Bonnie Brown: Thanksgiving is All About the Food, Tradition

Thanksgiving is all about food, family, football, and traditions. Not unlike the Pilgrims in 1621 at Plymouth Rock, we feast. And that’s where the traditions enter into this holiday.

In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation and called upon Americans to express thanks for the conclusion of the country’s war for independence. Presidents John Adams and James Madison also designated days of “thanksgiving” during their presidencies. But it wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. This was in response to Sarah Josepha Hale (author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) who published editorials and wrote scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents, and other politicians for 36 years to establish the holiday now known as Thanksgiving.

Traditions vary from region to region across the country. If you are from the South, you likely enjoy cornbread dressing. If you are from somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line, it will be bread stuffing with various additives—oysters, sausage, etc. If you are in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, your turkey may have a cumin and ancho chili paste rub and be served with cayenne-laced gravy. If you are in California, you have bread stuffing but it’s made with sourdough bread! And instead of green beans, you’ll be eating Brussels sprouts.

My husband Tom, sons Dennis and Jeffrey, and I would travel to Ohio to spend Thanksgiving with my mother, brothers, and their families nearly every year. Mom would make the bread stuffing, cranberry salad and some other side dishes and we’d go to my brother’s house. There, we would find not only turkey but ham and so many other dishes. One that I especially loved was the potato salad—my brother Fred makes the best!

My Mississippi-born husband was faced with a cultural shift in the form of bread stuffing. It contains bread, sautéed onion and celery, and butter, flavored with salt, pepper, milk, and sage. Very simple, and yet I haven’t been successful in making it taste like my Mom’s. It’s what I grew up with, so of course I love it. So my Southern-born, cornbread dressing eating husband was faced with different food options and I suspect he was secretly snarfing down antacids throughout the visit.

When I was young, I remember Thanksgiving morning started very early. My mother and dad were up early to wrestle the turkey into the electric roaster. This roaster was the size of a Volkswagen, and the turkey was huge. The roaster was necessary to free up the oven for all the other dishes and desserts. There was stuffing along with cranberry salad, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, etc., etc. The grandparents came to our house. My grandfather Ashton Rudd called my mother’s bread stuffing “wadding” and would eat mounds of it!

Nowadays, our Thanksgiving feast doesn’t start quite as early. Tom and I collaborate on the cornbread dressing. He’s the chef and I’m the sous chef. I bake the cornbread, boil the eggs, chop the onions, and pour the chicken broth in as directed. Tom is the mixer of this collaboration and dictates the amount of sage and spices to add. He is, after all, the Southerner and naturally knows these things. And the result is delicious!

I’m not certain that the tryptophan in the turkey is solely responsible for the nap that follows such a large meal. I think it’s a combination of anticipating the festivities of the day—busy morning spent cooking and baking, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, dialing in to football games, and the simple fact of over-eating. But naps are a certainty. And there have been lots of laughter about the snoring that ensues. Tom’s Uncle George declared that he only “rested his eyes” and certainly wasn’t snoring. This hypothesis was tested when one of our sons brought out a video recorder to capture snoring that would rattle the rafters!

One year, my mother-in-law Valda Brown and I decided that we wanted a break from all the cooking and preparation. So we made the decision that we would all go to the Holiday Inn (located where The Graduate is) for our mid-day Thanksgiving spread. It was wonderful! The dressing was tasty, the turkey was moist, the desserts were fabulous and the service was great. We went home happy and took a nap. However, when it was time for our evening meal, alas there were no leftovers! Obviously, we hadn’t thought this through. Not even a slice of pumpkin pie, which is always the last to be eaten at our house.

Whatever your traditions, take a minute to give thanks, to be in harmony with your family, to be mindful of your many blessings. We have so many reasons to be grateful—especially for the leftovers! Regardless of your traditions, make sure you practice an attitude of gratitude, not just at Thanksgiving, but every day.


Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

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