Poppa Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving has always been a wonderful time for me.  I know that that is not the case for many people but for me, it is a time of reunion, warmth, and celebration.  As a child, it was a time for re-establishing relationships with cousins whom I only saw once or twice a year.  It was a time for grandparents and all of the special ways they helped shape the holiday.  I associate Thanksgiving with my father’s side of the family in south Texas most of all.  Perhaps there were Thanksgivings with my mother’s side, but I don’t recall any.

One of the primary figures of my Thanksgivings was my Poppa, James Martin Burns, Sr.  He was a sharp looking guy, with tan skin, probably from golf and fishing. I was told he had Cajun blood and it seemed to come out once and awhile.  I think of him when I hear the Cajun cook Justin Wilson, whom he loved.  He had a very dry, sarcastic wit that usually escaped me as a child.  I didn’t think of him as funny then.  Instead, he seemed irritable, and maybe he was, but in old pictures and films, I can see that he was very affectionate with me.  He was an important figure in my life, and as I got older I developed a deep, unspoken desire for him to know me.  I’m not sure he ever really did, but I know that he loved me.  It’s difficult to recollect a Thanksgiving memory without him, at least until he passed from our lives.

There are foods and smells which I associate so strongly with him at Thanksgiving.  I come from a line of men who cook, which may have begun with Papa, or may go further back.  Men tend to specialize with their cooking.  Usually outdoor cooking or breakfast.  Papa, at least in my experience, specialized in breakfast.  There is a simple breakfast which originates with him.  We honor that breakfast every Thanksgiving.

There is a tiny, old town in south Texas called, Goliad.  It has some historical significance because it was the site of the Battle of Goliad of which I know little other than the fact that there is a really cool fort .  It’s a beautiful little southern town with ancient oaks growing in the middle of it’s streets.  My Big Nanny and my Grannie Floss lived there so we visited once a year around Thanksgiving.  There, you will find a little grocery store which sells local mesquite-smoked link sausage. We call it Grannie Floss or Goliad sausage. On Thanksgiving morning, Poppa would simmer it in a covered pan of water until it was juicy and had a little sizzle on it. The smoky smell would permeate the house.  With it, he served scrambled eggs.

Papa’s eggs were unlike any I had eaten when I was a kid.  I really didn’t like any other scrambled eggs except for his (sorry Mom!).  Before cooking them, he whisked them until the eggs were fully blended along with a little milk to give them a bit of body.  He melted a generous portion of butter in a low heated pan and poured the eggs.  He would move the eggs slowly across the pan as he sipped a Bloody Mary or a Screwdriver and chatted with whomever was hanging out in the kitchen until plump pillows of eggs emerged in the pan the size of pecans or larger.  He served the sausage and eggs with buttered toast and more breakfast cocktails for the adults. The smell of that sausage brings me close to his memory every year. Add the smell of a Bloody Mary to that and he’d be close enough to take a sip.  I have a link of that sausage in my refrigerator special for Thanksgiving morning.

daramieguayaberaAt Thanksgiving, he nearly always wore Guayaberas Mexican shirts.  I don’t know how he felt about Hispanics, but he had a little bit of a flare with the language.  He spoke the English words which had Spanish origins with the proper Spanish pronunciation.  I especially remember the way he pronounced machete and patio.  I’m not sure if he was aware he was doing it or if it was common among all older south Texans. I liked it, and I do it once in awhile just to remember him.

He served Cold Duck, a sparkling sweet wine you can buy at a gas station, to the adults and sparkling juice for the kids, which made me feel included.

buttermilk-pie-101Poppa taught us about buttermilk.  I’d never seen it, tasted it, or heard of it until the Thanksgiving he made buttermilk pie.  Buttermilk pie is a Southern specialty made from buttermilk, sugar, butter, and eggs.  It is not unlike chess pie or creme brulee in richness. I’m told he picked the recipe up from the back of a buttermilk carton. It tastes especially good the next morning out of the icebox with a dollup of Coolwhip.  The first time I tasted straight buttermilk, I was repulsed.  I thought it had gone bad.  But I eventually developed a liking for it.  I married a woman who grew up drinking buttermilk so we keep it in the house once in awhile.  My daughter makes as good a buttermilk pie as any I’ve tasted.  Papa might not have shown it, but he would have been proud of her.

My children met Poppa once.  I believe it was Thanksgiving and he was in the VA hospital.  He could no longer speak, and I wasn’t sure if he knew who we were.  I hadn’t seen him in years because there had been a bit of an estrangement.  He was as handsome as I’d ever seen him.  His hair was pure silver.  He did something which led me to believe he knew exactly who I was and who my children were in relationship to him.  Something which I never consciously noticed him doing as a child until he did it with my kids.  He made a little kissy sound out of the corner of his mouth, the kind you might make to attract the attention of a cat.  In that moment I felt that perhaps this little mannerism had been the embodiment of his affection for me as a kid.   He would do it while the other adults were talking, just a quick gesture to let me know that I was on his radar.  That was the last time I ever saw him.  He died soon after.

Tomorrow, the first thing I will eat will be Goliad sausage and Poppa’s eggs,  and the last thing I will eat is buttermilk pie; a fitting beginning and a fitting ending to a holiday over which my Poppa once presided.

Thanksgiving Folklore: The Cat Thermometer

75406741Every family has it’s folklore; those stories which get told over and over at family gatherings.  Cat Thermometer is told nearly every Thanksgiving, and usually from several perspectives.  My brother, Paul, has told his version in sermons.  My aunt Pat tells a version at family gatherings upon request.  My version includes a scene that no one else witnessed but me.

During my late childhood, my family had a wonderful tradition of travelling to San Antonio to stay with my Aunt Pat’s family for Thanksgiving.  I have so many vivid memories from this time in my life.  We developed traditions which I looked forward to every year, and which I now cherish in my memories.

The ride from Oklahoma is still so fresh in my mind.  For much of my childhood, we traveled in a Ford Fairmont station wagon; first a yellow, and then a powder blue.  My brothers and I rode in the back on comfy palettes of blankets.  We listened to cassette tapes on our Walkman knock offs, and played road games such as the alphabet game and the car game.  The car game was when each of us picked a color and we counted cars with our color to see who could spot the most.  It really wasn’t a great game because we knew which colors would probably win from the very beginning, but we didn’t really care.

The windows of the car were generally cold to the touch in the autumn air and it was almost always cloudy.  My dad would try to time our departure to avoid the traffic in Dallas and Austin, but there were many times when we were bumper to bumper due to accidents and construction.

Upon arrival, we could expect a chili and tamale dinner.  It’s easy to get homemade tamales in south Texas, but these were special.  I believe an Hispanic woman named Rosa made them fresh for us.  The adults drank cocktails and played cards late into the night while we slept.  There was something marvelous to me about the fact that my parents had a social life that didn’t involve me.

We watched the lights turn on at the River Parade on Friday after Thanksgiving, and ate an awesome meal at cousin Tammy’s on Saturday.  Sometimes we attended church on Sunday morning at St. George’s Episcopal before we returned home.

But, of course, Thanksgiving Day was the main event.  Parades, football, the smell of turkey drifting out of the kitchen, special family recipes being prepared.  One year, when I must have been in high school, I was sitting at the breakfast bar off the kitchen eating the traditional Goliad (Grannie Floss) sausage.  Grannie Floss, my great-grandmother, lived in Goliad, TX.  There is a store in Goliad which sells excellent, locally crafted, mesquite-smoked sausage.  My grandfather used to cook it for us, and we adopted it for Thanksgiving mornings along with cheese grits or buttery scrambled eggs.  When Grannie Floss died, I began to feel uncomfortable calling it Grannie Floss sausage because it brought to mind horrific images of cannibalism.  So I call it Goliad sausage.

My dad sauntered up to me, unshaven, in his robe and slippers.He had a very anxious energy about him, but I could see that he was trying to appear cool.

He said, ever so casually, wiggling his jaw with his hand.  “How do you know if you have lock jaw?” He said it as if he was just curious, like if he’d asked, “What’s the capital of Angola?”

I shrugged.  “Maybe your jaw locks up?  Why?”  I asked.

“Well, I stepped on a nail last night and it may have been a little rusty.”

My dad is a bit of a worrier.  There are many tales of his hypochondriac worries, all of which I loved to hear.

“Dad, I’m sure it’s nothing.  Did you have a tetanus shot?”

“Well.  It’s been a few years.”  He held his jaw with his hand again and wiggled it around.  “It feels just a little stiff.”

“Dad, it is nothing.  It’s all in your head.  I promise.”

“Hmm.  You’re probably right.  No biggie.” With that, he shuffled away.

That was the last I heard about it until after dinner.  We were all sitting in the living room visiting and eating pie when my dad walked up and casually leaned against the entry way.  He had a long thermometer in his mouth, and once again he was trying to appear calm and cool.

Then my aunt Pat noticed him.  “Jack? What’s the matter?”

“Oh, I just wanted to check my temperature.  I stepped on a nail earlier.”

“Where did you get that thermometer?” she said, her voice rising.

“I got it from the cabinet by the kitchen.”

“Jack! That’s the cat thermometer!” she exclaimed.

He shrugged, leaving it in his mouth.

“Do you know what part of the cat that goes in?”

He shrugged again.

“Jack!!  It goes in it’s… it’s…it’s…anus!”

He pulled the thermometer out so quickly that he nearly dropped it on the floor, which was a big deal then because thermometers used to contain mercury.

The room exploded with laughter.  It was classic Jack. He grinned sheepishly and let us enjoy the moment.  We loved collecting these kinds of stories about him, and we knew immediately that this one would be one of the greats.

I don’t know how he feels about being the butt of these stories.  He seems to take it all with a humble sense of humor.  We’ve told it many times over the years, perhaps even to the exclusion of other stories.  Maybe it’s because this story represents every element of the other stories in one neat package. He never did contract lock jaw.

I call it folklore, but it won’t truly be folklore until my children tell it to their children on Thanksgiving one day.  I’ve been hesitant to write this down because folklore is passed down orally, but I think the thermometer stands alone as oral enough.