Mother’s Thanksgiving


My mother grew up in a time when food was scarce and our Thanksgiving meals reflected semblances of her youth growing up in the South, mixed with the bounty of canned and frozen foods of the Fifties and Sixties.

I asked her once what Indian Thanksgivings were like and she said her grandmother used to mail food from Oklahoma at holidays. Her grandmother sent dried fruit.

My first organized native Thanksgiving was held for Indian students at Cornell, where everyone brought a dish and we shared. Indian Thanksgivings in Oregon range from salmon to deer stew, and again, everyone brings something to share.

Elders always eat first, reminiscent of my own upbringing at holiday meals, when food was geared to adult tastes and the children sat at the kids table. When I grew up I learned to Mind Your Elders and that Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard.

One year my parents recorded the feast on film: lots of cocktails and cigarettes, aunts in high heels and uncles downing hors d’oeuvres. Even in black and white you can see my mother’s red lipstick–her only makeup.

My older sister and I would sneak under the table and steal olives from above, munching on treats between table legs. My grandmother’s favorite was celery stuffed with cream cheese and bleu cheese. I have never been able to recreate it, despite thousands of trials and error.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only times we had hors d’oeuvres: stuffed celery, canned olives, smoked oysters, sweet pickles, dill pickles and pickled beets. The table always held a bowl of spiced peaches, which consisted of canned peaches impaled with cloves. I’ve never seen this at anyone else’s home.

We had Jello, sometimes two kinds. Green or red or yellow inventions made with diced celery and grated carrots or sliced bananas and canned fruit cocktail. Sometimes mother would make orange Jello with canned mandarin oranges.

Mother didn’t know how to make a pie and she never made rolls or bread, but she would whip potatoes with an electric mixer and with the leftovers she’d make mashed potato pancakes for breakfast the next morning. She used oleo instead of butter, and I didn’t know the difference until we ate at a restaurant and the waitress brought over foil-wrapped butter pats for rolls. I have been a butter devotee since.

They say your holiday meals reflect your parents’ upbringing. In my case, foods were pickled and spiced, canned and jellied. It never occurred to me that we should replace frozen with fresh: we were just thankful for the bounty.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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