Saturday, November 20, 2010

Blest Be The Tie That Binds

By Mary Margret Daughtridge

When I was a little girl, Thanksgiving dinner preparations started in July.

We might have roast turkey or sweet potato pie anytime there was a large crowd coming to dinner. But pickled peaches were a delicacy, reserved for state occasions and religion-sanctioned holidays. Like Thanksgiving.

"Getting ready for Thanksgiving” officially began on whatever hot day in July Daddy came home with a couple of bushels of glowing, golden peaches.

With Mama issuing orders, we sprang into action. No cooking dinner today. Yellow freestone peaches (not too big, not too small) at the exact, perfect stage of ripe-yet-firm and ready to be pickled, waited for no woman.

My brother David (In my movie-memory of those days he’s always around eleven with serious blue eyes and crew-cut, blond hair) was sent to the pantry to bring out cartons of dusty canning jars.

I was set to washing them at the sink. At nine, I was too young to be trusted, and too short anyway, to put the washed jars into the big vat of boiling water to be sterilized. That job went to Bette, our "help," six fee tall and built like a linebacker.

At the stove, Mama mixed vinegar, sugar and spices into pickling syrup. Her round face already shiny with steam and sweat, she kept everyone moving.

Hot as it already was in the kitchen, it was going to get hotter. She dispatched my freckled, seven-year-old brother Joey to bring to the kitchen the black oscillating fan and the big, rattling, roaring box fan, and hook them up with extension cords. Mother believed Joey showed budding talent with things electrical.

Meanwhile out on the back porch, David filled the galvanized wash tub with cool water and washed the peaches.

Once all the jars were washed and awaiting bubbling baptism, I was put to work making pimento cheese sandwiches and the universal lubricant, iced tea. And anyone who wasn’t doing something else sat down at the chipped, green-painted kitchen table to peel peaches.

Anyone included all children, Mama, Bette, and my skinny little live-in grandmother, plus any neighbors who dropped by, and any friends of us children who came looking for playmates. If you had two working hands and were old enough to know which end of the knife was which, you peeled. When Daddy came home from work for lunch (we called it dinner) he ate a pimento cheese sandwich and peeled too.

I remember those days two ways. I remember sweat pooling underneath me on the hard chair. It stuck my bare thighs to the seat so that every squirm was accompanied by rude, slurping sounds. I remember us kids whining and complaining and pointing out the unfairness of it all. I remember no sympathy—only the adage, “Many hands make light work.”

But I also remember how repartee was an indoor sport in our house and any occasion that had us all sitting down together was an appropriate arena. We laughed until we had to stop peeling to wipe our eyes on paper napkins. We held contests to see who could separate the longest strip of fuzzy peach skin from the slick, golden flesh.

And all the while with every passing minute, the steamy perfume of fresh peaches, cinnamon, and clove, made tangy with vinegar, drugged with sugary sweetness grew stronger and thicker, enfolding us all in a distillation of bounty and beneficence.

When we began to tire and conversation around the table flagged (or degenerated into squabbling) Mother would sometimes ask me lead a hymn. With me to keep us on pitch, everyone joined in. Mama sang in a wobbly soprano. My little brother in his sweet little boy treble, my grandmother in her cracked, old-lady voice, Bette in a contralto smooth and rich as top cream.

In addition to hymns, we took requests. Joey wanted Home, Home on the Range. David favored Battle Hymn of the Republic—but you didn’t sing that Yankee song around my grandmother—so he settled for From the Halls of Montezuma. He also called for Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. We sang it, although I’m sure it was all Bette could do to keep a straight face at the white folks’ rendition. The singing was over when Mama called for Blest Be The Tie That Binds.

I remember the absolute democracy—or do I mean communism? Mother commanded, but she worked the hardest of us all. Black and white, young and old, everyone contributed according to their strengths, and come Thanksgiving, everyone partook according to their tastes.

Times change.

Back in those days, in every household, someone was putting up peaches, but I don’t know anyone who makes pickled peaches anymore. Certainly, I don’t.

And I don’t cook a big meal either. What “makes” Thanksgiving for me is not the food—not even pickled peaches—but the coming together to prepare.

A couple of weeks ago a close group of friends and I agreed that we didn’t want to just show up somewhere and eat. What we wanted to do was to work together.

So bearing made-ahead dishes we’ll gather early at the home of the one who still owns a dining room table, and all together we’ll make the rest.

Maybe I’ll even get them to sing Blest Be The Tie That Binds.

“Blest be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love,

The fellowship of kindred minds/Is like to That above.”

Though I expect Home, Home on the Range will do as well.

Truth is, nobody does a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving anymore. So what "makes" Thanksgiving for you?


  1. What lovely memories. My mom has canned food for as long as I can remember. She cans applesauce and green beans every year and makes preserves. We didn't have much money when I was really young, and I can actually remember her and my aunts canning over a big tub on a fire. Of course now she has a pressure cooker. She has a stockpile of food that will last for years and it's delicious!

  2. Stuffed mushrooms. My grandmother, then my mother and now I make stuffed mushrooms at every holiday. My son came home from school a few months ago and when I asked what he wanted for dinner the next few days, he asked for stuffed mushrooms. I looked at him like he was nuts. We can't have stuffed mushrooms, that's not a dinner. He asked why not. I said that it was an appetizer. So? He asked. I didn't know what to say because there was no good reason we couldn't have stuffed mushrooms anytime we wanted, it's just that we never have. It's not as if it's a difficult dish to make. I think since we're going out for Thanksgiving, on Friday I'll make Stuffed Mushrooms and Apple Pie, just because.

  3. I loved your blog, MM!! Family is what Thanksgiving means to me. Today I will be having Thanksgiving with my daughter and her boyfriend, and I can't wait! No pumpkin pie for us. She wanted me to bring a German chocolate cake, hmmm.... :)

  4. You forgot the flies! Nothing attracts flies like putting up peaches... but as for Thanksgiving, I'm sort of on the same bandwagon here as with Mother's Day and Father's Day...EVERY DAY ought have some Thanksgiving in it, some honoring the people who helped get us launched, and so forth.

  5. MM: Your post brought put some mist in my eyes. I was the one who washed the jars because my hands were small enough to get inside, and I remember the sucking noise as I wiggled around to unstick my sweaty chubby thighs from the chair botton. Those memories hadn't come to the top in many years ... thanks for reminding me of those wonderful days!

  6. Anita, can your mother make those spicy, super-sweet, super-crisp cucumber pickles? I LOVE those and no store bought variety can come close.

    My brothers and I look back sometimes. From today's perspective, there's no question we were poor, but there was so much richness of good things in our lives, we never felt poor. My brother quips, "We enjoyed a better class of poverty."

  7. Robin, I love it.

    You must share your recipe sometime for "traditional" stuffed mushrooms!

  8. So, in Terry-world, today is Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving, Terry!

  9. Grace, you're right. The flies!

    David and Joey vied for the job of fly-killer and counted coup with every swat.

  10. Thanks, MM, the fun of it being a different Thanksgiving Day is I was able to go shopping too! :)

  11. Carolyn, I was struck by your phrase, "I was the one who..."

    It summarizes the sense of having a place in the whole, and of knowing that everyone, old and young, has an attribute that makes them a contributor.

    My brother, Joey, really was too little for anything but fetching and carrying. I still smile at my mother's canny psychology in ascribing mechanical genius to his ability to transport and plug in electric fans.

  12. Wow. Just wow. I love the picture you painted. I wish I could have been in that kitchen with you. It sounds so wonderful.

  13. Marvelous post, as always, MM! I've never had a pickled peach, but I've participated in the canning process of numerous other fruits and vegetables. I stopped canning myself a good many years ago, but your post brings back a lot of memories. Mostly good ones. Thank you for that.

  14. Shanna,nobody exclaimed, "Yippee, it's peach pickling day!" And I certainly don't recall anyone saying at the end of the day, "Gosh, that was wonderful."

    But there was, and still is, a deep, rich goodness that comes from truly sharing both the work and the fruits of the work.

  15. Cheryl, pickled peaches might have been a Southern thing.

    I haven't, myself, done any canning in a long time. I got together with a couple of friends a few years ago, to make watermelon rind pickles, since one said she would put them up if someone would peel the rind. We sat out on her screen porch, peeling and chunking, and had a lovely time.

    I'm glad my post brought back good memories.

  16. Your post brought back memories of my mom making strawberry jam. Though we had it easy because there was nothing to peel, but I remember a huge pot that only came out for jam and how blasted HOT that kitchen got. Good jam though!

  17. What a lovely post, MM. Thank you for sharing what Thanksgiving means to you.

  18. Loved reading this, Mary Margaret. It was as if I was right there peeling peaches with you. I can almost smell them.