It’s unusual, it’s strange, it’s wild but boy does it work!!!!
We have to pack up and leave Athens to enjoy this blow-out, but the trip would be worth it even if we had to ride twice as far to get there.
I’m constantly amazed by the women who feed us and, on this trip, I have to include the bright young guys and the old Skipper who can cook. There was no written game plan. There never is! They have been putting this great event together for months before it actually happens but I never saw anything written in pencil or ink on paper. They just know how to do it and they do it right every time. The phone lines drooped from the heat of constant use by the first of the month. There was no ring leader but the phone calls kept coming and going and by the day of the big event, everybody knew what their contribution was going to be. There are a few old geezers who are slackers, like me, and who did very little, but the ever bustling women more than made up for our innate sorriness.
It started probably ten years ago when young Kenneth Brooks (who grew up as “Skeeter”) began to have us all over to his house for the Thanksgiving blessings. He and his lovely wife, Kimberly, are like our own children and their daughter, Kensley, most surely hung the moon, if you ask Katie Mae and me. Kimberly and Kenneth were our gracious hosts in three different homes they owned over those first five years and they are the real glue that brings us all together for Thanksgiving. The success of these fantastic gatherings is largely due to their efforts.
About five years ago a marriage in Kimberly’s family gave us a wonderful connection to a great gal who owns a beautiful quail-country hunting lodge about five miles out in the woods north of Dawson, Georgia. I’m not naming names because she might be allowing us to rent it only because we have family ties.
Katie Mae and I arrived on Tuesday afternoon. Naturally we had been lost for a half hour because one of the road signs was no longer there. We are citified and the only sign we can read is the one that has colored letters and arrows on it. We have been coming out here for five years and we can’t find the dirt road we need to turn down to get to the lodge. Katie Mae’s brother, Jerry and his wife, Alice, came in from Louisiana and we were talking back and forth with them on cell phones. We passed them three times on the paved road. We kept waving as they passed us because they looked like somebody we knew. Finally we all came to our senses and stopped to ask directions from a guy who was up on the third floor of a John Deere tractor that could have buried both cars in one sweep. He left us so confused that we went ahead and found the place in less than two minutes.
We bunked in at the lodge. There are three bedrooms and three baths. It has a big commercial kitchen with a tremendous great room equipped with a pool table, a wide screen fireplace on one end of the room and a wider bar at the other end. There are enough tables and chairs to seat well over forty people for meals in this main room.
The strongest family connection in the entire group is the Alligood name. Just the oldest sister and the youngest sister are still with us. Two brothers and two sisters have passed away. There are children, grand-children and great-grand children who, in turn, are also nephews and nieces and great nephews and great nieces and on and on. They are all blood kin to these two grand matriarchs of their respective immediate families. Katie Mae’s Momma, Grace, is the oldest sister and at 90 she is still going strong. Her sister Sara is the youngest Alligood sister and she is still so active, it wears me out to see her in action.
I have seen as many as forty-five to fifty people enjoy Thanksgiving Eve festivities at the lodge and, always, on the main event day there will be at least thirty or more loving kinfolks stuffing themselves with more different foods and desserts than you can imagine or name here.
Young Kenneth is a master of organization of the entire event but he really shines when it comes to the Wednesday evening festivities. Besides all the relatives there are a number of close family friends who join us on Wednesday night so the crowd can be quite large and the adjoining countryside is full of cackling and guffawing and laughter bouncing from the trunks of the great long leaf pines. Liars, story tellers and listeners circle around the huge bonfire that Ken keeps stoked by piling on wooden shipping pallets given to him by good friends just for this purpose. I stand ready to pull intoxicated celebrants from the burning ashes if anybody falls in. That too is laughable. If one falls in he can kiss his fanny goodby. I have grown too old to snatch drunks out of a fire.
I have never counted the number of grills and cookers these young lads fire up Thanksgiving eve but I can promise you there is always more food on the table than the revelers can ever possibly consume. The biggest grill is laden with venison backstrap that usually has been marinated in Ken’s secret cider-marinade recipe and then wrapped in bacon. It is a true, successful hunter’s version of filet mignon and there is more than enough for everyone. “Melts in your mouth” is an old timeworn expression but no other can adequately describe the tenderness of the venison.The young men show signs of a primitive and wolf-like behavior by slicing off a good chunk of meat from a tenderloin and retreating to a safe spot around the bonfire. They cast age-old furtive glances in all directions lest another hungry young man-wolf is lurking in the shadows ready to challenge them for their meal. But all is well .Everybody had a shot at the deer meat and there were no fights over food.
The young Skipper and his beautiful “Bride to be,” Brie, came up from South Florida with a treat that soon had a crowd gathering around his cooker. He fried some of the best red snapper I have ever eaten. It was hard not to grab a piece of the freshly fried fish and instantly pop it into your mouth while it was still sizzling. There were too many youngsters who would jockey for position around the food and they were much quicker than me. I had to show them what an old fat hip can do when you are maintaining your dominant position in the circle. Unfortunately I was too successful at getting to the fish. It took my mouth three or four days to heal after I burned off all the tender skin from inside my cheeks.
There was a huge mix of drinkers. Wine drinkers, beer drinkers and the rest of us who were barely in the race because of our age. We were reduced to strange adult concoctions and rose colored girly drinks. I can’t begin to tell you how much beer was consumed by this younger crowd. I can’t believe we ever guzzled that many suds in our youth but I guess we did. Aunt Sharon and I each brought our own delectable versions of Bloody Mary mix. Every year we have to brag on our own Bloody Mary blend and we try to conspire against each other by going to various family members and asking, not-so-subtly, “Whose Bloody Mary mix do you think is the best?” The person being queried has to be careful that only one of us is in hearing distance because it is not wise to brag on one mix if the other mixer is within earshot! The funny thing is that both mixes usually taste pretty much the same and after a couple of mornings of having Bloody Marys, neither Sharon nor I can tell one from the other.
Laid back in a fine old rocking chair on the side porch of the lodge you have a view of a pond big enough to refer to as a lake. The view is galvanizing. You don’t ever want to leave. We sometimes pretend to go fishing here. We pretend because real fishing is too much like work. You would have to clean them or release them and this commanding panorama is not for inspiring work but it is here for you to visually saturate your senses to a catatonic stage unattainable with alcohol or drugs. Your mind and body become one with the old rocking chair. The chair feels as if it has grown to your bottom and it is now an extension of your entire body. You thank God with all your heart because you know it doesn’t get any better than this.
Down near the lake and out of sight behind the pine trees is a building housing machines that throw clay pigeons here, there and yonder. After the big meal on Thursday a bunch of the young shooters think they can work off the tremendous meal they just consumed by shooting shotguns at helpless and defenseless clay pigeons. I hoped the pigeons were amphibious because a large number of them hit the water untouched by bird shot. The skeet shooters did much better than I could but most of them still need some serious practice. The clay pigeons were safe.
Young Cason visited us on Wednesday and I felt compelled to drag some toys out of my car so he and I could entertain ourselves while the women continued to buzz around in the lodge like a nest of hornets. This was a big mistake on my part because I am not used to shooting slingshots and BB guns. We began to fire at low hanging pine cones to show each other how good we were at hitting the target. I tried to rapid-fire an old Daisy air rifle that you had to cock each time you shot it. I was so good at rapid-firing the BB gun that my head and neck did not stop hurting for four days which was about the same time it took for my mouth to heal. It was a terrible pain that luckily did not attack me until Friday when we left to return to Athens. Not only did Cason out shoot me (he killed the most pine cones) but later we went inside and shot a game of pool that made me look dumber than a third grader. I’m never going to try to keep up at his pace again.
The main event came and went too quickly on Thursday. The pool table was commandeered by the women and a couple of the young guys brought in a plywood contrivance that, once covered with brightly colored tablecloths, transformed the pool table into the finest serving table in the entire Southland. I could hear the plywood crying as the women arranged and placed tray after tray, pan next to pan and dish upon dish on that poor old pool table.
Skip the Elder once again outdid himself with the turkeys. He fried three of the big birds and each one was lovingly injected with a variety of various flavors and seasonings. No two were alike and only the senior Skipper knows what he has introduced into those tenderest of turkeys to make them taste even better than they usually do. Skip and Sharon have lived just outside of Charleston for many years and we all are the beneficiaries of their coastal cooking skills. They always bring a Chevrolet Suburban full of food and drink for Thanksgiving.
Skipper sliced the turkeys. I sliced the ham. There was not a spare inch of space left on the great table.
The Alligood girls brought their two clans together in the great room of the lodge. Granny Grace and Aunt Sara joined hands with Aunt Sara’s dear husband, Uncle Billy Loveless. We then all joined hands and Uncle Billy conveyed our thanks to the Lord for the feast we were about to enjoy and for the many blessings that were represented by all the fine people who gathered under that great cathedral ceiling.
Then they all merged with methodical confusion into a jostling throng that reminded me of a cross between Hurricane Sandy and the Indianapolis 500. As the crowd swarmed toward the big table, all semblance of orderliness went out the fireplace and up the chimney. People didn’t quite seem to know where to start on this gargantuan spread so they started on all four corners and all four sides simultaneously. They looked like the swirling waters of a dizzying whirlpool as they flowed in and out of one line and on into the next line. I kept looking under the pool table to see if any children had been trampled. Nobody seemed to mind. Nobody tripped over anybody. They have done this for so many years that it all came naturally.
When the dust cleared, everybody had a seat and at a couple of places I saw utensils moving so fast from plate to mouth that the silverware was just a blur. I kept thinking you could really screw up your nose moving a fork that fast but nobody got hurt in the frenzy and everybody was fat and happy when it was all over.
I would be so remiss if I did not say the best memory of all has to be the food traditions that are observed in the South on Thanksgiving day. The huge pool table/serving table was totally covered with nothing but good food. At the front of the room there was a long bar built beside an equally long table that seats twelve. That long bar was also totally covered and there was nothing on that bar but desserts. There were pumpkin pies, pecan pies, every imaginable cake that comes to mind, banana pudding, beautiful exotic concoctions I am afraid to try to name. I could get into much trouble with the womenfolk if I wrongfully named one of their sweet creations.
For those of you who are not from the South, I want to emphasize, just for the pleasure of self-indulgence, the memories I have of enjoying my favorite dishes that are always prepared at Thanksgiving.
The dressing is not stuffed in the breast cavity of the turkey. We do not use stuffing. We serve corn bread dressing. The dressing is made from corn meal mixed with eggs, butter, onion, and celery and the rich broth from a recently cooked hen. You absolutely have to know the difference between a fryer (broiler) and a hen if you want the right broth in your corn bread. Katie Mae adds a dozen biscuits to her dressing and she uses her own secret additions to an old recipe from Lynn Mertins. Lynn Mertins has an unequaled reputation in culinary delights in that area of Southwest Georgia. Her catering business is par excellence and unsurpassed. Fresh oysters from Apalachicola Bay, Florida make a dynamite addition to the dressing. Katie Mae carefully picks loose shell from each oyster and then deftly pushes the oyster into the dressing one at a time before popping the pan into the oven.
Several different versions of dressing were on the table. You cannot serve dressing without giblet gravy. The giblets (pronounced with a hard “G” like a “J.” It is blasphemy to pronounce it with a soft “G.”) are chicken livers, gizzards and hearts of the chicken or turkey. They were chopped up with boiled eggs and more chicken stock which was added to that produced by cooking the giblets. It is a delicious treat when ladled lovingly atop the dressing and It is, no doubt, the reason my weight, my blood sugar and my blood pressure all rise proportionately each holiday season.
All the old standard dishes round out the Thanksgiving meal and they surrounded the sliced ham and turkey in a colorful profusion of mouth watering delicacies. There was potato souffle casserole, green bean casserole, potato salad, a seven layer salad, other layered salads, macaroni and cheese, congealed salads, butter beans, deviled eggs, chicken and dumplings, fried corn bread, zipper peas, black eyed peas, brown rice, cranberry sauce, and last but not least was the turnip greens cooked with pork neck bones. For a double treat, the turnip greens could be eaten with cracklin bread which is cornbread made with crisp crumbled pork rinds baked throughout the bread.
It is notably interesting that the largest and the fattest of us can so subtly (we think) maneuver our way back to the source of the food for seconds and, sometimes, for thirds. We think we are invisible. we crab-walk in a sideways slide to make ourselves look smaller. We think we are darting in and out but we are lumbering along with our heads leading our fat bottoms by a good foot or more. It’s a wonder we don’t fall headlong into the food platters.
It is all to die for and I’m sure meals like this account for ugly scars I have all over my body. You get scars like this when they strap you to a heart lung machine so they can swap good veins around with your totally clogged arteries and give you a second chance to enjoy the good life.
Katie Mae and I headed for Athens on Friday morning. We suffered greatly from all that fun but not like we suffered when we were younger. These days we are not hung over. She was hurting from an old eye condition that has bothered her for years. I was unable to turn my head to the left or right or up and down. I was in serious head pain. I think all that rapid-fire action with the BB gun left my neck and head paralyzed and the inside of my mouth was cooked well-done because I tried to eat all the fried fish straight out of the frying pan.
So as I drove she looked to the left and right for me but I was not really sure she could see well enough to be a good navigator. We got lost a bit in Macon because we haven’t driven that way to Athens in about fifteen years and I was crippled and blind and she was more than half blind.
We limped on toward home. When the two lane road widened and gave me a chance to pass a couple of Sunday drivers, I roared right on past them and met our old friend, John Law, just as we topped a hill. I went ahead and pulled over for him because it’s hard to ignore those blue lights even if you feel like hell. It turns out we were in Morgan County and we had just been apprehended by one of Georgia’s finest from The Department of Public Safety. After I showed him that little plastic card with my favorite picture and told him how great the guys are down at the insurance company I use, he had a chance to ask me if I had any particular reason for going so fast and I mentioned I was passing slower cars and that I had been driving sanely, up until that very moment. Then I laughed and said, “I’ll bet you hear that a lot?” Then he laughed and said, “Yeah I do!” Then he went to his car and came back in a few minutes with a warning ticket!
Thanksgiving was stupendous and wonderful. God is great, Life is good!
Merry Christmas to Sergeant M. Meeler, Georgia State Patrol!