I can remember pulling onto my grandparents’ farm about 15 miles west of Council Grove, Kansas on Thanksgiving Day in the backseat of my dad’s 1969 Delta 88 Oldsmobile. The dirt roads that led there were—and still are—rutted from the wagons that rolled along that portion of the 900 miles of Great Plains that connected Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the early part of the 18th century.
Grandma would have several pies cooling on her modest sideboard. The other cousins would invariably beat us there, as they all were locals, and we were coming from St. Louis. These were my mom’s “people.” (That’s how people described their side of the family in those days.) They were hard people to whom life had not always been gentle. They were farmers. The story goes that an American Indian woman was laid to rest along the Santa Fe Trail in an area that would become my grandparents’ front yard. The house was built around a preexisting stone wall that was said to have been a barrier from behind which the Kaws or Kansa Indians—part of the Sioux tribe—fought.
I relished Grandpa’s stories of the history of that part of Kansas. But I loved Thanksgiving even more. I guess we all do. It’s the one holiday specifically set aside for eating and being thankful. What’s not to love?
Most of the people who were sitting on the porch swing or around Grandma’s table or even working in the fields as we arrived are gone now. But the memories will serve me all of my life—exploring long-deserted farm houses, unsupervised horseback riding, hours of “Candy Land” and of course aggravating Grandma just enough to provoke the threat of a spanking.
Indeed Thanksgiving is precious to Americans. The uniquely American holiday finds its roots in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is widely considered the first Thanksgiving in the colonies.
But Americans would wait another 242 years—in the midst of the Civil War—for President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. That’s ok. We’re persistent folk. We don’t abandon food and thankfulness lightly. And oh boy, have we come up with some amazing traditions and filed some fascinating memories of our own for American’s second favorite holiday.
“There’s always the story of Mama Prinkey’s multiple potato dishes at Thanksgiving—mashed, potato salad, twice-baked, sweet taters,” said Kelly Prinkey-Krupinski of her late mother’s propensity to cover all of the potato bases on Thanksgiving. “This was even mentioned in her eulogy: Jullie Prinkey, lovingly known as “Big Momma,” loved having all her kids together at the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, for which she was known to create potato overload since she insisted on making multiple types. She always wanted to include all of our favorites.”
“Yeah, I kind of thought that’s how everyone did it,” said Prinkey-Krupinski’s only sister, Kira Rogge, in response, who added that the family’s ice tea was always made in a big pot on the stove. “I would eat every kind too.”
“She was called ‘Big Mama’ because she always took in every human stray that was a friend of one of us without question,” Richard Prinkey recalled of his mother.
The Prinkey children would celebrate in many different places across the United States as they grew up. And all four would come to settle in St. Charles County, Missouri, the last of their parent’s moves.
“We moved nine times and lived in seven different states before I was 15,” Richard Prinkey said.
The Prinkey kids find humor in the youngest brother’s birthplace. “Only Tim Prinkey could be born in Amityville, New York and live to tell about it,” Richard Prinkey said.
Still, no matter who’s doing the telling, Americans are bound by their Thanksgiving traditions and memories, even the ones that weren’t spent at home.
Charles Norris served his country in the U.S. Navy from 1986 through 2006, and some of those years allowed him to see holidays through a different lens. “Throughout my Navy career, holidays were different for us,” Norris said. “It was one of the few times when senior leadership served a meal to the junior personnel. They would thank us for all the hard work, long hours and general nonsense we put up with. But it was also the time that we realized each of us were family. I have been retired for 13 years and am still closer to some of those men and women than I am my blood family.”
Today Norris spends his the holidays with that blood family, but still cherishes times spent with his shipmates. “I appreciate any time with my family, especially holidays,” he said. “Being away for a large part of my life gives me a unique perspective on things, holidays, family, politics, etc. The food is better for sure. Not having to worry about getting a call to run ‘back to work’ is always good. But honestly military life suited me very well. I missed family but had my new family and we shared good times as well. I was able to see others traditions and share mine with them. I think that was the most amazing part. For all our differences, holidays were spent in very similar manners. Getting to talk with my shipmates and see memories flood back while they shared stories was a great thing to partake in. I think that’s what makes us so close. We have the same hardships and experiences now. We have been away from family and have to rely on each other. But that is why many of us, myself included, struggle after we get out. I love my friends but have very little in common with them. What they see as life or death, I see as trivial because I have lived and seen so much more of the world. Veterans don’t expect anything to be given to them, but what we know has been learned under arduous conditions and had far larger implications.”
Kurt Varvaris recalls his own dad’s stories of Thanksgiving in the service. “My dad was in the Air Force and stationed in Vermont in the 1950’s,” he said. “He was a cook and tasked with cooking an impossible amount of turkeys for Thanksgiving. He was promised leave if he could manage the task. He not only pulled it off by boiling all the birds, but was complimented on how juicy they were.”
Varvaris said his late father, James Varvaris, didn’t cook at home. “Thanksgiving was always a day for my dad to be in a duck blind shooting ducks,” he said. A fireman for the St. Louis City Fire Department in St. Louis, Missouri, the elder Varvaris took November off for duck season.
By Thanksgiving, Kelly James Archer’s dad has already begun drawing—yes drawing—his Christmas cards. A former policeman, the 76-year-old has drawn the family Christmas cards for years. “He has always drawn or painted as long as I can remember,” Archer said. “He took us to art classes when we were children so we could also enjoy something that meant so much to him. He decided back when he retired to draw a few cards for family thinking no one would even give them a second thought. As the years went by and he missed a year, we all asked where our card was. He then realized they actually meant something to his family and even a few friends. He said he decided to start giving these because he wanted to give something that was made with love and something that took a little time to create, not something from a retail store that took 2 minutes to decide on—that the true meaning of the holidays should be about family getting together and the treasured memories of things that last.”
For Angela Inman Liuzza, Thanksgiving is just that—a time to give thanks. “Every year before we eat dinner we go around the room and everyone says what they are thankful for.”
Having raised and homeschooled six children, Carita Crain knows a few tricks to get things done on Thanksgiving and all year long. “Every time we get a bunch of us together for a meal, we all help doing the dishes,” she said. “I start it out and choose a couple of others to help me. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and when it rings, we walk away. The next shift comes in and does the same—10 minutes and then walk away. One of my sons is the ‘closer’ because he always makes sure everything is wiped down and put away. This works for our family because who wants to spend an hour doing dishes when everyone else is sitting in the other room visiting? There is usually someone who gets out of helping, but we try to include everyone, from the two-year-old on up.”
Shannon Lokke Nelson says her mother’s Thanksgiving is just a precursor to the true greatest holiday, Christmas. “My Mom is the Christmas Queen. Thanksgiving is merely the official beginning of the Christmas Season, when she can finally be unleashed,” Nelson quipped. “The day after Thanksgiving isn’t for shopping, it’s for decorating. Friday is ‘Village Day,’ unless somebody had the nerve to not get off work, then perhaps it will be Saturday. Village Day is the construction of what once was a figurine Christmas village, which has grown to a major metropolitan area over the years. Uncle Shawn is always ‘the electrician,’ making sure all the lights work correctly. The youngest grandchildren anticipate Village Day with excitement, and nothing makes Grandma Sheila happier. There is a polar bear in the village, and the oldest grandchildren began to make a game of hiding the polar bear from each other. Even if they missed each other at Grandma’s, they’d hide it for the others to find next time they were there.”
The mother of three boys and a girl and grandmother to two grandsons, Tammy Dennigmann said a military wife in Fort Riley, Kansas taught her how to make the juiciest turkey. “Every year I put my turkey in the oven upside down the night before after midnight, and cook it on 250 degrees. Then in the morning I flip it over to brown. When the turkey is upside down, it makes the breast juicy.”
Then there are those, who through their Thanksgiving experiences, learned what not to do on turkey day. “Our family is brutal in cooking the dinner,” said Vicki Camenzid Smith. “If you show up with something not homemade, you will never ever live it down. My niece showed up with a box of Stovetop Stuffing uncooked 25 years ago, and every year we say who cannot bring what. She is never allowed to be on stuffing again.”
Apparently Thanksgiving blunders die hard. “My Aunt Nellie, as she got older, started her baked beans early, getting mixed up on the date,” Karen Sue Osborne said. “When Thanksgiving finally got here, the beans were dry and extremely well done. We all ate a spoonful because we loved her. But to this day, we overcook the beans in her memory.”
Joseph Godier had one tip that was born of a memory he’d rather forget. He refers to it as “the incident. I just know never deep fry a frozen turkey. At best you won’t come away with hair on any part of your body.”
Roger D. Burns said his Thanksgivings were two-day affairs growing up. The former Army Ranger spent part of his childhood on a Ropp Dairy Farm in Normal, Illinois. “In the 1970s living on a farm, we did the norm of the family thing Thanksgiving day, but the day after, we had another Thanksgiving of leftovers and whatever game we had in the freezer. Everyone would come very early. The men would hunt pheasant, the women would cook, and the kids would sleigh ride.”
Karen Townsend’s late father could have rivaled “The Old Man Parker” played by Darren McGavin in “A Christmas Story” at Thanksgiving. Remember Ralphie as an adult describing his father: “Now it is well known throughout the Midwest that the old man is a turkey junkie.” And his mother when she suspects Old Man Parker is sampling her bird: “You stay away from that turkey. lt’s got an hour to cook. You’ll get worms.”
“Ours was pretty much the traditional stuff. In my younger years we always went to my Aunt Annie’s house. Her and my Grandma would be in the kitchen bickering at each other over who cooked what and how. The men would be on the couch watching football, the women at the table sharing stories, and all us kids back in the bedrooms playing,” Townsend said. “I miss those get together. In later years, it was always chasing my dad out of the kitchen. He would taste everything, especially the turkey when it came out for basting, even if it wasn’t cooked. Mom would whack his hands and often had to yell at him to keep from cutting his fingers off with the electric knife. He never could wait. One of my favorite pictures was in 1997 when we lived in a rental house in Conroe, Texas. I had made dinner and before we could set down to eat, Dad had his hands reaching for the food. Then there was the year Mom cooked a 14-pound turkey for 10 hours, and it still was raw. It was then we found out that the wall oven had gone out. We ate the sides and a ham that had been brought.”