‘Tis one of my favorite holidays: Thanksgiving.
I am, in general, a lover of autumn, probably due to my allergy to grass pollens (which, thankfully, are things of the past and future but not the present in the fall), but also because I’ve always considered Thanksgiving one of the nation’s best holidays.
It’s difficult in this nation of ours to get away from crass commercialization, but the idea behind Thanksgiving is, well, just being kind. We should, at this season, be thankful for what we’ve got. No need to buy gifts for anyone or engage in other frantic activities. Just—provided we’re lucky enough, of course—settle down with relatives and friends and enjoy some great food and, we can all hope, some great fellowship.
As a kid, Thanksgiving was a pretty big deal. Not only did we get two entire days off school, but we were all able to get together at my grandparents’ or at an uncle or aunt’s or even at our house to enjoy a meal of quite amazing proportions. While the dinner location was shared around the family, I most remember the ones we had at my grandparents’ house, especially the dinners out on the farm before they retired to town.
Some years ago, I remember reading a blog post by someone or another complaining that those tales of Thanksgiving tables groaning under loads of food were just that—tales. Most families, this person wrote, had Thanksgivings nothing like that. And not only that, but the blogger pointed to the fiction behind Norman Rockwell’s famed painting, one of his “Four Freedoms” series, titled “Freedom from Want,” which the writer derided as obvious fiction depicting an era that never existed.
As I was growing up, Norman Rockwell was, hands down, my favorite artist, with the possible exception of the guy who drew the “Prince Valiant” comic strips I eagerly read in each week’s Sunday Chicago American.
I sort of dimly recalled the “Freedom from Want” painting, along with its three companions (“Freedom from Fear,” “Freedom of Religion,” “Freedom of Speech”), and since we have this great Internet thingy, I looked it up to refresh my memory. Turns out Rockwell painted it, and its three brethren, in 1943 as both wartime propaganda and to illustrate, for the Saturday Evening Post, aspects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech laying out those same four freedoms.
When I saw the image I, of course, immediately recognized it and the other three in the series. You see them often, although not usually together, to illustrate this or that aspect of American culture. But as I really looked at “Freedom from Want,” it occurred to me that, far from depicting some sort of fictional incident of overwhelming gastronomy, Rockwell’s dining room table seemed pretty thin on the ground compared to the ones my family set.
Granted, there’s the big roasted turkey being proudly placed on the table, but the side dishes seem awfully scarce. Of course you have to take into account the painting depicts a wartime table, with all the shortages and rationing that was going on then.
But my family were mostly farmers and even during World War II there was plenty of food harvested from gardens and orchards and raised in the cattle yard, the hog houses, and the chicken house. So on one of our post-war Thanksgiving tables would be turkey, but also, sometimes pheasant that one or another family member had taken while hunting; mashed potatoes; stuffing ; gravy—generally two boats, one with and one without giblets; homemade bread with homemade butter; spiced apples; sweet corn; green beans; squash; sweet potatoes; Jell-O molds filled with all manner of things from pineapple to grated carrots; Waldorf salad; and loads of relishes including the eagerly sought-after ripe olives, to which all us kids were addicted. Dessert was always at least two kinds of pie, the constant being pumpkin with apple, cherry, peach, and others as the whim took the bakers.
After dinner, the men repaired to the living room where most quickly fell asleep as us kids first helped clear the table and then either listened to ancient records (including old party records like “Lavinsky at the Wedding”) on the wind-up Victrola in the dining room or engaged in a variety of apparently extinct games including “Hide the Thimble” and “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?”
Some, mostly city folks I suspect, deride Thanksgiving as a celebration of American excess. But those of us with farm roots know it was a celebration of both work largely done and a harvest brought home buoyed by thankful feelings that another farming year was nearly complete with no serious accidents or injuries. And while we definitely weren’t rolling in cash, there was that Rockwell-like feeling of thankfulness for what we did have, for the good fellowship, and that we were surrounded by the comfortable embrace of our extended family.
These days, farmers are a tiny minority of the nation’s population. While you might see lots of what look like farmsteads as you drive through the countryside, most of those farm houses are rented to non-farmers, with the land being rented to someone else entirely. The days when it was possible to make a living on 180 acres is long gone, and all those giant consolidated farms mean the industry simply doesn’t need as many folks to do the work. But those days are still alive, in a fashion, because there are a few of us around to recall them. It’s an era that I still relive at least once a year around Thanksgiving time.