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.

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