Our Thanksgiving tradition is … change

Of all the family holidays, Thanksgiving has been the one that most often has departed from the norm for me over the years, in terms of both location and the accompanying meal, adding a touch of adventure to the day. I’ve written a column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about our “movable feast, but here’s an expanded version in which I share quite a few more reminiscences of the holiday. …

bonfire 3 olivia king
The King family’s Thanksgiving tradition is that the holiday has been the one most subject to change. Nowadays, a big country bonfire is part of it. (Photo: Olivia King)

My early Thanksgivings in my hometown of Athens were pretty traditional. My parents played host to Grandma King and my Uncle Larry (Dad’s kid brother, just 11 years older than me). After the meal, we usually wound up listening on the radio to the Bullpups vs. Baby Jackets charity football game played for the Governor’s Cup on Thanksgiving for  60 years at Grant Field (back in the days when schools fielded separate freshman teams), and then we’d wind up playing football out in the front yard.

And, on those occasions when the Georgia and Georgia Tech varsity teams played on Thanksgiving, that would be a big focus of the holiday. A favorite memory is when my Athens High School classmate Andy Johnson led the Dawgs to a last-minute victory over the Jackets in a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving night in 1971.

bullpups 1966 from 1967 Pandora
The Georgia Bullpups freshman team beat the Georgia Tech Baby Jackets in the annual Thanksgiving charity football game in 1966. (Pandora yearbook)

It was, however, football that provided me with my first departure from the usual Thanksgiving, as I joined a Sunday school group attending the 1966 Bullpups vs. Baby Jackets charity freshman game, which featured another Athenian, Paul Gilbert, quarterbacking the Bullpups. I remember we loudly dissed the Tech stadium as we sat down, and we quickly were showered with popcorn (complete with some boxes!) tossed down on us by surrounding Tech fans. Georgia won the game, so it was a fun day.

Three years later, as a high school senior, I missed the family gathering for one of my most memorable Thanksgivings. Early on the morning of the holiday, I was one of a half dozen staffers from Athens High’s Thumb Tack Tribune student newspaper flying to Chicago with our former adviser for a national journalism convention.

I wore a three-piece suit my parents had bought for me just for that trip. Most of us never had flown before. I remember my ears didn’t unclog until that evening.

It also was the first time my classmate Clissa England had flown, “and that was fun,” she recalled recently, adding: “It was so cold there, that I spent all my extra money on a pair of fur-lined boots that I wore for years. I’m not sure I could have even bought a pair like it in Athens!”

I was the only boy on the trip, which meant I had my own room, while the girls all doubled up.

The convention didn’t start until the next day, and our chaperone, Robin (known fondly as “the Bird”) had assumed we could spend Thanksgiving afternoon visiting museums or other edifying local attractions, but they all were closed. Finally, we asked a Chicago cop what we could do, and he suggested riding the famed “L” train out to Evanston and back, so we did.

the berghoff
The famed Berghoff restaurant in Chicago.

That evening, instead of seeking out turkey and dressing, we dined at the Berghoff, a long-established family-owned German restaurant near the Palmer House, where we were staying. It was a bit pricey for high school students, but the Bird had heard about the place and wanted to eat there, so she had told us to save up for it.

I ordered a grilled fish (trout, I think) and was surprised that it came whole, complete with the head! I had no idea how to go about eating it. As my intended meal and I were eyeing each other, a gentleman at a nearby table came over and kindly showed me how to insert my knife at the tail, cut up to the head, flip it open, and remove the backbone.

The next night, we visited the Victorian-era Old Town section of Chicago, which reminded us of the then-thriving Underground Atlanta. While we were deciding what to have for dinner (I think it ended up being burgers), one my classmates was leaning against a lamp post, and a police officer, apparently used to “working girls” assuming that pose, suggested the post would stand up by itself and she should move on. She got a bit of teasing from the rest of us.

The biggest part of the adventure for me came on the Sunday, when we went to O’Hare to board our flight back to Atlanta. This was in the days of paper tickets, and the Delta agent in Atlanta mistakenly had pulled my return ticket as well when she took the ticket to Chicago. They wouldn’t let me board the plane!

As Clissa recalls: “I still remember the Bird’s face when she had to leave you at the Chicago airport. And, if I recall, your dad was one of the parents who picked us up, and we had to tell him you would arrive later!”

I caught a later indirect flight and finally arrived back at the old Atlanta airport. Thankfully, one of the girls on the trip, Saye Sutton, had hung around with her Atlanta boyfriend, and they took me back to Athens.

Harrison-74-tour
George Harrison during his 1974 North American tour. (Best Classic Bands)

Five years later, on Nov. 28, 1974, I again was absent from the family holiday gathering in Athens as my date and I enjoyed the lavish Thanksgiving buffet at the Stone Mountain Inn before attending a George Harrison concert that night at Atlanta’s Omni. George performed with a band that included Billy Preston, and despite the fact that the Beatles guitarist was hoarse, the show was quite a thrill — the first time I saw a Beatle perform live. (It seems incredible now, but Harrison actually performed two separate concerts at the Omni that night. No artist ever would do that these days!)

Exactly a year and a day later, I married Leslie Thornton, the young woman who had attended the Harrison show with me, in a ceremony at the antebellum childhood home of famed journalist Henry Grady in Athens. My memories of that 1975 Thanksgiving are chiefly of last-minute wedding preparations — and watching Georgia beat Georgia Tech again on national television.

For a decade after that, Leslie and I traveled to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for a Thanksgiving gathering at Leslie’s grandmother’s house. The family was Italian, but the only Italian touch to the meal was the serving of a predinner antipasto with pickled vegetables. In addition to the usual Thanksgiving offerings, her grandmother also made a faux “mincemeat” pie (with apples, cloves and cinnamon).

After Leslie’s grandmother eventually gave up hosting Thanksgiving, we settled back into celebrating it with my parents.

Although born in Britain, Mom went all-American for Thanksgiving, preparing a huge repast that included turkey, ham, gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato souffle, squash casserole, cranberry congealed salad (or, sometimes, either sliced jellied cranberry sauce, or a cranberry apple compote), her renowned brown bread, and yeast rolls. Some years, to change the menu up a little, she’d add a Wellington made with turkey (instead of beef) or turkey divan.

However, the stars of the meal definitely were the desserts, which included pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, and pound cake. As my brother Jonathan recalled, “Mom had a way with pies.”

mollie king cooks
Mollie Parry King in her Athens kitchen. (Bill King)

My daughter Olivia said her chief memory of those gatherings is “Grandma in the kitchen early on Thanksgiving Day.”

My Dad, who wasn’t really a fan of turkey, admonished his sons each year, “Take some turkey with you. Otherwise, I’ll be eating turkey sandwiches, turkey stew, turkey hash …”

The day after, we usually stayed over in Athens for shopping. And, my daughter recalls, that was when Mom got out her collection of Father Christmas figures to position around the house. “That was always a highlight for me,” Olivia said.

One year, we missed the Athens gathering when Leslie was sick. I wound up having a solo Thanksgiving lunch sitting at the bar in a neighborhood tavern.

That was depressing, but my least favorite Thanksgiving definitely was 2008. My mother had died suddenly 10 days earlier, and we were preparing to move Dad into assisted living the next day, much to his consternation. As my brother Tim put it: “Definitely not a day in the happy memory book.”

olivia king thanksgiving turkey
Olivia King stripping the turkey on Thanksgiving morning during one of our makeshift celebrations at the former family home in Athens. (Bill King)

Funnily enough, the only time my wife and I ever have “hosted” a Thanksgiving feast was for the first three years after Mom’s death, when  my family and brother Tim gathered at my parents’ old home in Athens for a meal overseen by my daughter, and centered around a grocery store-cooked turkey and fixings. (My brother Jon and his family traveled to Atlanta to dine with his in-laws.)

Since then, for the past seven years, we’ve traveled to the North Georgia mountains for a large country-style Thanksgiving hosted by Leslie’s niece and her husband, Maggie and Richard Johnson, at their Blackberry Farmstead, a 23-acre farm located near Toccoa.

The vast menu for the meal, which usually feeds 25 to 30 guests, features contributions from all the married family members. As Maggie told me recently, “The young and unwed aren’t asked to bring anything. Once their status changes, we usually start with something small like sweet tea or a veggie tray. If they prove to be responsible enough to bring the less significant items, we graduate them up to something more substantial.”

Maggie said that most of the recipes come from her father’s mom. “After spending so many years at Thanksgiving with her, we try to keep it as authentic as possible, even using her same vintage Taylor Smith Classic Heritage Green China.”

toccoa group shot betsy skelton
The Thanksgiving Day celebration at Blackberry Farmstead draws a big family crowd. (Betsy Skelton)

Besides turkey and dressing and yeast rolls, there’s squash casserole, macaroni, sweet potato souffle, broccoli salad, green bean casserole, fruit salad, and, as Maggie put it, her younger brother Conrad and his wife April “add a more modern flare by bringing a cold wild rice dish and Brussels sprouts.” The desserts include the traditional pumpkin and apple pies, plus Leslie makes pumpkin seed brownies and banana pudding, and Olivia, who goes up a day early to help her cousin with preparations, makes Christmas mounds.

There’s also a raffle for various homemade prizes, including some of the goat’s milk and beeswax and honey products that Maggie and Richard produce and sell.

farm goat
Bill King looks on as his son Bill and daughter Olivia play with a baby goat. (Jenny Robb-King)

Thanksgiving afternoon is spent with Maggie and Richard’s kids, Delaney, Dylan and Fern, guiding us around a virtual petting zoo of animals that roam the farm, including goats named after country music legends (Maybelle, Dolly, Kitty Wells and so on), a pair of potbellied pigs (Buzz Lightyear and Hollywood), Great Pyrenees dogs, guinea fowl, chickens and ducks. Cuddling the baby goats is a particular highlight for Olivia, as well as our son Bill and his wife, Jenny, and Leslie loves bringing Pup-Peroni treats for the dogs.

The Toccoa gathering was my daughter-in-law Jenny’s introduction to the family a few years back, and she remembers “my first reaction was just amazement that so many people could all fit in one room!”

Jenny said she also was surprised (and delighted) to see Maggie’s kids being so confident with the animals. “I commented on one of those chickens with the crazy looking feathers that looks like a silly hairdo (Polish chickens), and the next thing I knew Delaney had grabbed one and was handing it to me!”

The Toccoa gatherings wind up Thanksgiving evening with hotdogs and s’mores roasted over an old-fashioned bonfire.

That may not be the usual holiday fare, but it’s right in keeping with my family’s rather untraditional Thanksgiving tradition.

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