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Ghosts of Turkeys Past

Me as a witch

Halloween marks the beginning of the fall holiday season for those of us who grew up in the Sonoran Desert. Some years it was cool enough to go full-mask, but more often it was hot, so we’d opt for makeup and a flowing, robe-like costume that didn’t require much in the way of street clothes beneath. Don’t ask. As we ran from house to house, there was a cooler, crisper feeling in the evening air that signaled the onset of family gatherings. Arizona autumns are a subtle experience.

This is Reed’s mom Eileen (playing with doll)

Reed’s mom had her first holiday dinner in Arizona out on the desert. Ohio transplants, her prospector dad couldn’t wait to send snowbound relatives some photos of their winter picnic.

My own dad grew up in a one-room log cabin on his dad’s cattle ranch in the Uintah Mountains, where his mom and older sisters cooked Thanksgiving dinners using a wood cook stove with a chrome railing. By the 1940s, his brothers and sisters were married, and he and his parents were in a river rock house a half-mile east of Tempe (now 8th Street and Rural) and his dad was farming ‘way down in Southside. For you newcomers, this would be at about Rural and Southern.

The Valley was starting into its mid-century boom phase. Soon Dad’s sister Eva and her husband John took over hosting Thanksgiving Day dinners at their new home in Mesa where John was a young attorney; Dad had taken a job as an electronics engineer for the Army Security Agency, so we’d just moved to Fort Huachuca. We’d drive up to Phoenix a couple days early and stay with Grandma. Preparations were coordinated ahead of time, right down to who would do what, when, and where. The day before the feast, I’d usually wake up to the aroma of apple pies baking in Grandma’s oven. She and Mom would then prep those side dishes whose flavors benefitted from mingling overnight: a tart cranberry-orange relish and a tropical ambrosia fruit salad.

The infamous relish grinder.

Mom always brought her cast-iron food grinder, used once a year to crank out cranberry relish. She’d clamp it onto a counter top at the end of a run of cabinets, then open the Arizona Republic, spreading its huge pages beneath the grinder to catch the juice of fresh cranberries and whole oranges being cranked through by hand. The juice would be everywhere, pooling on the counter, running down the cabinet, and splashing off the newspapers onto the linoleum. The massive amounts of sugar this sour relish required to be palatable added the finishing touch to the kitchen surfaces: stickiness. Mom and Grandma wore aprons as they fed the beast, but I never knew why—lab coats and galoshes might have worked. Or maybe wetsuits.

The morning of Thanksgiving, homemade biscuits provided the aromatic alarm. Mom and Grandma were outside drinking coffee on the porch. It was Grandma’s guilty pleasure shared only with my mom, the Lutheran addition to her LDS family.

L. to R.: Diana, Kurt and Lisa:

Pulling into the carport at Aunt Eva and Uncle John’s around noon, I caught the aroma of turkey roasting as soon as I flung open the car door. I ran inside, excited to play with my older cousins, only to be stopped in my tracks by the sight of the most dreaded holiday item of all: the kids’ table. No, not again! I wouldn’t eat there, no way—I was NOT going to eat with my two youngest cousins in the family room. They had no table manners yet. Lisa, Kurt and I didn’t belong here. Mom told me to get over it as she brushed past me in high heels and apron, carrying two bowls of fruit salad.

Once the youngest cousins were finally old enough not to need booster seats, all ten of us would sit together at the dining room table, extended with all extra leaves and overlaid with a freshly-ironed white table cloth and then a lace one over that. Uncle John would pour water into crystal goblets from a large pitcher.

            “Psst! Mom! Why are we drinking water instead of wine?”

            “Shush! Bow your head so your Uncle John can say grace.”

            “But Mom, even Jesus drank wine.”

            “Do you want this to be YOUR last supper, Missy?”

From the mid-1960s into the 1970s, we carried on the Thanksgiving tradition in West Berlin. We’d bake, roast, and yes—grind cranberries and oranges as usual. But this house had a swinging door separating the formal dining room from that kitchen floor covered with newspapers and fruit syrup. And the wine was excellent. Mom had even taken her new portable dishwasher overseas, and the copper-tone, freezer-bottom Kenmore, considered massive in its day. They were plugged into huge metal-housed transformers that converted our power to 110v/60Hz. The German range was narrow, but it had flat-disc burners, a nice upgrade from the old coil burners at home.

Not having family on the entire continent, we’d always invite a guest: sometimes a single lieutenant or G.I. in Dad’s unit, homesick for his stateside family.

The Schoene family across the street were our first dinner guests in 1965. Herr Schoene was an engineer, too, and his wife loved all things American. A few weeks earlier the American kids had been ringing their doorbell in costume, so I’d explained the trick or treat custom, not widely known in 1960s Germany. Upon learning what T-P-ing a house meant, she’d hurried inside to bring us fruit from her kitchen and a bar of dark Schokolade. So, we just had to treat them to the strange trimmings of an American Thanksgiving dinner.

A photographer/filmmaker for Lowell Thomas came to our next Thanksgiving dinner. He was buying our big-finned Impala, which Dad found far too cumbersome to maneuver through towns founded in the middle ages.  He was thrilled to get a car with a trunk so large all his photography gear would be hidden and secure, so he had it shipped to Australia for their next project.

Dad’s Doneness Test: Taste/Repeat

Once we hosted the German engineers who helped him design the structures housing Teufelsberg, the Allied Forces’ largest Cold War listening post. My German girlfriend and her family joined us. Once everything was on the table, Mom dimmed the chandelier and lit the tapers while Dad switched on the reel-to-reel to start the dinner music, then carved the turkey and ham. Everyone loved the unusual menu. Who would have imagined a squash pie?

My sophomore year, Grandma’s cousin came from Arizona after visiting her son stationed in Heidelberg. The following year, Dad’s buddy from their air traffic controller years at Sky Harbor brought his wife, traveling on American Airlines’ 90% employee discount. Thanksgiving was as American as we could make it behind the Iron Curtain.

Looking back now, what I admire most about our moms’ and grandmothers’ abilities to pull off these family feasts was that they fed so many so well from modest, mid-century kitchens with limited counter space, single ranges and single-wide refrigerator-freezers. It meant making everything from scratch, because no one was going to waste money on pre-prepared foods or waste space on storing them in the fridge. At best, larger families had chest freezers in the storage room, and in our families, those freezers were probably full of venison and elk anyway.

Holiday Family Gathering in Mesa, AZ, ca. 1957

Unlike today, the mid-century tract-home kitchen wasn’t the main gathering spot—there wasn’t that kind of space, and if kids or kitty-kids ventured underfoot, they’d be stepped on. Potatoes were being boiled, cut up and mashed with the Hamilton Beach mixer. Fresh salad ingredients, some from the garden, were flying past, chopped by hand and tossed at the last minute.

Everyone dressed in Sunday best. Family photos were taken in the front yard. The best china and crystal came out on holidays, and we kids set the table. We had to know proper placement of the salad fork and dessert spoon and how to fold a cloth napkin. Clean-up after dessert didn’t involve a dishwasher working in shifts. It involved only the kids. And the hand-sprayer, the best toy in the kitchen.


A professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at dianajean@aol.com

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