My grandmother, the incorrigible Jenna May Perkins, took her stuffing recipe with her to the grave. “Be reasonable,” we pleaded with her on her death bed. But there was no bending her iron will. A lifelong Catholic, she extolled the virtues of suffering. Moments before her soul sailed from this mortal coil, she told us, “Make your 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.
Sadly, the recipe is lost forever.
It was not until I was an adult that 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 in those simpler times. Stuffing was a way of circumventing local customs. 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.
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 modern Americans have to be thankful for, the pilgrims might wonder, when we had all we need—makeshift lodgings, porridge and the grim specter of death around every corner.
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.”
Grandma Perkins is gone, but as long as I have the long-lost and forever- forgotten recipe for her prized stuffing taped to my refrigerator, she will always be with us, 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