If there was anything Martha Hemmersbach was proud of, it was her family and her Thanksgiving feast. Martha and her husband, Arnold were the parents of eight children, six of whom were grown and flown the nest. The two youngest, twins, Abigail and Amanda were high school seniors. Eldest son, Arnold Junior and his wife Felicity along with their two girls and two boys, lived in Port Wing, just a few miles down the road from the Hemmersbach farm. Arnold Jr. now managed much of the farm work, and as soon as Abigail and Amanda left home, he and his family would move into the 125-year-old farmhouse. Martha and Arnold would then move to the Dawdy house on the edge of the back pasture.
Eldest daughter Anne was an elementary school teacher in Oulo while Frank farmed along with their teen-aged sons. Second son, Andrew, was a realtor. He and Sarah and their daughter lived in Port Wing. Third son Alex and Rebecca were kept busy with their three boys and two girls just outside Ashland with the resort they owned and managed. Second daughter Agnes was a nurse at the hospital in Duluth and married to Phillip, a doctor. They had a boy and a girl. And of course, Amanda and Abigail lived at home. It was Martha’s youngest son who gave her fits. While seven of her children and their families all lived within an hour of the homestead as was proper, Albert and his wife Tiffany both lived and practiced law in Asheville, North Carolina. Martha was certain it had been Tiffany’s idea to hold a destination wedding in the Bahamas, with her brother Trevor serving as best man. While all her family attended the wedding, only Martha and Arnold had been able to make the trip. To top it off, though they had been married for three years, there was not a hint of a baby on the way. Well! At least they were coming home for the entire week before Thanksgiving so Albert could go hunting with his brothers. Martha had spent a week scrubbing down the Dawdy house so they would have a place to stay, even though Tiffany had asked about hotel reservations.
The second thing Martha was proud of was her Thanksgiving feast. Over the course of 40 years of marriage, she had perfected every aspect of it. And it wasn’t even as much work as it had been in the early years since Martha delegated the various elements of the feast, along with her recipes, to her adult children. Arnold Jr. was responsible for the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and the venison roast; Alex for the Jello salad and candied sweet potatoes; Andrew, the baked squash and succotash; Anne, the baked beans and dinner, and because they had the farthest to travel, Agnes brought the relish tray, bleu cheese dip, and five-cup salad. The twins would help Martha with the turkey, sage, onion and chestnut stuffing and giblet gravy. Martha would bake the pies: Dutch apple, pumpkin, schnitz, and mincemeat. She had accumulated numerous blue ribbons for all of them at past county fairs. As for as Albert and Tiffany, well, coming from North Carolina, they were guests. All told, the farmhouse would be filled to bursting with 30 people.
November 2, Martha began cleaning and then decorating. The brightest autumn leaves were dipped in a thin coat of paraffin, tied into leafy bouquets filling many vases and scattered singly across the mantlepiece. Squash, corn shocks, pumpkins, and Indian corn graced the wide porch of the old farmhouse. All the leaves of the dining room table were set into place. The extra chairs were brought in from the shed and dusted off. The children’s table was set up in the living room.
Friday, November 19, Arnold drove to the airport in Duluth to pick up Albert and Felicity. Martha proudly showed them into the Dawdy house. “It has two bedrooms, a full, eat-in kitchen along with a fully stocked refrigerator, bathroom with shower and tub, and a living room with a TV and stereo. And we do have Internet. Much nicer than any motel you could find around here.” Noticing Tiffany’s shiver, she also pointed out the Franklin stove, already with a fire burning merrily. “There’s plenty of wood stacked outside, and if you bank the fire and leave the bedroom door open, you’ll be plenty warm all night. Albert should remember how to tend the fire, but if you have a problem, we are just across the pasture.” Then Martha left them to settle in.
The next morning, all the men were gathered in Martha’s kitchen at 5:00 o’clock. She served them a hearty breakfast and handed out thermoses of coffee and packages of substantial sandwiches before they headed for the woods. The family owned 50 acres of forest a half mile away that abounded with deer and other wildlife, so they were sure they would get lucky. As soon as the men were gone, Martha began making pie dough. She would bake the mincemeat pies today, as those had the best staying power. Monday, she would make the Dutch apple and schnitz pies and Wednesday, the pumpkin pies. Arnold would butcher the turkey on Monday, giving it a couple days to hang.
Just before noon, Martha was startled by a knock on the door. Tiffany. She had slept in and now was wondering if Martha had a blender, coconut water, banana, avocado and kale for her morning smoothie. Martha stared. Oh, of course, she had heard of such things on public television cooking shows, but almost none of those ingredients were to be found in her kitchen. She stammered, “Um…well, I have bananas. And a blender (it had been a gift for their 25th wedding anniversary), but I don’t have any of those other things. I don’t even think you can get them at the IGA in Port Wing. I can make you some bacon and eggs for breakfast.” (All the while thinking there were both in the fridge at the Dawdy house)
Tiffany looked horrified. “Bacon and eggs?”
Martha had a glimmer of an idea. If the poor girl couldn’t stomach bacon eggs in the morning, perhaps there WAS a child on the way. “Or, if that doesn’t suit you, how about some oatmeal?”
“Is it organic?” Tiffany asked.
“I’m sure it is,” Martha replied, although she was sure of no such thing. “It’s locally grown.”
“Well, I guess that will have to do,” the young woman said.
While Martha busied herself with cooking the oatmeal, Tiffany wandered about the kitchen. Martha’s list of who was bringing what for the big day was posted on a cupboard door. “What’s this?” Tiffany asked.
“Oh, that’s the menu for Thanksgiving. I’ve shared all my recipes with my children so we will have our traditional feast. If you lived closer, I would have asked Albert to bring something, but after all, you are guests.”
Tiffany surveyed the list, her frown deepening with every item. “What is this?” she did not speak the thought aloud. “No cornbread dressing? No fried okra? No macaroni and cheese? No sweet potato pie, no chess pie, no pecan pie? And she calls this traditional?” What she managed to say, was, “Wow, that’s a lot of food.”
“We don’t eat that way every day. It is after all, Thanksgiving,” said Martha. “Here now, sit and have your oatmeal. Would you like milk with it or butter and maple syrup?”
“Do you have almond milk?”
“Goodness, gracious, no. This is milk fresh from our cows this morning.”
“Um, well. I guess I’ll just have butter, then, and maybe some coffee?”
Martha thought, “Well at least there’s one thing she likes. Although, if she is pregnant, is coffee good for the baby?”
Finishing her oatmeal and coffee, Tiffany returned to the Dawdy house.
By late afternoon, the men returned triumphant. Between the five of them, they had bagged two bucks and a doe and the carcasses were soon hanging from the large oak tree in the front yard. Martha served supper for her husband, the twins, Albert and Felicity – a big pot of chili, green salad, and garlic breadsticks. “Nothing like a pot of chili to warm a body on a cold day,” she said as she ladled out the soup.
“Uh, Mom? Do you have any hot sauce? And maybe some cheddar cheese, Mom?” Albert asked.
“Hot sauce? Cheese? Whatever for?” asked Arnold.
“Well, the chili is a little on the mild side. It could use some pepping up.”
Martha bristled. “I have been making this recipe for 40 years. It was always good enough for you when you were growing up.”
Albert grinned, “Well y’know Mom, tastes do change over time. Tiffany and I enjoy a little heat in our food.”
Martha returned from the kitchen with an ancient bottle of Tabasco sauce, a block of cheese and a grater. “Here you go,” she said as she handed the ingredients to her son.
That evening, after the twins were upstairs doing homework and Albert and his bride had departed, Martha complained to Arnold. “I don’t know what that girl has done to that boy! My chili not spicy enough! She has sure bewitched him! And she wants the strangest food! But then, if she’s expecting, that may explain it.”
“Now, Martha. Aren’t you being a little hard on her? She didn’t grow up around here and her folks most likely did things differently and different doesn’t mean bad. After all, it took me a while to get used to your cooking.”
Martha snorted. “And what’s wrong with my cooking?”
“Nothing, dear. Nothing. It was just different from my mother’s cooking. When Ma learned you put nutmeg in your beef stew, she thought you were crazy.”
Martha hmmphed, but knew the subject was closed.
Sunday, Martha was pleased that Albert and Tiffany joined them for church, and even more pleased that they joined in the worship. It took a while to get free as old friends quickly surrounded Albert and Tiffany after the service to catch up on old times. Albert explained that the church he and his bride attended in Asheville held three services with 2,000 people in attendance at each service. Martha could not imagine feeling comfortable in such a crowd.
Sunday afternoon, Albert asked Arnold if he could borrow the car. Tiffany had forgotten some things, he explained, and would like to go into Duluth to do some shopping. Arnold handed over the keys and warned Albert to watch for deer and be careful of black ice. “It’s been a long time since you did any winter driving.” The pair returned just before 9:00 PM.
Monday, Martha went into hyperdrive. Although Albert dropped in early for a cup of coffee with his father and then went out to help with the milking, Martha did not see Tiffany all that day. She asked Albert what she was up to, but he just smiled and said, “It’s a secret.” Martha did not see Tiffany on Tuesday, either, although she joined them for lunch on Wednesday. “I hope you’re enjoying your accommodations.”
“Oh, they’re fine.” Tiffany responded. “You were right. That little house is much nicer than a motel room. I understand from Albert that eventually you will be moving into it.”
“That’s right. It’s a tradition. Arnold’s parents moved into it when we married and we took over the farm, and his grandparents did the same. I would hate to have to move into town when it’s time for Arnie to take over the farm.” Martha was pleased with the girl’s interest in their family traditions. Perhaps there was hope for her yet.
Wednesday, Martha did not see her daughter-in-law at all, although Albert kept her company when he wasn’t helping his brothers dress out the deer. Martha couldn’t help wonder what the girl was doing all by herself, but she thought perhaps she was preoccupied with the Internet.
The Thanksgiving feast was scheduled for 2:00 in the afternoon, as it always was. Martha was up early. The turkey they had raised dressed out at 30 pounds and a bird that large would take a long time to roast. Their children and families began to arrive just after noon. Albert came over, bearing a long table that he set up on the screened back porch. “What’s that for?” Martha asked.
“You’ll see,” was all Albert said. He then recruited the help of some of his older nephews. Soon a procession of pans, bowls, and platters were brought in and set on the table.
“What’s this?” Martha was puzzled.
Albert said, “Mom, I know you are big on tradition for Thanksgiving. But so is Tiffany. And since this year she had to be away from her family, she brought a little of her traditions with her.” He walked the length of the table pointing out the southern treats: Fried okra, cornbread dressing, macaroni and cheese.
Martha was fine up to that point. But then came the pies. Chess pie, sweet potato pie, and not one, but three pecan pies. Pies? Why, Martha was the best pie baker in Bayfield County! They were her specialty and everyone knew it. Just before she began to splutter, Arnold gripped her elbow – hard. “Now dearest, isn’t it wonderful that Tiffany and Albert are so generous? Just imagine all the hard work she did in an unfamiliar kitchen. It truly is a blessing to have such a thoughtful daughter-in-law.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose you’re right. Thank you, Tiffany. Thank you, Albert,” she choked out.
Soon, the tables were set, Arnold said grace, and the family dug in. With Arnold’s eyes upon her, Martha was obligated to sample each of Tiffany’s offerings. To her shock, each and every one, with perhaps the exception of the fried okra, they were good! No, they were more than good – they were delicious, especially the pecan pie. In what seemed like no time, Martha surveyed the wreckage. The venison roast was gone, but there was plenty of leftover turkey, as well as the various salads and side dishes. That was to be expected. What Martha didn’t expect was the leftover pie – Dutch apple, schnitz, pumpkin, and mincemeat, as well as the chess pie. But there was not a crumb left of the sweet potato and pecan pies! Never did she expect to be bested in her own kitchen.
Agnes and Phillip left right after the meal since they had the longest drive and Phillip would be on call that night. Happy chatter filled the house as the older grandchildren were given the task of clearing the table and doing dishes under the supervision of their mothers. As soon as the kitchen was ship shape, most of the youngsters went out to play in the barn while the adults gathered to watch football. Tiffany ventured, “What, no Bulldogs?”
Albert laughed, “No dear. It’s pro ball today.”
Arnold was soon snoring in his recliner, so Arnie, Alex, Andrew, and Albert took care of the evening milking. Once that was done, the remaining families left for whome. The twins had friends they wished to visit but promised to be home by 10:00. Martha was left alone with Tiffany. “I’m happy you were able to share some of your family traditions with us today,” Martha said.
Tiffany replied, “I’m glad you enjoyed them. It was interesting to see what is considered traditional here up north. I especially liked the mincemeat pie. I’ve never had that before and I need your recipe. Now I’ll know what to make for Albert next year.”
“I would be happy to do that and before you leave on Sunday, perhaps you could share your recipes for your pies, too.”
When Arnold snorted and woke up, Albert said, “Thanks to my two most favorite women for a fantastic Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to leftovers tomorrow.” With that, he and Tiffany departed for the Dawdy house.
Arnold shifted in his recliner, “See, Martha. Tiffany is a perfectly lovely girl. The way she can cook, you don’t have to worry about Albert going hungry. And isn’t it lovely to try something new?”
“I suppose,” Martha sniffed. “If only it wasn’t pies.”