VIVIAN HOWARD, STAR OF THE AWARD-WINNING SERIES “A CHEF’S LIFE”, GATHERS AROUND THE TABLE IN KINSTON, NC
Growing up I often felt like Thanksgiving was the only holiday my family did right. We lived too far out in the country to trick or treat properly, and for some reason, disappointment sat heavy in the air around Christmas. Easter always proved to be more about church than chocolate bunnies, and Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day were overshadowed by the urgency of summer on the farm. But Thanksgiving…the Howards excelled at Thanksgiving. On the third Thursday of November each year, we did what I felt like folks were supposed to do. We cooked, we gave thanks, we ate, we cleaned up, we napped. Then we ate again.
Typically our big family meals were Sunday lunches served to a rowdy group of adults and children made ravenous by choir singing and pew hopping. On these Sundays, Mom would wake at the crack of dawn and carry the entire load of the meal by herself, making sure food was on the table just after church.
Thanksgiving was different. Bringing the bounty to the table that day was a group effort and always marked the first day we were allowed to raid the “locker” (what we called our deep freezer) for corn and butterbeans, shucked, shelled, and put up the previous summer.
Prep started early. We all worked fast toward the only complete meal we would eat that day. The youngest of four girls, I watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, chopped onions and celery, crumbled cornbread, and cracked eggs to make my mom’s “not famous dressing.” My sister Leraine baked lemon, chocolate, and pecan pies. Grandma Hill came in singing with candied yams and turnip greens. Mom made the turkey, ham, rice, and gravy. And my other two sisters, Currie and Johna, tidied the house, turned the cranberry sauce from the can, set the table, made tea, and put ice in the glasses. Preserved watermelon rind and pickled beets, both gifts from neighbors, added tangy crunch to the table. And yeast rolls, risen by the sun, did their part to sop up anything our forks, spoons, and fingers missed in the feeding frenzy.
As you might expect, the family took a mass nap after the midafternoon meal, followed by a second helping of each person’s favorites. For my mom and sisters, it was more pie; for me and my dad, more turkey, dressing, gravy, and pickles.
Over the years, the face of the Howard family Thanksgiving changed. I went from painstakingly assembling that “not famous dressing,” to famously not participating at all. My sisters got married, had children, and hosted Thanksgivings of their own, forcing my parents to burn up the roads rather than nap between meals. We stopped putting up corn and butterbeans each summer, and the watermelon preserve reserve seemed to dry up. But Thanksgiving, the idea of it, the process of cooking and carrying the load alongside the people you loved continued to make my heart sing. As a young adult I hosted a Thanksgiving among fellow exchange students in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and several Thanksgivings in small apartments across lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Then one day I moved home, back to Deep Run, the land of pickled beets and pecan pies. Since then, I’ve reclaimed our big proper Thanksgiving dinners. But due to my line of work, and the anal qualities that come along with it, the day and the table look a lot different these days.
I want hors d’ oeuvres and perhaps some Champagne to loosen up my generally stiff family. A light red wine may take the place of tea, and in exchange for serving everyone’s old-school favorites, I want the meal to make sense in terms of texture, acid, and balance. That’s not to say the meal abandons Eastern Carolina’s holiday foodways. Rather, at least in my estimation, our Thanksgiving table honors the spreads that came before it. Most importantly the spirit of the day is the same. All hands show up to help, we give thanks, we eat, we laugh, and we all eventually take a nap.
The Balanced Dinner Favorites
Buttery Turkey with Warm Sorghum Vinaigrette
Apple, Radish, and Brussels Sprout Salad with Pomegranate and Blue Cheese Honey Vinaigrette
Green Beans with Tangerine Brown Butter and Bacon
Citrus Sweet Potatoes with Pecan Cranberry Relish
Turnip Root and Green Dressing