By Tim Hayes
Of all the things I miss about Thanksgivings spent as a kid, few can be felt more keenly than going to my Aunt’s house with her family and mine sharing the bounteous feast together.
First off, I loved this Aunt. She was naturally funny, warm, expressive, and embracing. I always felt happy around her. She, along with my uncle and cousins, served as extensions of my own family, since we spent so much time at each other’s homes. Going out to their house on Thanksgiving – while it obviously fell on a special holiday – still felt familiar. Still felt comfortable and comforting. Maybe even more so.
My Aunt and her younger sister (my Mom) would spend most of the early afternoon in a delicate, elaborate, intricately choreographed culinary dance around the tiny kitchen, checking on the bird in the oven, whipping up mashed potatoes by hand, baking yams, heating up the stuffing and vegetables. When they rang the dinner bell, we knew something incredible awaited us.
Plus, you couldn’t ignore the tempting scents wafting throughout their modest-sized home while all of this food-prep amazement occurred. We ran to that dining room table salivating and slobbering.
After a prayer of thanksgiving (the best years happening when the adults forgot to make everybody say something they were thankful for individually, which only prolonged the wait to dig in), the food began making its rounds. So much, too much, turkey, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows crusted on top, mashed potatoes and gravy. Even green bean casserole with toasted onions – a dish you couldn’t get me within 10 feet of any other day of the year – tasted like heaven on Thanksgiving.
An hour later, we all sat zombie-like in a tryptophan-induced coma. In those pre-enlightenment days, the men (me included) waddled off into the TV room to stare incoherently at the Detroit Lions playing some team or other, while the ladies started clearing and cleaning.
Then, as darkness fell outside, another unbelievable smell started drifting out of my beloved Aunt’s kitchen. A mixture of really rich cake, some kind of fruit, brown sugar maybe, and gallons of melted butter. Not petrochemically induced margarine, but real butter. From milk. From cows. Like they had a hundred years ago.
Perhaps that’s what made this dish so distinct. It smelled like something out of a Dickens novel in old England. I learned later that it, indeed, had been part of a Dickens story – “A Christmas Carol” – when Mrs. Cratchit serves her impoverished family a marvelous holiday treat.
Plum pudding. Being steamed up in my Aunt’s little kitchen in Brentwood, PA.
She’d bring it out to us in cereal bowls, right there in the TV room, hot and sweet and spicy. Then she’d follow that up with huge dollops of “sauce” – which always struck me as Crisco infused with sugar or vanilla or something indescribably sweet and delicious – to mix and let melt over the mound of marvelousness. I never asked what the plum pudding or the accompanying sauce were made of, since the part of the brain inducing curiosity had shut down, turning complete control over to the pleasure center.
A website on plum pudding says that, during the Puritan reign in England, this dessert had been outlawed as “sinfully rich.” Damn straight, Puritans, you uptight sticks in the mud. If you want to sin richly, what better way than to shovel piles of steaming, sweet ecstasy down your throat every November?
This Thursday, I’ll sit down with my wife and family for another wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. Sharing food, thanks, and love. But at some point later that evening, I expect my mind will travel back to my Aunt’s house, where the sights and smells and tastes of Thanksgiving – and her incredible plum pudding – still live on.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes