Thanksgivings Past: 5 Sheets of Onion-Skin Paper

November 21, 2017


All of the childhood Thanksgivings that I can remember (all of them, from the first time I have a memory of Thanksgiving, which is no small amount of time) began the same way: with five sheets of typewritten instructions, on onion-skin paper, tucked carefully away in a red, weathered copy of The Betty Crocker Complete Cookbook. Mama would take the cookbook down from a kitchen shelf and gingerly, carefully smooth out the sheets of paper with her fingers, studying. The papers were once pristine, I imagine, but by the time I was old enough to reach the counter to get a look at them, they were weathered, yellow around the edges, decorated with splatters of various colors and sizes.

Those instructions were lovingly typed by my grandmother, Henrietta, weeks before my mother cooked her first Thanksgiving meal as a married woman. When my mother got married, she couldn’t cook; the best she could do was make a salad, so you can imagine how daunting it must have felt to Mama, staring down her first turkey. Mama followed those instructions to the letter, year after year. Even by the time I was in college, and my mother had made dozens and dozens of Thanksgiving meals, she always began with those papers, stowed away for safekeeping in that red battered cookbook. I don’t think she needed those papers in a technical sense, but there they still were. By then I think they were more sentimental than useful, but that made them no less important.

Every year, I’d read over them again and laugh, because they were SO detailed, so precise that they hinged on comical. Clearly, my mother was out of her element that year–and probably for a few years afterward, for that matter. They also were peppered with my grandmother’s Southern vernacular and written in such a conversational style that her voice burst out of the pages as you read. I could hear her drawl, the funny little way she snipped her consonants. When we cooked with those instructions, she was resurrected. She really was in that kitchen with us. I could feel her, and feel her love.

“Now, Cissy [my grandmother’s nickname for my mother], remember to pat the turkey dry before you season it with the butter and the spices. You can’t go slathering a wet turkey–all of the goodness will slide right off, and what use is that?”

“Don’t forget to take the bag of giblets out of the cavity of the turkey. Your aunt Sarah forgot one year and it filled the kitchen with the grandest stink you could ever imagine. You also need the giblets to make any kind of decent gravy, so pay mind.”

“The cranberry relish tastes so much better if you make it several days ahead of time. It will keep in the refrigerator and actually get better. I always like to add a thimbleful or two of Grand Marnier to the relish but don’t tell Mammy about that if she’s at dinner. She won’t notice a lick.”

“Allow 3-4 creamed pearl onions per person, on average, unless Larry Jones is at the table. He has been known to ingest double or even triple that amount so plan accordingly. That man does fancy his creamed pearl onions.”

“When the turkey comes out of the oven, cover it and let it rest. Make sure you put it on a safe counter to rest until you serve it. One year Aunt Mary’s cat got into the cooked turkey–remember? Lord, what a pickle.” [Kitch’s note: the cat was discovered noshing before it had done too much damage; my grandmother and Aunt Mary whisked the cat off the counter, cut off the offending patch, and served the turkey fully carved on a tray that year].


                                                                           ^This cat is different but still getting a scolding



Mama and I would spend days in the kitchen, laughing and musing about Thanksgivings past, family quirks, chopping and stirring bubbling pots as we worked through the pages of Gramma Rhetta’s holiday missive. By the time we got to the last page, we were bone-tired from cooking, washing, reminiscing and laughing, but we wouldn’t have changed a thing.

That’s the good stuff, right there.

What only looks like 5 pages of onion-skin paper is not just paper. It is so, so much more.

It’s love. It’s family. It’s holiday togetherness. It’s the ties that bind and the people who’ve made you who you are.

It’s home.

It’s everything.



Happy Thanksgiving, Readers. May it be full of people you love and warm food in your bellies. Much love to you and yours.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie November 21, 2017 at 3:52 pm

This is just perfect.


Tracy Schmitt November 21, 2017 at 4:28 pm

This is just absolutely fabulous and brings such a warm feeling of love and nostalgia and Thanksgiving time.


Annie November 21, 2017 at 7:44 pm

This brought tears to my eyes. Love you and all your stories about Mama.


Papa Guy November 21, 2017 at 9:38 pm

I think I said something last time I saw that picture of your Mother standing in front of the very same stove that my mother, who passed several years ago, had in her Kitchen. Puts me in mind of the Thanksgivings we had all those years ago, when all who have gone before us were here.
well played deary.
Have a peaceful Holiday (if you can)


Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon November 22, 2017 at 7:13 am

It’s a touchstone. Thanks for sharing these memories.


Lisa November 22, 2017 at 10:35 am

This is perfectly beautiful. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!


Cameron D. Garriepy November 22, 2017 at 1:16 pm

And this is why I still use the handwritten recipe cards my mother gave me when I got my first apartment, despite the formal culinary education I acquired later. It’s so much more than recipes.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Dana Talusani November 22, 2017 at 3:25 pm


I love all of my mother’s recipe cards–she died a year and a half ago but it always comforts me to pull out that recipe box and see words written in her distinctive, loopy cursive. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!


Kel November 24, 2017 at 9:23 pm

This is beautiful. And it is exactly why I wrote out a bunch of my recipes — the ones that the kids will call me in the middle of a meeting to ask the ingredients for — on notebook paper. Then I photographed them, along with some prep pics, etc, and made a photobook/cookbook on Shutterfly. They now have a “cookbook” template, but I wanted it to be a true photo book. I made one for each kid, and they absolutely love it. It’s one of the coolest projects I’ve ever done for them. Of course, being me, I added a healthy dose of humor and sarcasm, and even added a horribly insensitive, inappropriate family joke as the title. But well worth it.

I’m so glad you had those times with your Mama as well. And I know she’s wiping away a tear right now, having read that post.


Dana Talusani November 25, 2017 at 7:56 am


What an amazing gift to give to your kids. I know they’ll always treasure it. Especially with the insensitive, inappropriate family joke! :)


Sherri November 30, 2017 at 8:02 am

What a great, poignant recall of your past Thanksgivings. Hope you had a nice one :).


Theresa A. November 30, 2017 at 8:25 am

What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing your memories with us! I enjoy hearing everyone’s holiday traditions.

Mine is of always helping my dad to make the stuffing early in the morning, once I was old enough to hold a knife. As a nurse, I miss some years, and this year my dad commented on missing my help. It was such a sweet little comment from him, and I doubt he knows how much it meant to me.


Biz November 17, 2018 at 5:50 pm

I love this post so much. I got my grandma’s Fannie Farmer cookbook – that had been opened and closed so many times that it had duct tape as binding. You could tell the more used recipes as those also had a spattering of whatever on the pages. And little written notes “reduce the salt by half!”

Sending you giant hugs this holiday season – you were so good to me when my husband died four years ago – sending me that box of goodies. How is it four years?!

Hugs. :D


Dana Talusani November 25, 2018 at 2:33 pm


Four years. Wow. And two since I lost my mother–it feels like it happened yesterday and also a million years ago. Is that possible? It doesn’t make sense, does it? Hoping we both get through the holidays without too much turmoil. xoxo


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