My grandmother, the incorrigible Jenna May Perkins, took her stuffing recipe with her to the grave. “Be reasonable,” we said to her on her death bed. “You’re about to die.” But there was no bending her iron will. A lifelong Catholic, she extolled the virtues of our suffering. Moments before her soul passed from this mortal coil, she exalted, “Make your own damn stuffing.”
On this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for Grandma Jenna May Perkins. Our family’s Thanksgiving meals have been a series of rising disasters since her passing, but her spirit lives on in her children and grandchildren, all of whom refuse to share their recipes or even what they plan on bringing to dinner with each other. Several years ago we had seven turkeys for 15 people. Last year no one brought anything, and we drank lukewarm water. In our own quaint manner, I like to think of it as our family’s way of “making our own damn stuffing.”
And oh, that stuffing, it was glorious. On the day before Thanksgiving my father and I would pick up grandma and take her shopping. We always bought two loaves of Wonder bread, a stick of butter, one bunch of celery, two onions and a package of sage seasoning mix. Grandma would let the bread go stale overnight and then break it up into a large bowl the next day. I’ll never forget the smell of melting butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Then she’d slowly cook and stir the celery and onions until the onions were soft.
This was the important part, she said. The celery, butter and onions cooled and were transferred to the bowl with the bread, where she mixed them lovingly by hand. Grandma let me add the sage, and she had dad put the stuffing inside the bird.
The taste on Thanksgiving Day was sublime.
St. Peter now dines happily on that lost recipe of Thanksgiving goodness.
I was a student at Ohio State University at the time—now The Ohio State University—before I understood the importance of Grandma Perkins’ stuffing recipe. The poor Ohioans from whom she was descended seldom enjoyed celery in their diets. Its shape was considered an affront to decency back in those simpler times. Stuffing was a way of circumventing local customs without the appearance of impropriety. A woman who was seen carrying celery through the market in those days was branded a harlot. It was a risqué vegetable.
So it was with no small amount of bravery that Grandma Perkins incorporated celery into her stuffing recipe. “I waited until I had been married for 10 years before I started buying celery at the market,” she told me once. “Oh, there was talk, but I’d hear none of it.”
In a show of support, my grandfather accompanied her to the store and purchased two melons.
In so many ways, grandma’s stuffing was representative of my own family’s journey. It harkened back to a time when the Perkins family diet was shaped through shame and public gossip. It was a time of malnutrition for my kin, but it was also a time of community. You cared what your neighbor thought, and you let the mores of the local populace dictate your words and actions. Had I known this as a child, I would have cherished my grandfather’s collection of Black Sabbath albums all the more. Many was the night he could be found listening to “Master of Reality” in the basement, alone, with his headphones on, in quiet defiance of the city elders.
Celery was my grandmother’s Mayflower. Ozzy Osbourne was my grandfather’s Captain Christopher Jones.
I think back now on those first pilgrims, as we all should.
Modern culture has made contemporary Thanksgiving a celebration of excess. Consider the pilgrims in 1621, gripped by fear of the unknown world, fear of starvation, fear of the cold. What would they make of our Google Maps, our central heating, our gigantic roast turkeys and 60-inch television screens? What do these people have to be thankful for, the pilgrims might wonder, when we have all we need—makeshift lodgings and porridge.
I am reminded this time of year, as a nation’s attention turns from matters of family to shopping at malls, of a story my grandfather used to tell.
One afternoon a shopper at the local mall took a coffee break. She bought herself a little bag of cookies and put them in her shopping bag. She got in line for coffee, found a place to sit at one of the crowded tables, began to sip her coffee and read. Across the table from her a man sat reading a newspaper. After a minute or two she reached out and took a cookie. As she did, the man seated across the table reached took one, too. This put her off, but she did not say anything. A few moments later she took another cookie. Once again the man did so, too. Now she was getting upset, but still she did not say anything. After having a couple of sips of coffee she once again took another cookie. So did the man. She was really upset by this—especially since now only one cookie was left. Apparently the man also realized that only one cookie was left. Before she could say anything he took it, broke it in half, offered half to her and proceeded to eat the other half himself. Then he smiled at her and, put the paper under his arm, rose and walked off. The woman then looked in her own shopping bag and realized that man was former President Harry Truman.
I like that story. It makes me think about President Truman, a man with whom the buck stopped.
The buck stopped in our family with Grandma Perkins. She is gone, but as long as I have the forgotten recipe for her prized stuffing taped to my refrigerator, she will never be forgotten, even if that wonderful recipe has been lost to the sands of time.
Joe Donatelli is the author of Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy.
Photo by Ruthanne Reid