The Best Thanksgiving of All

When I was living at home, and even as a college student, Thanksgiving was pretty much a bore to me. The same old menu included turkey and all the fixings: too much food gobbled down and a lethargic walk after dinner while the maid, who had mostly cooked the meal, was doing all the dishes, pots, and pans and sweeping up and laundering the table linens. A testy bridge game or two filled in the time until we filed back into the kitchen for leftovers. My family was as competitive about games, eating, and drinking as any Phillies fans I have ever seen—except for my mother and me, who were not at all competitive except for the games. Holidays can be the loneliest times of all, especially for someone like me who feels out of sync with the prevailing culture. My family lived in a wealthy suburb of Chicago, from which I could hardly wait to escape.

At a very early 18, I went off to Carleton College, where I majored in English. I then took graduate courses in Teaching and Social Change at Crozier Seminary in Chester, Pa., where Martin Luther King Jr. received his divinity degree. Teachers there were mostly Quakers, Friends whom I see quite regularly and who have also taught at Pendle Hill—George Willoughby (now passed), George Lakey, and others.

It did not take long for me to get a job at that same hallowed institution, Pendle Hill— two jobs, actually, teaching conflict transformation and cooking. I had taken many courses and attended conferences on the former and felt equipped to tackle and teach Mediation Skills, Creative Approaches to Difficult People, Current Events, Faith and Feminism, and Women and Men for a Partnership World. The last two definitely aroused some consternation; we were still pretty much in the dark ages of Patriarchy. Both of those courses were well attended by both genders, and the African students in particular were thrilled by them. I think Pendle Hill benefited from both courses.

The cooking was a somewhat different matter. There had always been a cook on the home staff in addition to my mother, who was a very good cook. There was no room at home for three cooks, so I had very little experience. But at Pendle Hill, Barb Platt and her sidekick Kitty, a nun from the Midwest, were great mentors. Experimenting with all kinds of food became my art form. People who ate the food were generally enthusiastic— more so as time passed. I loved the social space in the kitchen and made some very good friends during our work times together. It is possible to cook three kinds of lasagna (cheese, meat, and veggie), hear another’s life history, and make some intelligent remarks all at the same time.

The three days of Thanksgiving were decidedly my favorite times in the kitchen. The Wednesday work morning was when most of the prep for the actual meal was done. People signed up for particular jobs: preparing pre-dinner snacks; scrubbing and preparing veggies, including potatoes and relish plates; making stuffing and cranberry sauce; counting silverware, serving spoons, gravy boats, dinner and dessert plates, and the like. A tragedy would have struck if we had run out of anything. Fourteen turkeys were ordered, and each table had to be equipped with plenty of serving plates, etc. What a buzz of activity the kitchen and environs were with everyone visibly excited.

The next morning the earliest workers arrived at seven o’clock to prep the turkeys and get them ready for the oven. The uncooked turkeys were taken via children’s red wagons to every available oven in the neighborhood. All the oven owners were careful to give individual instructions as to the idiosyncrasies of their stoves. My favorite recipe for a perfect turkey every time involves preheating the oven as high as you can get it—450 to 500 degrees. Wash the bird thoroughly inside and out. Make sure both pockets of the bird are nice and full of stuffing and sewed up neatly. Roast the bird at highest heat until it is rosy brown. After half an hour baste any spots that look pale and cover those that are getting too brown with aluminum foil—like a tent. The turkey should be cooked for 25 minutes per pound at 325 degrees, and then allowed to stand for 40 minutes before carving. Consider yourself lucky if you have a fowl thermometer, or the bird has a pop-up pin to tell you when it is done. Pour off pan juices for gravy, the recipe for which I will give you next time around. Any extra dressing can be heated during dinner as a side dish.

Dinner was usually at 2 or 3 pm on the Big Day. Almost the entire community was involved in one way or another in getting the meal on the tables. Dish-washing chores began at 7 am and lasted through the day in shifts; roll chefs mixed up the dough right after meeting; table setters appeared at about 10. And so it went, making everything look very special from the cloth table coverings to the beautiful fall flower arrangements. Many of the duties required were those done every day—but for a larger holiday crowd.

In addition to all the activity connected to the meal, there was another attraction that commanded people’s attention: the almost all-day Ping-Pong tournament. The table was set up in the Barn shortly after meeting, and play began almost immediately. A good number of people signed up to play, so that there was plenty of entertainment for the numerous spectators. One of my sons and I played every year we were there, and we almost won a few times. Robyn Richmond and Lloyd Guindon were the champions consistently, but we came in second a good many times, which I consider to be a feat since I was always running off to see what the turkeys were doing. When I left Pendle Hill after 15 years, I was presented with a first-class Ping-Pong paddle signed by the staff—a prized possession for so much good fun!

Friday was cleanup day, when we ate up all the leftovers and returned everything we had borrowed. But we also played Ping-Pong, the constant wintertime activity.

I will not bore you with more details of the fabulous Thanksgiving meals, but you should know that each one was a gourmet treat. Cleaning up was the usual jolly adventure it almost always is at Pendle Hill. People pitched in on the overwhelming jobs, and left the environs much neater than they had found them. I must pay tribute to my sons and their friends for having done the least desirable job every time—stripping the turkey meat off the bones for leftover meals.

There was usually a late-afternoon gathering for those who were not napping or walking. Several times Dorothy and Douglas Steere shared their various spiritual adventures, as did many other special guests and sojourners. We all felt part of a truly blessed community.

Elisabeth Leonard

Elisabeth Leonard is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. She was at Pendle Hill from 1980 to 1995. She writes: "I am dedicated to awakening and fulfilling our testimonies of Peace and Justice all the while building community with activist groups both within and without Friends circles. Very early on I discovered that time spent in the Pendle Hill kitchen on various assignments brought many rewards: the social and collaborative aspects of cooking puts the participants on a 'level playing field'; we are all creating together and becoming experienced in culinary matters as well as getting acquainted with each other. Our productions are never quite the same but give us a sense that they will contribute to the health and satisfaction of most who try them. This is a good start for building a strong and energetic group of people willing and able to envision a world where the needs of all are met."