This week I wrote a story for the News Journal titled Mama’s Cookbook. The story was mostly about Thanksgiving prep that took place at Mimi’s house the week before Thanksgiving, getting the fruit cake ready to bake. It took several days by the time all the nuts were cracked and shelled, picked over and chopped, and all the candied fruit was chopped up and blended in with the nuts. Along the way a lot of nibbling went on, as you might imagine. Once they were ready, all of those things were held together with pound cake batter!
I was thinking about making one of those cakes myself this year until I started reading the instructions. It didn’t take too long to change my mind, but I liked thinking back and recalling all the work and fun we had helping Mimi prepare to bake that cake.
That wasn’t the only dessert thing that had to be prepared, considering all the many cakes and pies Mimi baked that week. My favorite cake of all time was her pineapple layer cake, about eight or so very thin layers with a pineapple frosting in between each layer and on top. Umm, I can almost taste it. She also made pound cake with almond flavoring, no icing, and many pies. Sweet potato, coconut, sometimes lemon meringue. She made real meringue, too, not whipped topping like Cool Whip.
The coconut was something special – grated from an actual coconut. It took Da with his handy hammer to crack that, and he carefully poured the coconut milk into a bowl for Mimi to use in the icing for a coconut layer cake. He carefully pared off little chunks of milky coconut for the children to chew on, and the rest was painstakingly grated for cakes and pies. Oh man, that mouthwatering taste is nothing like the stuff that comes in plastic bags or cans at the store!
Of course, Mimi had help. The aunts who lived nearby usually pitched in, Aunt Iris and Aunt Pearl, so the house was full of wonderful smells and the sound of chatter and laughter, as the women tried not to get in each other’s way in the small kitchen and slightly roomier dining room.
Aunt Frances, who lived in Columbia and wasn’t there for the prep, usually brought her made-from-scratch ambrosia for Thanksgiving dinner. A mixture of orange, grapefruit, tangerine, pineapple, maraschino cherries, walnuts and pecans, with maybe a sprinkle of coconut, this was a perfect side dish for those who wanted a little something sweet WITH their meal, before dessert.
Mama brought us grandkids out to Mimi’s the weekend before Thanksgiving. We each had our assigned tasks, usually cracking the many types of nuts – Brazil nuts, walnuts, filberts, pecans, and whatever else was in the box Da brought in. He always ordered nuts and fresh fruit by the case from somewhere, and the nuts were always still in the shell. We had a time cracking those Brazil nuts and then digging that meat out of the shell. But Mimi needed them for the cake, so crack we must. We had to carefully go through each bowl-full of nut meats to pick out the bits of shell before we starting breaking them up.
Mimi, Mama, and later on me – we always tried to make two of each kind of cake or pie. One was to eat at Thanksgiving, of course, and one was stuck into the freezer to eat at Christmas. The trick was not to eat them all up between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
When my children were small, I found a recipe in a newspaper for Tunnel of Fudge cake, and for several years I added that to my holiday dessert list. It was chocolate through and through! The interior of the cake was really gooey, really fudge, but the rest of the cake was very chocolate too. It had pecans mixed in sometimes, sometimes not. I looked for that recipe yesterday when I was hunting the fruit cake recipe, but I never did find it. It’s just as well. All that chocolate!
Now, all this was just the sweets part of the meal, the dessert table. This afternoon I was thinking about the rest of the menu. We seldom had turkey at Mimi’s, it was usually a fat home-grown hen or two. Stuffed, naturally, with southern style cornbread stuffing. Porcupines – those are stuffed bell peppers, stuffed with cornbread stuffing mixed with stewed tomatoes, not with rice and hamburger like you sometimes get these days.
There was also a baked ham and maybe a pork roast, maybe a beef pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Potato salad. Little green butter beans. Corn on the cob or off. Rice and chicken gravy. Cranberry sauce. Biscuits. Sweet potato casserole. Macaroni. Anything else? Sweet iced tea with a little pitcher of pineapple juice for the tea – not sliced lemons. I don’t remember string beans (what we called green beans in those days), but they may have been there.
All of this wasn’t cooked in Mimi’s kitchen, a lot of it was brought in on Thanksgiving day by the various families, a for-real covered dish dinner. Some things Mimi always cooked, some things other people always cooked, but the overall menu didn’t vary much from year to year.
It was several hours after the meal, after a lot of visiting and catching up on all the family news and gossip had taken place, the men and children usually outside and the women usually inside, before everyone began to depart for home. Heavy duty paper plates were brought out, loaded up and carefully wrapped in tin foil to take home for supper, so by the time the last person was gone, there weren’t many leftovers.
I miss those days. I miss those recipes, those dishes, those people, those conversations, those smells and tastes and sounds of Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be grateful for still, but memories of Thanksgiving at Mimi’s is one thing I’m truly thankful for.