Thanksgiving–Food, Family, Photos

Pumpkin pie being sliced onto plates
Photo by Element5 Digital on

Our family memorialized food through photography. And Mom was our amateur food photographer. While the usual subject was birthday cakes, sometimes whole meals were photographed, specifically Thanksgiving dinner. The holiday with the most food and family around. While some shots were exclusively food, others had family in the background.

After Mom cooked a huge meal for us and our extended family, from 7 to 10 people, she always had one request before we sat down. A few moments to look at what she had done and savor her day’s accomplishments before it all disappeared. She didn’t pose the food but arranged it on the table naturally to take the picture. To have space for all these treasures, my brother’s job was to get the two table leaves out of storage and expand the dining room table. 

All the traditional American Thanksgiving food was cooked in special ways that we only had once a year. A whole, roasted turkey. Chunks of candied yams baked in brown sugar, sometimes with little marshmallows. Sauteed whole green beans. Homemade cranberry sauce. Gravy. Freshly mashed potatoes with butter. Homemade stuffing. We never had two starches at a meal. Throughout most of the year, my mother was health conscious, limited our sugar intake, didn’t use butter and had a garden with an endless supply of green beans, tomatoes, green peppers, eggplants and cucumbers. Thanksgiving was mostly homemade, fresh foods with the exception of canned pumpkin and a jar of mincemeat for pies. The apple and pecan pies had fresh ingredients. But Thanksgiving meant no limits to what or how much we could eat.

After helping minimally by peeling potatoes, cutting the ends off the string beans and setting the table, I was free. While we relaxed and waited, we had bowls of whole nuts in shells to snack on. We only had this on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts, and hazelnuts. I don’t know why I remember this so fondly, except that it was a rare treat. And I learned how to use the metal nutcrackers and the picks for the walnuts. I usually did this while walking around and letting the shell shards fall onto the carpet. Music was playing. Relatives were chatting in groups. I couldn’t sit still. But someone would notice and tell me to pick up the pieces and use a plate.    

At the time I didn’t understand photographing food, but I also had never spent all day cooking a meal for others. Now I understand the time, energy and skill involved and what an accomplishment it is to do this well. And I study those old grainy photos from our little camera. It helps me to remember that food, those times. The green table cloth, the crystal glasses, Mom’s china set, the silver utensils, the cloth napkins with the wooden ring holders and the wine decanter that only came out on holidays. Essentials for our family’s ritual celebration of togetherness.

Even my best old photographs do not represent what is in my memories. Perhaps my mind has embellished the food through my emotions of the experience, or I’ve combined all our Thanksgivings into one memory. The professional photographs above are more what my mind remembers– clear, beautiful color and perfection.

My Mom put so much time and effort into the details of creating a delicious meal for us. As someone who does not have skills in cooking, decorating or entertaining, I am amazed by those who do. I am grateful to my Mom for making all those Thanksgivings in my childhood special.

Thanksgiving table with 4 pies.
1981. Thanksgiving dessert. 4 pies for 7 people. Still looking very ’70s with the bright, flowered curtains and the tall dried grasses in the floor vase.

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