Sharing Our Holiday Food Traditions: Nicholas Family Thanksgiving
Written by Meg Nicholas
When I was little, the late fall season – stretching just past Halloween and going through November – was quite the exciting time for my circle of friends. They were all looking forward to the holidays. And, by the holidays, I mean Christmas. And, by Christmas, I mean they were looking forward to getting presents. I was the odd-woman-out, in many ways, as my excitement was geared towards the special day that fell between the candy explosion bookends that are Halloween and Christmas. I looked forward to Thanksgiving with an excitement that couldn’t be contained and, for some, couldn’t be understood. For the Nicholas Family, it was the One Big Holiday that got the most of us together in one place, at one time.
“I don’t know how it started, or when, or even if it was a purposeful move. All I know is, for most of my life, the Nicholas Family pie committee was co-chaired by Uncle Dan and Uncle John.”
My family has never been particularly high on the scale of annual household income. I know now that some of those earlier years were pretty lean but, growing up, none of us kids really knew. After all, we had our main needs met. We had clothes and shoes that fit, even if they weren’t what all the “cool kids” were wearing. We had food on our plates – nothing fancy, and much of it processed and not the healthiest, but it was what we could afford, and it gave us energy to go to school, or run and play outside. At the end of the day, we didn’t know we didn’t have as much as everyone else, because we focused on the one thing we knew we had…a family that loved us.
That environment of love and connection, more than anything else, is what made Thanksgiving a day to look forward to. It was the day all the uncles and aunts would be together, rehashing tales of their youthful adventures. It was a chance to laugh and play with all my cousins. And, of course, it was a day filled with delicious food. Thanksgiving was the one time of year when everyone at the table had plenty to eat, and there was enough for everyone to take food home for the next few days. It was a blessing to be able to eat turkey and potatoes and carrots and green beans, instead of the SPAM or Kraft macaroni we often had to make do with.
Thanksgiving prep in a Nicholas house was always a communal effort. Everyone gathered at one house, and one person would be the overseer of the turkey preparation, but everything else was handled by whoever happened to be at hand. One aunt would see to the sweet potatoes, another the regular mashed potatoes. Aunt Roni was never entrusted to any important task, like ham or turkey, but instead was encouraged to make a fruit salad. Mom was usually in charge of the green bean casserole, as well as the all-important deviled eggs.
Kids would be set to work, peeling potatoes or opening cans of mushroom soup, or placing marshmallows on dishes. A constant buzz of conversation filled the kitchen, spanning several generations and bouncing from topic to topic so fast outsiders who happened to stop by had trouble following it. The aunts maintained a careful watch around the hot oven and stovetop, lest little helpful hands stray too close to its hot surfaces. The uncles would drift through the kitchen, thinking their thefts of deviled eggs went unnoticed in the hustle and bustle, never realizing that my mother always made two platters of them, and purposely put the smaller one in the front of the refrigerator for their convenience.
Everyone was welcome in the kitchen. The making of the Thanksgiving meal had no restrictions based on age or gender, except for one. The men of the Nicholas family made the pies.
I don’t know how it started, or when, or even if it was a purposeful move. All I know is, for most of my life, the Nicholas Family pie committee was co-chaired by Uncle Dan and Uncle John. They even had specialties. Uncle John preferred to work with the thicker pumpkin and occasional sweet potato pies. Uncle Dan was known for his cherry and apple. They were things of beauty – apples, delicately peeled and heartily sliced. Cherries, sweet and tart at the same time, bubbled in gooey juice under handmade crusts. Fresh pumpkin was pureed, expertly mixed with spices, and cooked to perfection. There were special tables for the pies, set off to the side in lower traffic areas, so we could be reasonably sure nothing would happen to them before dessert.
This is not to say, of course, that you were excluded from pie-making if you happened to be female. My sister and I and our cousins learned the fine art of baking, as well. It was just that Thanksgiving was the time for the men to put their hands to work rolling out crusts and pouring fruit and sugar into pie plates. Over the years, as the family has spread further, making larger Thanksgiving gatherings next to impossible, my sister and I have taken over the responsibility of making the desserts. Now, I spend the night before Thanksgiving cutting apples and tossing together cinnamon and nutmeg, and the early hours of the morning popping my pie dishes in the oven…but always, in my heart of hearts, I miss those memories of a table filled my uncles’ pies.
Two years ago, my boyfriend excitedly volunteered to make a pecan pie for the first Thanksgiving he would share with my family. I didn’t ask him to. I hadn’t even shared that particular tradition with him yet. So, when he came to me with his plans, I blinked back nostalgic tears and nodded, trying to ignore the lump in my throat. My uncles wouldn’t be with us that year. They were far away, in Montana and Germany and the mountains of Southern Virginia, and my father had long ago lost much of the strength and dexterity in his hands. But here was a man – a new addition to the group – taking on their holiday responsibility with gusto.
Memories are often tied to our senses – particularly to taste and smell – so it seems only natural for all those pleasant memories of Thanksgivings past to be tied so completely to food. Indeed, most of the stories my family tells of holidays gone by revolve around the food that was served. In particular, we recount tales about the disasters: the year Aunt Roni was tasked with bringing the ham, and she stopped at the deli counter on the way to the house and picked up a small package of thinly sliced sandwich meat. The time Uncle Dan put the pies in to bake, not realizing it was set on broil. The top crust of the cherry pie burned, but we pulled it off and ate the pie anyway. The year my cousin Kwana was handed a container full of deviled eggs while she was standing at the sink and she, unthinkingly, put them in the basin with the dirty dish water. The first Thanksgiving when my cousin, Maya, was in charge of making the turkey, and forgot about the second bag of innards until after the bird was cooked.
Of course, none of those things ever ruined the festivity of the day. We laughed about them, scraped burnt marshmallows off the top of our sweet potatoes, stuck undercooked turkeys back in the oven for a little while longer, and reveled in the opportunity to be together. To this day, I remember sitting at the table beside family members (there was no such thing as a “kids’ table” at a Nicholas Family Thanksgiving), holding hands and bowing heads as someone – usually my father – gave the blessing over the meal. The one year I wasn’t able to gather with family on Thanksgiving, due to work, my mother called and put me on speaker phone as one of my cousins offered the blessing. I stood out on the porch, in the cold, as my family shared their love with me from a home miles away.
Years have passed, and it has been a while since the whole family could get together like we did back in the day. We’ve lost some aunts and uncles, and jobs have scattered some of the rest. The cousins have grown up, had families of their own, and my generation has taken on the responsibility of cooking the turkey, supervising the kids around hot surfaces, and sneaking the deviled eggs out of the refrigerator. The hands putting together the days feast have changed, but the love that infuses all of the food is still there.