovially, smelling of equal parts Old Spice and Old Crow. Uncle Joe huffed and puffed up the steps, a tub of potatoes tucked under each arm. When Auntie Dorothy arrived with her big brown bag, I hurried to her side.
“Can I help you get your celery ready?”
“Of course, and I’ve got another cheese glass for you, too.” I gaped, spellbound, as she pulled the latest acquisition to my collection out of the bag…a rare black tulip.
Today I open my kitchen cabinet and gaze at the miniature tumblers that I’ve treasured for over half a century: tulips, forget-me-nots, lilies of the valley, bachelor buttons, and my favorite, a light blue cornflower with emerald leaves.
When I checked recently on e-Bay I was astonished to learn that these days collectors call these humble glasses swanky swigs, and they’re highly regarded for their ornate decals. They now sell for what Grandma would have called a pretty penny. Why, one set of four blue tulips is listed for twenty bucks, and forget-me-nots go for at least eight dollars each.
I pull down the black tulip and hold it up to the sunlight. Not only can I recall the snap and crunch of Auntie Dorothy’s celery filled with pineapple cheese, I remember how Mama poured half an inch of Teddy’s bubbly into this very same tumbler, and I, feeling swanky indeed, had taken my first swig of champagne.
For supper tonight maybe I’ll fry up some bacon and open a can of beans, fill a few stalks of celery with roka blue. I’ll check the pantry for champagne so I can toast to the entire family that provided such memorable Thanksgiving dinners, including, especially, Auntie Dorothy.
(Here is the link for the story on Google, and you can also read it on Amazon with the "look inside" feature.)