A Taste of Tradition From Turkey, Texas

Through uncounted years, I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the Texas hill country. Sometimes I served dinner at a little cabin in the woods; from time to time, I joined friends up on the ridge, or out at Cypress or Upper Turtle Creeks.

The menu was simple as the day itself. Conversation supplanted football, and late afternoon walks in the woods were common. Evenings meant music: homemade, often inelegant, but resonant with the sound of Texas traditions. There were guitars, and sometimes a fiddle or mandolin. Invariably, the music led to dancing and singing, and more than a few back porches became dancehalls for the night.

It was our tradition.

In a book titled Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Today, Bob Wills and his Playboys are gone, as are many of the hill country musicians I knew and loved. But the music lives on, and in hidden corners of Texas, that music will be playing today. It’s possible that a two-step might break out in the yard, or that someone still sitting on the steps might begin singing along. 

After all, it’s our tradition.


Comments always are welcome.

70 thoughts on “A Taste of Tradition From Turkey, Texas

  1. Traditions are maintained, kept, modified, adjusted, and sometimes forgotten too. A good friend of mine years ago, a Sephardic Jew whose family had moved here from Tangiers, told me that his father was totally bewildered by the dominant Ashkenazi communities and congregations, and barely thought they were Jewish because they had different traditions. His children and grandchildren, I might add, have done little to maintain the traditions, and are mostly secular. Those traditions will surely die.

    1. Traditions can fade away, especially among families. When I was young and still firmly embedded in Swedish culture, we always celebrated the feast of Santa Lucia on December 13. Special treats and candlelight in the darkness were wonderful then, and they’re wonderful now. I no longer celebrate, since the family and community that surrounded me are gone, but the Swedish Club in Houston continues the tradition, to the delight of many Swedes who enjoy remembering their own participation in the celebration.

  2. Do not forget that while we bask in tradition, it is also our duty as matriarchs and patriarchs to pass along NEW traditions, ones that take their place ALONGSIDE traditions of the past, and continue to honor our ancestors.
    In these times of pandemic, some holiday traditions are difficult, if not impossible, to execute…but it’s up to us to not let them go forgotten.

    1. What’s especially fun is realizing that, in the beginning, traditions aren’t traditions: they’re just events, or experiences. Then they’re repeated, and repeated again. After some time passes, we realize that without that experience or event, a special day wouldn’t be complete, and a new tradition is born.

      Who knows what traditions are being created today? I’m especially grateful for the creativity being shown in this odd time — although I’d prefer to keep chocolate out of my pecan pie.

  3. we didn’t do Thanksgiving at my house growing up. my mother said she wasn’t doing all that food if she just had to do it again a month later for Christmas. the irony is that I don’t ever remember her cooking our Christmas dinner, the maid did and another couple (who had their dinner on Christmas Day) came and served it and cleaned up afterwards. and then when I was 12 my parents bought a lot in Sea Isle on Galveston’s west end and built a beach house and forever after Thanksgiving was spent there along with every weekend and summers. (I think I just started my next blog post). After I married we would go to his mother’s house for a very laid back casual Thanksgiving except for the few times we hosted it all formal like (had to use all that china and silver sometime).

    1. I pass through Sea Isle from time to time on my way to a favorite spot on the other side of the San Luis bridge. I like that part of the island; it must have been great to spend time there. Some years we had Thanksgiving dinner at our house, especially when my mother’s sister and her family came, but otherwise we went to my grandparents’ home, about thirty miles away. Dad’s brothers and sisters came regardless of distance, and there was enough food to feed us, the neighbors, and any passers-by for a week. If I could find spiced crab apples like Grandma made, I’d be darned happy.

      I laughed at your remark about the china and silver. Those dinners were productions, for sure. I still have the silver, and I finally started using it for everyday, along with some of the china. I finally got it through my head there was nothing to save it for.

  4. Traditions are somewhat fluid and often personal–old ones sometimes end and new ones start. Thanks, Linda, for stimulating me to think about them. Holidays are a great time to look to the past. I will be having turkey later today, even though there will be only three of us, the members of my little pod–I really couldn’t contemplate skipping turkey this year. I must say, though, that when I was growing up in the Boston suburbs, we definitely were not dancing the Cotton Eyed Joe. For me, the key to traditions is maintaining the reasons that underpin them–we follow them because of what they mean to us and not merely because of blind allegiance to past practices.

    1. Your mention of blind allegiance to past practice made me smile. It reminded me of a moment of liberation that came to my mother and me some years ago.

      After decades of turkey and dressing on holiday dinner tables, we’d come to the point where we were the only family left, apart from a few living too far away to join us at Thanksgiving. One day, as we were planning our Thanksgiving dinner, we got to the turkey and my mother grew silent. When I asked what she was thinking about, she blurted out, “I hate turkey!” I’d never been so relieved in my life. When I said that I wasn’t especially fond of it either, we agreed on the spot that it would be stuffed pork loin on the table that year.

      Eventually, we figured out that messing with the turkey was what we hated, and we moved to a whole, fresh turkey breast. This year, I took the next step and ordered a pecan-smoked, ready to eat turkey breast from a fabulous meat market in another town. The turkey tradition endures — adapted to changing circumstances.

      Enjoy your own turkey, and the chance to share it with friends. Here’s to better times to come.

      1. Amen. As people reconcile themselves to small celebrations this year, multiple people have told me they are choosing something other than turkey, ranging from a New York strip steak to a stuffed fish. Your pecan smoked turkey breast sounds wonderful. I have the best of both worlds this year. I bought an almost 15 pound turkey for three of us, but my married friends (we consider ourselves to be a “pod”) both love to cook and they are cooking the turkey–I am pretty sure we will have plenty of leftovers.

        1. If I could have laid my hands on a flounder, stuffed fish would have been on the table here, too. Flounder’s around, but a little patchy. I suspect our coming cold front will finally start a good flounder run.

  5. This post made me smile. Sounds like a wonderful tradition. And Mike Powell is right: “Traditions are somewhat fluid and often personal-old ones sometimes end and new ones start.” Clif and I are now vegetarians, but no matter. We will celebrate Thanksgiving in our own tasty way, just the two of us. Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    1. When I think of Thanksgiving meals I’ve had, some have ranged far from the traditional American menu. In truth, it’s not what’s on the table that’s as important as who’s around the table — or on the porch, or at the other end of the phone line (how’s that for an old lady reference?), or on the video chat. Right now, I have a possum and two squirrels eyeing each other over the banquet I set out. I hope they’re willing to share.

      1. I loved the song and video, Linda! Your mention of the phone line reminded me of a memory of my mother’s from her childhood. She grew up in Baton Rouge. When she was a little girl, probably just after the war, she remembers talking on the phone on holidays with her grandparents, who lived in Buffalo, New York. The calls were very short because of the cost, and she was scolded by her mother if she talked too much. A very different time!

        1. It certainly was a different time. One of the favorite tricks back then was placing a pre-arranged person to person call. When the operator asked the recipient, “Will you accept a call from [fill in the blank]?” it was a way to let the folks back home know we’d reached our destination and were fine — without incurring any charges! They’d just refuse the call, and that was the end of it.

          I spent some time in Baton Rouge as a kid. I had a couple of great-aunts who lived there, out near the Amite River on Harrell’s Ferry Road. I have wonderful memories of the place, especially the lemon and pecan trees, and the Spanish Moss.

          1. Mom lived at the corner of Jefferson Highway and Essen Lane, across from the Baton Rouge Country Club. In those days Essen Lane was unpaved. Now, that area is all built up, and Mom’s parents’ house is long gone. I asked if she knew Harrell’s Ferry Road and she said, “Of course!” She thinks she remembers swimming in the Amite River, which she and her friends weren’t supposed to do but, being teenagers, did anyway.

  6. We’re breaking with our tradition this Thanksgiving. After 49 years of marriage, I’m cooking the first turkey I’ve ever done. (I’m the cook in the family and Loretta is the baker.) We’ve had turkey with family and with friends, but it’s never been our turkey. Most years it’s just been the two of us and we’ve had steak, ham, game hens, etc. but no turkey. This year has been so odd all around that a home-roasted turkey with dressing just seemed the thing to do.

    It’s a small turkey but we’ll still have a lot of leftovers. We love tetrazzini and I bet the leftovers will also make a mean tostada topping with some onion, pepper, and salsa. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, all of you.

    1. That tetrazinni sounds good. I’m pleased with the way my fresh turkey breast came out, and some of it may land in tetrazinni. We have an excellent meat market here, and their poultry is fresh, locally sourced, and always good. I don’t know where this year’s turkeys came from, but mine seems to have lived a very good life. You can get good boudin and turducken there, too, although why anyone would want to eat turducken, I’m not sure.

      The biggest event of the day here — apart from the Texans beating the stuffing out of Detroit — was the arrival of clouds of goldfinches. Add in the chickadees, and there wasn’t much extra room at the feeders.

  7. Viva traditions! But sometimes it is good to break and make new ones. Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are. We are home with only Daughter coming over. Mild and sunny today but we may we getting cooler weather by next week and some rain this weekend. It is getting dry.

    1. Viva traditions, indeed. One of my neighbors is Hispanic, and she stopped by with fresh tamales this afternoon. I usually can’t lay my hands on non-commercial ones until closer to Christmas, so that was quite a treat.

      I hope you get more rain than is forecast for your area, especially since it’s going to be so windy. Some burn bans have gone up west of us; a pattern change would be nice.

      I hope your day with your daughter was especially good. Now, it’s on to Christmas. If we have a couple of rainy days, I’ll do some housecleaning and decorating. I don’t do a lot, but I like having my little cedar tree up, and putting out some family decorations that I remember from childhood.

  8. Happy Thanksgiving, Linda! I enjoyed reading about your Thanksgiving traditions. I would have enjoyed them! The quote from Orthodoxy also brought a smile.

    Like language, traditions evolve, and I have lived long enough to see this in my own family. I remember those early days. It’s a quiet day here today, with Thanksgiving stew on the menu tonight. We are thankful for what we have, especially during these times when so many have so little.

    1. Traditions certainly do change, and they always differ from place to place. The traditions of my midwestern childhood still are dear to me, but Christmas in Liberia and Texas showed me new ways of celebrating. Liberian customs never became my own, but here in Texas, I was happy to adopt new foods, new music, and new ways of celebrating — especially those rooted in Hispanic culture.

      I am wondering what ‘Thanksgiving stew’ might be. I’m intrigued. Is it a turkey stew, or a different sort of stew that’s just become part of your celebrations? I’ve always wondered how we ended up eating oyster stew every Christmas eve in Iowa. My dad loved it, but I never thought to ask why, or where he was introduced to it.

    1. It was a pleasant one, Becky — thanks. I hope yours was, as well. It looks as though we’re in line for some truly cold weather now, and maybe some rain. If cold is the price to pay for rain, I’m willing to ante up!

    1. I think there might be two turkeys in that cartoon, GP. If they’d quite fighting and put that skillet and rolling pin to better use, dinner would be on the table in no time — although things might be easier if they compromised and went with meatloaf!

  9. Happy Thanksgiving, Linda. It’s been a rough year, but I think everybody is ready to celebrate as many traditions as they can in spite of it. Music and good conversation sounds ideal!

    1. It was a quiet, low-key day here, and everyone seemed happy with it. Good food, a little football, plenty of conversation, and no arguments: what could be better? I hope you had a good day, too. I’m ready to move on, do a little Christmas decorating, and pull out the Christmas playlists. You’re right — we all need a little Christmas this year.

  10. Happy Thanksgiving to you, Linda, and to all those that celebrate this tradition. A big tradition In Holland is Black Peter’s day on the 5th of December. However, because of so much correctness everywhere and so many pitched to find faults, this day which for many children was the highlight of the year has become controversial and fighting has broken out.
    Black Pete is the Spanish bishop’s helper distributing presents to children! Legend has it he was from Moorish background and coloured black.

    1. I’d never heard of him, Gerard. I see his name in Dutch is Zwarte Piet, and he does have an interesting, albeit fairly recent, history. It’s a shame more conflict has been stirred up. I confess I’m heartily tired of everyone taking offense at everything in the world. I have some thoughts on why it’s happening, but I’m not in the mood for all that on this nice holiday.

      I do have some Dutch holiday treats headed my way from a bakerynear my home town in Iowa. It’s a Dutch town; I order speculaas, Stroopwafel, and what we called Dutch letters, a wonderful pastry in the shape of an ‘S’ with almond paste inside. I’ve not found anything as good here in Texas — thank goodness for mail order. It’s worth it, now and then.

  11. Happy Thanksgiving and ole’ to celebrating – can’t be stomped out.
    Bob Wills was a favorite of my dad – we sang that song in the car not having a radio.
    Mom, the classical violinist called it “that hillbilly music” but it is the music of not pretentious farm gatherings. Someone always brought out the spoons, too….for the porch, not the dinners HAHA
    Thanks for this lovely reminder.

    1. Spoons? I love spoons! I used to do a little spoon-playing myself when I lived in Salt Lake City. There was a beer and burger joint up one of the canyons; we’d go up there on Sunday afternoons for the bluegrass jam. My favorite busker in the whole world, Abby the Spoon Lady, has a version of Cotton Eyed Joe. The woman’s to spoons what Anne-Sophie Mutter is to the violin.

      I hope you put your spoons and forks and knives to good use today, and had a fine holiday. I hope all went well for the family in the hinterlands, too. One holiday at a time!

      1. Abby is truly amazing (Mother of course pretended not to know us )
        Being able to have a no rush dinner – and not even have to rush getting dressed – made this a lovely relaxed Thanksgiving…probably a first not too bad a tradition to repeat?
        Paw waves from this realm and the German Shepherd clan, too!

  12. I’ll see your “Cotton Eyed Joe” and raise you a “There’s A Blue Sky.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FMfSmjkLDg

    One of the local TV stations back in their and my salad days used to run The Porter Wagoner show, which apparently featured this song frequently enough for my three year old brother (who could barely talk) to latch onto it. He would wander around the house warbling “Daya boo kye wayup yanah dasa roob oba mah heb” complete with pedal steel embelishments. It was cute and funny the first four or five times . . . Today has been a day of memories, recalling those unable to be present, and those who will never be present again. A bittersweet day.

    1. What a great song, and channel. I subscribed to that one, and found a few more gems while I was browsing.

      When I drive up to Kansas City, I go through Wagoner, Oklahoma, which happens to be in Porter County. There’s a town nearby named Porter, and I used to wonder whether Porter Wagoner the musician took his name from them. In fact, he was born in Missouri, and was named Porter Wayne Wagoner. It would be interesting to find the connection — if any — between his name and the towns.

      I will say I’m grateful that my mother didn’t have to live through this. It would have been extraordinarily difficult for her, even in her own home. We’re treating many of the elderly in a way that’s remarkably cruel, and eventually the media may decide — or be forced — to report on the depression, failure to thrive, and suicides that are resulting from the lockdowns. A friend’s ninety-plus father found his own way out; he simply refused to eat or drink. We need a more expansive view of ‘public health.’

  13. Loved reading this. I remember Bob Wills from the radio of many years ago. Yes, traditions fade except for a few which it seems is just how things go in life; Older folks are gone, land changes hands, and times marches on. Things are not the same with my family. Death of my parents, then my husband, my sister three years ago. Memories suffice and that is good enough for me.

    1. Life is change, so it makes sense that traditions would change, too. But I hold on to a few, like filling my tree with ornaments that go back as much as sixty or more years; each one holds a special memory. I still bake many of the cookies that my mother and grandmother made, as well. There’s a cooking magazine named Taste of Home, and whoever chose that title was a marketing genius. As the old song has it, there’s no place like home, and this time of year is when our memories of those earlier homes is sharpest.

      1. I love your Christmas attitude, Linda. I bet your cookies are mouth watering good. I baked every year until about 2 years ago. I also have some old recipes from my mother and my aunt. I hope to some day get back to baking since I am feeling some better these days and seem to be stronger as well.

  14. Wow, that was a nice “take me back” to childhood and hearing Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys on radio before C&W got some twang. I think the program we used to listen to while in my grandparents’ cabin in the Adirondacks was a weekend long presentation called “Monitor” which also included acts such as Flatt and Scruggs.
    Most of the traditions in our families have faded with the loss of parents. We still have a fairly traditional Thanksgiving dinner…if the turkey thaws in time…but most others have been absent and probably will stay so.

    1. I’d forgotten about ‘Monitor,’ but as soon as you mentioned it, it all came back, including the ‘Monitor beacon’ that they used in station breaks.

      As far as I can remember, all of our Thanksgiving traditions revolved around gathering as a family, and food. The ones I miss the most involve the dishes my grandparents made, including a potato sausage that I’ve finally tracked down but haven’t been able to get because it sells out so fast. Limpa bread (rye with caraway) and cardamom seed buns are other treats I’ve missed, but I’m looking forward to receiving some Limpa and cardamom rusks from a bakery in the UP of Michigan. Say what we will about the internet, it has its advantages.

      The solution to turkey thawing is fresh turkey. It’s easier, and much tastier. This year, I got a fresh turkey breast, and it was wonderful. It’s going to be wonderful in the future, too. With no waste, there are a lot of packages in the freezer for later on.

      1. Ah, thanks. I forgot the Beacon until I listen to the link. It seems odd now, or maybe not, but had to spook a few folks back then, especially those who lived through Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” fiasco. Another less pleasant memory of the program was on holiday weekends they kept car crash death counts. I am not sure if we have fewer now or they are just not counted. I suppose it served the purpose of reminding people to drive safely and, of course, there was no such thing as a seat belt back then.
        Wow, all those dishes sound wonderful and totally nothing I’ve ever had. All ours were the traditional sweet potatoes and stuffing, cranberry sauce (out of a can), mashed potatoes and gravy. What are rusks?
        The funny thing is I had purchased a fresh turkey ($0.88/pound) and it said use or freeze by Nov. 30 but Mary Beth was nervous about the bird sitting for 10 days so we froze it. You’d think 5 days would have been enough. Hopefully 8 will. Lots of turkey from a 16# bird gets frozen and the carcass becomes about 10 quarts of my mom’s recipe soup. Sandwiches and pot pies later on too. No stuffing though. Mary Beth feels it’s not a healthy side and I am too lazy to make it myself.
        There are more advantages, I hope, to the internet than dis. I’ve been searching for a multigrain cereal, in grain form not flakes, for a while since Whole Foods stopped selling it and Nuts.com had what I needed. It arrived today. And, “Say what we will” about Amazon but we can find things there that just are not available locally and if you need it soon you get it soon. I try to buy local when I can but sometimes you need Jeff.

    1. My heavens! I’ve never heard anything like that. It sounds more like a funeral dirge than a dance tune. Here’s the way most of us hear it played these days: also different from Bob Wills’ version, but a great showcase for fiddlers and great to dance to. Asleep at the Wheel, a Bob Wills tribute band, has been around for decades, and their versions of the old songs are so good.

  15. Much of our time living in San Angelo was spent exploring the Hill Country. That meant a fair amount of driving. Which meant a fair amount of time listening to the radio. In West Texas. Yup, we got to know Bob Wills and Texas swing pretty well!

    Tradition. We absorb it by the osmosis of belonging to family. We pass it along when we least expect it.

    Gini created (or found a recipe for?) a dish called Apple Yam Delight as a way to get our kids to eat sweet potatoes. At some point, it became a staple for Thanksgiving dinner. A few years ago, our daughter volunteered to make it as her contribution to the holiday feast and has been making it ever since. Last week, Gini suggested it wasn’t necessary to make it this year as the daughter was going through some challenges. Silence on the other end of the phone was followed with “What do you mean?”. She brought Apple Yam Delight yesterday and it was delicious.

    Traditions are not to be trifled with.

    Gotta go. A turkey sandwich is calling my name…..

    1. You’re right that we absorb traditions, and food is one area where that seems to happen most readily. Your Apple Ham Delight story’s a perfect example of the phenomenon. About two weeks ago, I found myself picking up extra pounds of butter and flour for baking — the ten pounds of shelled pecans already were at the ready. The point isn’t that I want to eat all those cookies and breads (although I’ll consume my share). Most of them are given away; it’s the baking and decorating that’s the point, and the compulsion is strong.

      You’ve reminded me of another famous story. A young woman who was baking her first Christmas ham cut it neatly in half before putting it in the pan. When a friend asked why she did that, the gal replied that her mother always had done it that way. They went off to find her mother, and asked her why she cut the ham in half. Mom said, “Your grandmother did it that way.” Lucky for them that Grandma still was alive. When they asked Grannie why she’d always cut the ham into two pieces, she said, “I had to, so it would fit into my favorite baking dish.”

  16. That’s a fun rendition of the song, and I like the quotation a lot. I’m back in NY for a few days, we had roast chickens this year, instead of turkey, by a family vote, otherwise everything traditional in the meal. (My mom graduated high school early, and worked on a kibbutz for six months, a farm that raised turkeys – – she ate turkey every day of it and hasn’t been enthusiastic about that meal every since.) Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, Linda.

    1. That’s a pretty steady diet of turkey your mom had. I can understand developing a preference for a little variety in those circumstances. Of course, being that up close and personal with the turkeys themselves on a daily basis may have contributed. I hope your travel was uneventful, and that it continues to be so. I suspect you’ll be sharing a few photos from woods-walks, too — I hope so!

      1. Imagine the folks who spend their whole lives on that commune, eating turkey for year after year, crazy. Very nice of you to look for my woods pictures, but I’m just visiting NY for a few days, catching up with relatives, didn’t bring my camera. Anyways it’s deer season, so we’re staying out of the woods for now, just walking in parks and villages. When I’m back in December we can get back in the woods.

  17. That passage from G.K. Chesterton is a welcome one. Variant wordings online led me to do some searching, and in the 1909 edition of the book, published by the John Lane Company, I found “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes….”

    Your mention of the Texas musical tradition is a reminder of the different one that “Fiddler on the Roof” pays homage to.

    1. I’d forgotten the wonderful opening of that film, and the way the song “Tradition” pays homage to even the most obscure in the village. I was struck by this, as well: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years…”

      I can’t help wondering if the purpose of those who are dismantling traditions — like family gatherings at holiday time — for the sake of ‘safety’ is precisely to put people off balance. If so, they’re succeeding rather well.

  18. Tradition is so important — both the collective traditions and the individual ones we honor. I love this one. And it sounds like loads and loads of fun. However, I am more than willing to forego tradition for one year to be able to have those traditions for many years to come.

    1. Traditions always are being re-shaped, and we’re often called to adapt even when we’d prefer not to. I remember my first Christmas in Liberia; all those traditions associated with snow at Christmas went right out the window. And as family members died, the circle at the table became smaller and smaller, until it disappeared. There’s nothing to do about that! But we do keep some traditions; while my mother and grandmother are gone, their recipes live on, and there’s nothing more fun than evoking their presence through the scent of baking cookies!

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