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article-2251995-169CB38F000005DC-298_634x640Wouldn’t you know. I’m just about to get into full Thanksgiving mode and word breaks from England, where they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, that my favorite celebrity chef – Nigella Lawson – is being accused of serial drug abuse. Cocaine, no less.

Nigella? Really?

Generally, I expect that the biggest news to break during this, my favorite holiday, is the by now completely-to-be-expected story of how some good ol’ boy down in say, Beaumont, Texas – Texas leads the nation in this you may not be surprised to know – has torched his car port when he plunked the still partially frozen Thanksgiving turkey in a pot of over hot oil. Boom.

I can hear the resulting conversation: “Boy, that sucker took off! Glad the Dodge wasn’t under the car port. Where’s Bubba?”

By the way, the Beaumont Fire Department held a training exercise this week to alert the Texas fryer brigade that hot oil, frozen turkeys and alcohol don’t mix. Throw in a little bad blood with a brother-in-law over the outcome of the Texas v. Texas A&M football game and we’re talking insurance claims. Almost makes me long for a seat at the Cheney family Thanksgiving.

But, seriously, I do love Thanksgiving. It is the most American of holidays and a holiday that has its origins in the right kind of thinking – giving thanks. I’ve also long thought that Thanksgiving was doggedly resisting becoming just another excuse to troop to the mall and rack up credit card debt, but I can apparently give up on being thankful for that.  The morning paper carries a K-Mart ad announcing that the store will be open at 5:00 am Thanksgiving day. Macy’s, WalMart and many other big box merchants have joined K-Mart in unceremoniously dumping the once sacred tradition of being closed on one day of the year where Americans really ought to stay home and enjoy each others, or at least conspire together not to burn down the car port.

I understand the nature of capitalism, just as Pope Francis does, and that the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve is a critical period for many retailers to make it or break it for the year, but 5:00 am on Thanksgiving? Will Thanksgiving now become just another shopping crazed day on the over indulgent road to the post-Christmas sales? Will Denny’s next be offering a turkey dinner to go that you can eat from the comfort of your shopping cart at Best Buy?

I’m sure the Jesuit pope wasn’t thinking specifically of America’s over-indulgent consumer culture (or was he) when he wrote in his latest Apostolic Exhortation, “We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.'”

Words to contemplate on the way to K-Mart in the pre-dawn hours.

Thanksgiving hold special memories for me – Mom’s deft touch with the turkey and gravy, my brother being home, a Detroit Lions game in the background, a special year when two college basketball players joined us for dinner and more recently friends, family, good cheer, too much pie and plenty of love with the leftovers. And, yes, I have a roasting pan overflowing with things to be thankful for this year.

Thanksgiving can’t possibly get better by making it the biggest shopping day of the year, but ultimately only we shoppers have the power to convince the big box guys that some things are too important to turn over to door busting specials. If we stay away, nap on the sofa, help mom with the dishes, play Scrabble with the nieces and nephews, watch an old movie or, heaven forbid, read a book, the guys at Shopko will conclude – it’s the nature of capitalism after all – that opening early on the day after Thanksgiving is still the way to go.

In the spirit of the season, by the way, I am officially suspending judgment on whether the British celeb chef Nigella was getting through what sounds like an awful ten year marriage to Charles Saatchi with the help of something a bit more exotic than turkey breast stuffed with Italian sausage and Marsala-steeped cranberries.

For her part Nigella says the drug abuse charge is nonsense and like all good celebrities she took to Twitter to thank her fans for standing by here. Many said they would bake something in a show of solidarity. That’s the spirit.

I’m standing by, too, and for two reasons. The drug charge is, after all, being made by an ex-husband who we last heard from with his hands around the chef’s throat and, after an exhaustive review of Nigella’s website, I didn’t find a single recipe for frying a turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, take a nap, go for a walk. There are other days to shop, really.



The Year the Johnson’s Integrated Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday; the most American of celebrations dating back, officially at least, to Lincoln and the dark days of the Civil War. It has always meant connection for me – with family, friends, traditions and a profound sense that some of us, the lucky ones, truly are blessed with much to be genuinely thankful for.

I have enduring memories, no doubt ripened over time, of Thanksgivings past. There was the year my Aunt Vera couldn’t quite get the turkey cooked, while my mother – she who knew how to roast a bird – quietly steamed, and not just the brussels sprouts, either. Mom was like I expect many women of her generation, a great cook of basic good things. No lumps in her mashed potatoes – ever. The gravy, she insisted, must be cooked – slowly. Pumpkin pie filling was eased into a crust made by hand. The dressing never came from a box. Mom wouldn’t have known a tortellini from a duck breast, but she knew how to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My father, never much of a hand in the kitchen, would marvel as we set down to the feast that Mom, with little more preparation than a  high school home ec course under her apron, could make it all come out just right and perfectly timed. No undercooked birds in the Johnson household. And she loved the compliments and, yes, fished for them. “Is the turkey moist enough?” she would ask just to be re-assured that the old bird was indeed just right.

“How about some more of everything?” she would suggest and often we would pass the platters again. She was the Empress of Thanksgiving, completely in command of her kitchen/dining room empire.

Poor Aunt Vera. Mom cut her no slack and I don’t believe we ever had Thanksgiving at her house again.

By the middle 1960’s, we had moved far from family to the isolated outpost of Rock Springs, Wyoming. (Of the many places I’ve lived, Rock Springs is the only town that consistently draws a knowing chuckle. Let’s just say that Rock Springs will never be confused with, say, Sun Valley, Idaho or Bozeman, Montana. Think west Texas with about as much charm.)

I was in junior high school in Rock Springs, the new kid in town with little by way of friends and with even less of the social skills that make some teenagers instantly popular with their crowd. Friends were yet to be made and Thanksgiving break that year was just an extra long weekend. What I did possess was a Gail Goodrich autographed model basketball and an abiding love of the game I was trying – slow of foot and short of stature – to master. Thanksgiving wasn’t on my mind, basketball was. We weren’t going to travel to be with family, so I figured, weather permitting and with little else to do, I’d shoot a few hoops in a school playground after the turkey had been served.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Dad brought home news that he’d been asked by a friend at the local community college whether the Johnson’s might be willing to put an extra leaf in the dining room table and roast a slightly larger turkey in order to host two young men from the Western Wyoming Community College basketball squad. Mom, never one to shy from cooking for two or twenty, immediately said yes. I didn’t know what to think. Welcoming total strangers to the Thanksgiving table was something we just didn’t do. I’m sure Mom prepared the turkey just as well as she always did. Knowing her she wanted to impress the college boys with the breast meat moist, the drumsticks savory, the mashed potatoes creamy and the gravy rich and hot. The pies were delicious, I’m sure. Frankly I don’t remember. What I do remember were the two big guys, really big guys, who showed up for dinner that Thanksgiving in windy Rock Springs.

Bill Davis was, as I recall, a rather skinny, 6 foot 8 inch post man with slick and quick moves around the basket. Donald Russell was a brawny, but quick 6 foot 2 inch shooting guard who bore a remarkable resemblance to his more famous older brother, Cazzie, the great University of Michigan and National Basketball Association star. (These memories of the long-ago Wyoming Thanksgiving came rushing back when I read recently the happy news that the great Cazzie Russell had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He deserves to be there. In jogging my memory of Russell and his brother, I stumbled across a piece written about Russell about this time. He was a great basketball player and a good man.)

These basketball playing, turkey eating, very big young men towered over my Dad who was all of 5 foot 6. I remember Mom apologizing that the long legs didn’t fit very well under our modest dining room table. I was in awe. College basketball players at our Thanksgiving table. I don’t recall being smart enough or confident enough to ask them the questions or try to make the conversation that I now wish I might have experienced. I was focused on basketball and the novelty of these two guys at our table. I now wonder what two, rather quiet, even bashful, young African-American men must have thought of our very traditional, Nebraska-inspired menu and ritual? Did they humor us because they had been told to have Thanksgiving dinner with total strangers? They must have missed home and family and we must have been a poor and unfamiliar substitute. They ate well with their long legs under Mom’s table, but was it good food without genuine comfort? What did they really think of us? What did they think of Rock Springs? What did they think of the awkward kid?

I’m going to guess, this part of memory is truly fleeting, that the year the Johnson’s integrated Thanksgiving was 1966. Black Power had entered the national vocabulary in 1966. A half million Americans were in Vietnam. Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India, Star Trek premiered and A Man for All Seasons hit the big screen. Bill Davis and Don Russell came to your house on an important day and, in some small but profoundly important way, I grew up over Thanksgiving dinner. No one would say that Mom and Dad were pacesetters when it came to race relations, but the fact that my conservative, buttoned down father brought those two guys to our dinner table and Mom fed them the best things she could make has left an enduring mark on my heart. It was a truly memorable Thanksgiving.

Bill Davis went on to a pretty decent college career at the University of Arizona and was drafted in the 12th round by the NBA Phoenix Suns in 1968. Don Russell played a little ball for the Wyoming Cowboys, I believe. I watched both young men play several games that season for the local community college and followed them by reading the box scores in the Daily Rocket Miner. I’d had dinner with them, after all. Bill and Don seemed like friends after that Thanksgiving.

Many things in our household to be thankful for in 2011, including the memory of Thanksgivings past, including one particularly memorable dinner for five in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1966.


Happy Thanksgiving

lincolnLincoln’s Decree of Thanksgiving in 1863

It is well to remember that as troubled as our economy is at this traditional season of Thanksgiving, there have been darker times.

During the awful year of 1863, with a vast and bloody civil war raging across the nation, Abraham Lincoln caused the nation to pause and celebrate its bounty and blessings.

Andy Malcolm at his Los Angeles Times blog dusts off that eloquent proclamation today along with President Obama’s Thanksgiving decree.

Enjoy reading them with a profound prayer of Thanksgiving and a hopeful wish for better times – soon – for all the world.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

Lincoln President Lincoln’s Proclamation

Secretary of State William Seward drafted Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 establishing the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Seward’s prose was not nearly as poetic as Lincoln’s, but the fact that the president and his chief advisers could look to the Almighty and give thanks in the middle of an awful civil war is most assuredly a testament to their ultimate faith in the grand experiment called The United States of America.

The full Lincoln proclamation is here.

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving. And, thanks for visiting The Johnson Post.