Monday, November 19, 2007

A Thanksgiving Memory

Here is a picture of me and my parents, Thanksgiving Day, 1952, Camp Stewart, Georgia. We may have eaten dinner in the mess hall that day, too, as I think my mother and I had only recently arrived in Georgia. Under Mama's peplum is my brother, who was born about 4 months later.

This Sunday our local paper ran a feature in which several Mainers reminisced about disastrous Thanksgiving dinners in their pasts -- the sort of thing that's very funny in retrospect but at the time -- not so much. I'm not sure whether my favorite was the one where the grandma broke the chandelier, sending shards of glass into every bit of the dinner, or the story about the college boys who tried cooking their turkey in beer. However, the article brought to mind a semi-disastrous Thanksgiving dinner in my childhood.

As far back as I can remember, our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners began with shrimp cocktail. Now, it's true that my father grew up "on the shore."

[Brief digression for an absolutely true remembered conversation:
Daddy, pontificating: "Yes, Knickers, your mother's people were all farmers, but your Father's people were fisherfolk."
Mama, with perfect timing: "SIMPLE fisherfolk."]

It was not in Cundy's Harbor that my father learned to begin a holiday meal with shrimp cocktail, but in the Army. Then as now, no matter what you may have heard about Army chow, the mess sergeants did their best to provide a special meal at holiday time for young men far from home. At least in the 40s and 50s, a shrimp cocktail starter was de rigueur for a festive meal. So that's what we had at home, too.

At Thanksgiving of 1957, we were about to leave Wiesbaden, Germany, for my father's new assignment in Connecticut. We weren't leaving until early December, but our household goods had already been packed and sent on ahead, including the more specialized pots and pans. So my parents decided we would have Thanksgiving dinner in the unit's mess hall. On the day, my parents herded the five of us, ranging from 9 down to 3 1/2 years old, into the hall and we sat down with the soldiers to await the feast. The first course arrived, shrimp cocktail, as expected. But there was something strange, and we were quickly warned by our parents not to eat the shrimp.

Evidently, the mess sergeant had assigned his rawest recruit to prepare the shrimp cocktail, one of the simplest dishes on the menu. And evidently, said recruit was from Kansas, or some other inland state. He did know that people eat clams and oysters raw, and must have thought one kind of seafood was much like another. Instead of the lovely, firm, pink shrimp we had been expecting, there before us sat, artfully arranged around the goblets of cocktail sauce, grey, translucent, raw shrimp. I hope they collected the shrimp and cooked them later, but I don't know. It was certainly an odd beginning to an otherwise good dinner. We never ate Thanksgiving dinner in the mess hall again, but for many years afterwards, as I helped my father taste-test the cocktail sauce, we would remember the infamous raw shrimp cocktail.

Here is a picture of my mother, many years later (perhaps in the early 1980s as it is a Polaroid photo) with two tables set for a family Thanksgiving. By this time I was living "in exile" in City of Lakes and going to Onkel Hankie Pants' parents' home for Thanksgiving. No shrimp cocktail, just green bean casserole, but good.

1 comment:

Songbird said...

I'll be in your neighborhood on Thursday!
Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!