Butterball © 2003 Tom Romeo

Whenever I hear “Over the River and Through the Woods…,” I’m transported to a Norman Rockwell vision of a joyous ride in a one-horse open sleigh through snow-dusted woods down a path that ends at a country home. Here a smiling, gentle grandma in a flowered apron greets a laughing happy family grateful to be in out of the cold. Of course, she’s cooked up a storm. Their senses are overwhelmed by the aroma of a mouth-watering feast baking in the oven, while sweet fantasy grandma doles out hugs and sage advice along with pumpkin pie and hot cocoa.

In contrast, Thanksgiving trips to my grandmother’s house consisted of my twin brother Benny and me fighting in the back of a Chevy Bel-Air station wagon as my Father navigated from our house on Long Island over the Belt Parkway and through Brooklyn to a brownstone in Besonhurst that always seemed to smell of week-old chicken soup. As we made our way past the heavy iron gates and through the entrance at the top of the stoop, my grandmother often celebrated our arrival with a welcoming cry of “Close the door, dammit!! You think I’m heating the whole neighborhood!”

My grandmother, Josephine, whom we called Nanny, was my mother’s mother. She was not a gentle soul by any stretch of the imagination. Nanny had worked hard her entire life, and, along with my grandfather, Papa Joe, she ran a business in the garment district through the Depression and into the 70’s – hers and the 1970’s. When she lost Papa Joe to a sudden heart attack a few months after I was born, she picked up the reins and ran the business on her own for over 20 years. Whatever gentility and soft grandma genes she may have had were blocked from developing by the wheeling and dealing necessary to run a company in the rag trade. “It’s a tough business,” she’d say, “Where pennies on a yard of cloth can make the difference between apples on the table for dessert or for selling on the corner two for a nickel.”

My mother was an only child. Because her mother and father were busy with the business, she was raised by her grandmother, whom everyone affectionately called, ‘Mama’. Except my father. He used to refer to her as the “Warden” because of the close eye she kept on my not-yet-married parents and her surprise inspections which were often accompanied by the phrase: “Checking, Checking.”

My mother always held a special place in her heart for my great grandmother. She still quotes her fondly every chance she gets. Memories of her mother take on a different tone, however. Late nights, tough negotiations, keeping people employed through the Depression, the wars and the booms and busts that followed do not make for a Hallmark grandma. Nanny was a tough cookie whose opinions were held as tightly as her purse. And this went for her strong opinions on what comprised a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner.

It had to be yams – not sweet potatoes – although how she could tell the difference, I’ll never know—- without the marshmallows, if you please; the stuffing must contain cornbread, raisins and “ersters” as she called them not sausage. She was slightly flexible with the vegetables as long as they included a nice garden salad and steamed string beans topped with almond slices.

The dessert? Apple pie. Not pumpkin. Not sweet potato. Apple. For years it was nothing but apple— until the Thanksgiving of 1937 when pecan pie was added. It seems that year a buyer from Atlanta had spent the holiday with Nanny and my mother after an early storm snowed him in. He insisted on showing some Southern hospitality by baking up his mother’s special recipe. “A real Southern gentleman,” she would say. Papa Joe had spent that Thanksgiving stuck in Chicago where he was making sales calls of his own. I was told that after his return, even though he had a sweet tooth the size of his ample belly, Papa Joe soon lost his appetite for pecan pie and would excuse himself into another room whenever one happened to appear on the table.

Which brings us to the turkey.

Since 1963, the turkey had to be a Butterball. Previously, whatever the local butcher had in stock would have done. But when Giraldo’s Fresh Meats went out of business after a disastrous Thanksgiving when half the neighborhood came down with salmonella poisoning and the store mysteriously burned to the ground, a colleague had suggested Butterball and so Butterball it was and remained.

For four decades, my grandmother ruled Thanksgiving with an iron ladle. It was rare anyone was permitted in her kitchen unless summoned for some particular task such as retrieving a pot or serving dish she couldn’t reach. The year after my parents got married, my mother was finally allowed to experiment with the vegetables – introducing a casserole of broccoli and cauliflower smothered in a cheddar cheese sauce; a plate of marinated artichoke hearts and, on one ill-fated occasion, brussel sprouts. Once she enlarged the table to include Benny and me, my mother was also given responsibility for the pie. She always made apple pie in deference to her father — avoiding pecan because of her nagging suspicion that more went on with the southern gentleman that fateful Thanksgiving than she had been led to believe. But, the turkey? That was left to her mother, guaranteeing an oyster-stuffed Butterball cooked inside a paper bag to ensure efficient, self-basting moistness.

Each holiday, my father Benny and I would sit together in the small living room on a plastic-covered couch awaiting her trademark call of “Come and get it! You won’t regret it!” And for the most part, we didn’t. We ate our fill until it was time to go and then feasted on the leftovers that tempted us on the hour-long trip back home.
In 1974, Nanny shut down the business and my parents made it their mission to get her to live with them on Long Island. She finally moved in right before the Thanksgiving of 1975 and reluctantly relinquished the holiday to my mother. Mother’s joy at finally being handed over the Thanksgiving mantle was short-lived, however, as Nanny still insisted on preparing the turkey – the Butterball – the “right” way.

Each year, Thanksgiving subtly started to take on more of my mother’s personality. There was the switch to chestnut stuffing; the introduction of Boston crème pie and, God help us, the return of brussel sprouts! But the biggest change of all came when Nanny was no longer able to handle the turkey and my mother made the switch from Butterball to fresh, free-range birds bought at a local poultry market.
Following in Nanny’s footsteps, my mother made the kitchen a forbidden zone except for what she referred to as “constructive help”. Benny and I got married in a double ceremony in the spring of 1978 — adding our own new additions to the table — so, as tradition dictated, that Thanksgiving we were honored with the responsibility of preparing the vegetables. We arrived with a cornucopia of vegetable delights: candied carrots, creamed corn, squash – both green and yellow – snow peas and whole water chestnuts. Taking turns holding our serving spoons high, we defiantly declared, “Death to brussel sprouts!”

Meanwhile, Nanny looked on as her role went from Thanksgiving queen and chef, to advisor and finally to reluctant observer. But when her beloved Butterball had been replaced, she protested in the only way she knew how. Sitting at the table, she’d take a small taste of turkey, make a disgusted face and announce, “This is NOT a Butterball!” The first time this happened, my mother tried to explain the benefits of eating fresh turkey raised without chemical feed. How much healthier and flavorful it was … but Nanny would have none of it. “So you say, dear, but this is NOT a Butterball!” and with a cry of “Remember Giraldo’s!” she loudly scraped the turkey into the serving platter, sat back in her chair and remained stone-faced. No amount of logic or cajoling would sway her.

My mother tried everything to get Nanny to eat the turkey. She finally gave up in frustration and screamed that SHE and not her mother was in charge and will damn well have Thanksgiving HER way.

They agreed to disagree.

The rest of us dealt with the situation by accepting the annual pronouncement of “This is NOT a Butterball!” as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

When we gathered again for a family Thanksgiving in 1983, my wife, Jean, was nine and a half months pregnant – due, as they say, any minute. We had settled down not too far from Nanny and my parents, so we took the risk that we’d make it through dinner without having to rush to the hospital — tempering that decision with the knowledge that we weren’t any further away than if we’d stayed home.

Over the years, Jean and my grandmother had developed a very special relationship. Being a strong woman herself, and having come to the family with an objective eye, she may have understood Nanny better than anyone. So to celebrate the soon-to-be new addition to the table, and to honor the gathering together of three and a half generations, Jean baked a special “mystery” dessert and didn’t let on as to what it was – even to me. This was her contribution, Jean told me. It was on a need to know basis, and, quite frankly, I didn’t need to know.

After I finished cooking my share of that year’s vegetable dishes – Jean sent me out on innumerable errands to keep me out of the kitchen until she was finished. “It’s a surprise,” she said, “but I will need your help. I want you to cue me when you think the turkey thingy is about to happen.” That being her eloquent way of referring to Nanny’s battle cry, “This is NOT a Butterball!”

We arrived at dinner a little later than scheduled balancing six Tupperware containers filled with veggies and a mysterious plain brown paper bag. My mother greeted us at the door with her patented annoyed mother look. Then, a veritable Thanksgiving prima ballerina, she noted the time grabbed the Tupperware, kissed us hello and seated us at the dining room table all in one graceful motion. No one even noticed the mysterious paper bag I placed on the floor between our chairs.
After the antipasto and stuffed clam appetizers – my mother’s newest additions to the Thanksgiving tradition – the turkey arrived. My senses became keener, predator-like as I looked for signs of the impending ‘Big Butterball Debate’. As I spotted Nanny taking aim at the turkey, I gave Jean the signal. She quickly whipped her surprise dessert out of the bag and plopped it down right in front of Nanny with a loud clank that brought everyone’s attention to the center of the table.

It was a pie.

A pecan pie.

My mother dropped her fork onto her plate. Benny, his wife, my father and I all gasped in disbelief. Nanny stopped mid-sentence, “This is NOT a But…” We all just sat there staring at the pie.

My mother’s lips tightened into a thin slit. She excused herself; slowly rose from the table, and marched out of the room followed dutifully by my father. Benny and his wife looked as if they were watching a tennis match as they would first look at the pie and then at us, then at the pie — all the while sly smiles creeping across their faces. Nanny was frozen. I watched her closely as tears welled up in her eyes as she whispered, “A real Southern gentleman.”

Then, a loud scream. It was Jean. “My water broke!”

To this day, I have no idea what happened after we rushed out the door and sped off to the hospital. Our daughter was born at 5 minutes to midnight: a Thanksgiving baby. The labor was hard, but mother and child made it through fine. I didn’t do much but watch and be “supportive” as is the father’s lot in these situations, but I made it through fine as well.

There is much I remember about that Thanksgiving day: my baby’s miraculous entrance into the world; the tears of joy mixed with pain on my wife’s face and the rush of love I felt for them both; the look of pride and affection my parents showed when I carried my child, my first-born, into the waiting room…and, oh yeah, one more thing.

I remember the words Nanny uttered when she first held little Josephine in her arms:

“Now that’s a Butterball!”

Butterball © 2003 Tom Romeo

Tom Romeo

Huntington, United States

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Happy Thanksgiving!

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