The First Thanksgiving

(Performed Nov. 9-11, 2012  at the Soul Food Monologue Festival of Madison’s Forward Theater Company.)

The First Thanksgiving
By Jim Carrier

It’s a few days before Thanksgiving. My phone rings.
“Three hundred people? Yow! I’ll be right over.”
I’ve been volunteering at a food pantry. For the last couple of months, every Friday I’ve strapped on an apron and helped cook a meal for a crowd.
My job is prep chef. I chop buckets of onions, carve herds of meat, peel fields of vegetables. I open cases of No. 10 cans, stir pots big enough for cowboy baths, and sling around hot steel pans that would feed a family for a week.
When serving begins at 6 o’clock, I go home and open a beer. Five hours in a soup kitchen — I’m tired. But I’d had fun, done some good, and still the weekend lies ahead.
That call was from the pantry director. He needs to cook 25 turkeys. For three hundred people! He’s got one oven. He wonders if I can cook a couple at home. I drive over.
The place is in chaos. It’s an old warehouse. People are running around, stacking cans, bagging potatoes. There’s a hundred turkeys in the freezer. I put two in a pan, drive home and open my Joy of Cooking.
Joy is the only cookbook I’ve ever used. My Mom gave it to me when I left home. I remember when I was just a little kid, she opened that book and showed me how to make popovers. Simple, rising puffs of dough and egg and butter. I must have been ten years old, and ever since, I’ve loved to cook.
Thanks to Mom, and Joy, I’m a decent, seat-of-the-pants kind of cook. I like soups and stews, scalloped-potatoes-and-ham — those kinds of meals. What Joy gives me — beyond the recipes — is attitude. A reassurance that the world is full of edible stuff, and a man like me, without chef credentials, can feed himself and others.
Now, when I open Joy I check for ingredients, not the amounts. I just guess at those. I dash and shake and pour from my palm. My piece de resistance is Sunday hash, made from what I can find in the fridge — bacon, sausage, onions, potatoes, peppers, cheese — sometimes I’ll toss in splashes of grapes or apples or even grapefruit.
Which is why the food pantry is so much fun. Going in on Friday afternoons is like Sunday morning in front of the fridge. What do we have?
What we have is what America — you and me and Walmart — throw away. It’s perfectly good food. Every week we take stuff that would go to the landfill and make a hearty, homemade banquet for a couple of hundred people.
What have we got? Lots of hamburger. Tons of ham. During football season – what else – brats. We end up using brats in everything. Brats in spaghetti sauce. Brats on pizza. Brats with baked beans. You get the idea.
After the state fair, a farmer gave us a whole pig – I guess it didn’t win a blue ribbon. One week we had legs of lamb — scores of them — left from a chef’s class.
Another volunteer, Bill, runs the kitchen. He used to work in big restaurants. He’s a genius at what Joy calls “correcting spices” – even in pots as big as toilets.
Bill taught me to use a French knife, just like they do on those cooking shows: point on the cutting board, rocking the blade like a steam train’s piston, the left hand feeding onions. My hand still aches. This finger is numb. I feel like Julia Child when she first enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu.
Let’s see. Joy, page 465: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, oil and salt the turkeys’ skin, cover with foil, lower the heat to 350 and set a timer for 15 minutes a pound.
I remember the first time I baked a turkey. It seemed like a big deal: a huge raw carcass, guests at the door, a standard set by perfect pictures in magazines and Mom’s cooking. Thanks to Joy, a turkey is one of the simplest tricks a cook can perform.
Thanksgiving, in our family — we all gathered at grandma’s, ate like hogs around a big table, sang around the player piano, took naps, got up and ate some more. We didn’t have a lot of money. But I never missed a meal or knew hunger or emotional want. I can still see Mom in her country kitchen, handing out love one plate at a time.
I take my two turkeys back to the pantry, and a bunch of us volunteers spend the morning taking the meat off all 25. We also cut up a bushel of sweet potatoes and boil them in a large pot. Bill makes three huge pans of stuffing. They swell up like bread soup five inches thick. So I’m shuffling pans, trying to get them solid and hot.
The first guests show up at noon, six hours early. By 2 o’clock, a dozen people are lined up in chairs, wrapped in their coats. It’s cold outside.
Bill makes the gravy. I do the potatoes — instant potatoes that I stir into army pots of hot water with a big, long wood spoon. I pour in milk and chunks of butter with salt and pepper and diced onion, trying to make them taste home-made.
At 5:30 a dozen volunteers from some church show up. They’re going to serve. A couple of them carve up desserts. We’ve got racks of donuts, cookies and cakes with orange and black icing, left from Halloween, and lots of pumpkin pies.
By now there’s a hundred clients lined up for dinner. The pantry director asks me to stay. They need help. I’ll hand out the plates.
At 6 p.m. someone says grace, a band starts playing, we lift the lids, and the line begins moving.
The first in line is a thin woman wrapped in a long coat. I hand her a plate.
“Hello. How are you?”
She looks German to me, maybe Scandinavian stock. Her blonde hair has gone gray. She’s pulled it back into loose braids. Her face is lined, with a dab of rouge on each cheek. She gives me just a hint of a shy smile. She reminds me of my grandmother.
Behind her comes the American family. There are whites, blacks, a few Hmong, a couple of men who look to be Native American.
“Hi. Happy Thanksgiving.”
There are old people, two in handicap scooters, young couples, middle-aged men, single moms with children. One family is dressed like they are going to church.
“Would you like a tray?”
As they move by, watching us pile their plates high, the children peep over the counter. Their eyes are wide looking at all the food.
The line moves slowly. As I hand out plates, I look in their faces. They look like anyone at Thanksgiving. Hungry. Appreciative. Ready to tuck into turkey and all the trimmings.
I’m surprised. I’d expected woebegone men. The kind we see every Thanksgiving in newspaper ads for charity. Sad sacks in worn clothes spooning soup in their mouths. Men long dead but dragged out during the holidays to remind us of the Depression and make us feel guilty as we wallow in food and charge-card spending.
I hand out 350 plates — and maybe a handful — just a handful — of our guests look like that scruffy man.
That night, at home, I replay the meal.
It was a Thanksgiving right out of Joy. The food was home made. Everybody got more than enough to eat. They sat around tables, talked and laughed. Yet, there was nothing familiar about it. The guests were neighbors — and total strangers.
Who are these people? Are they really poor? Actually hungry? And if they are, why are they eating in a warehouse?
Food, I suspect, isn’t the issue. We fed 350 people from a pile of food that someone discarded. No. There’s something else going on.
The face that haunts me is that old woman. The sight of her at the head of the line shatters the image I’ve carried since childhood of our most iconic, shared meal – American’s feast – with its aroma of plenty.
To be honest, until I handed her a plate of turkey she, and all of those behind her, were invisible. Until I looked into her eyes, she was just another panhandler. Like the guy in the ads. I’d cross the street to avoid her, and all that she represented. I can’t do that anymore.
I want to know who she is. I want to know how it feels to be so strapped that her need for food overcomes the shame of asking for it.
I’ve got to know why grandma is standing in a soup kitchen line at Thanksgiving.