By Betty Mills

The pervasive tradition of turkey as the main dish on Thanksgiving Day has a long history in this country and certainly was the required menu of my family in all my growing up years. There were frequently as many as 40 for dinner followed by a card game to see who did the dishes, but there was never any doubt that turkey would be the main menu offering.

So when my husband of three years said one November morning, “It’s our turn to have the family Thanksgiving dinner,” I should have kept my finger off the panic button. After all, there would only be eight at the dinner table, not 40.

But I had never cooked a turkey. I had moved from North Dakota to Washington, D. C. to San Francisco, California and back to North Dakota, but I had never cooked a turkey. In fact, if I had not been so bedazzled by the bridegroom, I should have amended my wedding vows to, “Love, honor, and learn to cook.”

Necessity being the mother of learning to cook along with all its other accomplishments, I did learn to cook. But Thanksgiving turkey? How big of a turkey? Who has a pan that big? And what do you put in stuffing? That was just for openers. As the pre-Thanksgiving days elapsed, the menu containing items I had never tackled expanded: mincemeat pie, candied sweet potatoes, watermelon pickles. The all-purpose cookbook I got for a wedding present was initiated into the first stage of being dog-earded.

The watermelon thing never made it on my menu ever, and mincemeat pie got subsequently scratched when that pie remained intact after the last guest departed. But my first venture onto the main cook seat for the family holiday was pronounced a great success—and my husband’s lifetime aversion to helping with the dishes remained intact.

With much more than half a century of family holidays notched in  the memory belt—or in some cases mercifully assigned to oblivion—the obvious delight and hazards of a so often repeated  exercise in family living merit more thoughtful consideration than I certainly gave it at the time.

It is during such events as Thanksgiving dinner that the traditions of the family hitherto unexpressed can suddenly surface. The son-in-law who wanted an oyster hotdish as part of the feast always made me want to do a sociological study of his family. He grew up in western North Dakota, not exactly a hotbed of oyster production.

My sister moved to Texas where they make the turkey stuffing out of cornmeal, if you can imagine such an insult to bread and onion and melted butter, and my children, who have taken over the family celebration, are considering abandoning turkey altogether, or at best, reducing it to just the breast.  

Really? Whither the dressing, considered by some the whole point of having turkey in the first place, and surely an insult to their family tradition since their grandmother could theoretically trace her family back to Richard Warren, a passenger on the Mayflower, who no doubt had a seat at that first Thanksgiving celebration which we theoretically are honoring?

But then, we don’t play cards to see who is on dish duty either. As a child it was one of my ambitions to be declared old enough to join that card game, and the first time I played I ended up in my aunt’s kitchen, the one with no running water and a mashed potato kettle that had been left unsoaked. It was probably my first introduction to the maxim that all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

Since my new menu evaluation is pretty simple—I like anything I don’t have to cook myself—and I am no longer in charge of Thanksgiving dinner; I have relegated the whole affair to the decisions of others. But as an exercise in nostalgia, I hereby give you my theoretically favorite Thanksgiving dinner menu.

There would be a whole turkey with bread dressing and gravy made from the pan drippings, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, green beans in a sauce lost to memory, cranberries cooked the day before, dinner rolls and chokecherry jelly, bread and butter pickles, and for dessert, pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Anyone who mentioned the word “diet” would be summarily excluded from the midnight raid on the leftovers.  

Here’s wishing you a happy Thanksgiving, whatever is on your menu.   

Betty Mills graduated with honors from Mary College in 1967 with a degree in social work. Her career has included motherhood and  leadership; Betty served on many local boards and councils.