Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving
D. A. Ratliff
I came from a family of foodies. No, not those who loved a delicate soufflé, a creamy risotto, Beef Wellington, or a classic French pastry, but those who loved food—simple, well-cooked food. Any occasion in my grandmother’s Appalachian Mountain home involved food. My Granny Stella always kept a pot of beef stew, chicken and dumplings, or vegetable soup on the stove in case someone stopped by for a spell.
Put a biscuit, a gingerbread stack cake, or fried chicken in front of me, and the memories of my grandmother and her delicious food fill me with nostalgia. But nothing triggers memories like the aroma of a newly peeled orange. That reminds me of fruit salad, and that reminds me of love.
Traveling from our home in South Carolina to my grandparents in Kentucky proved exciting enough for a young girl, but being with the women in my family as they prepped food for Thanksgiving dinner was thrilling.
Amid all the chopping of onions and celery for cornbread dressing, slicing sweet potatoes to be baked with brown sugar and butter the next day, and baking pumpkin and pecan pies, the vessel for the pièce de résistance sat in the middle of the table, waiting to be filled. An empty gallon pickled bologna jar awaiting fruit salad.
First, one of the men, usually my father, man-wrestled the enormous turkey from its wrapping. My mother cleaned it, and then my father placed it in the roasting pan and tucked it into the refrigerator. The pies were baked, so they were ready for the following day. Then, the fun began.
My cousin and I waited anxiously as someone cleared the kitchen table, placed butcher paper on top, and then piled on the fruit. The fruit salad base consisted of two large cans of fruit cocktail and pints of home-canned peaches and pears. Then we started slicing fresh fruit—bananas, grapes, apples, oranges. Not just any oranges but a massive bag of Florida oranges sent to my grandmother by family.
When I was quite young, they allowed me to peel off the orange rind with my fingers. I loved the pebbly texture and the slightly oily feeling on my fingers after peeling several, but nothing pleased me more than how they smelled. The sweet, acidic, orange aroma filled the kitchen, overpowering the other fruits.
My other task when I was seven or eight was to slice the bananas with a dinner knife while the grown-ups and my cousin, who was older, cut up apples, grapes, and chopped walnuts. All the fruit was placed in a huge stone crock and stirred together. Then, almost ceremoniously, Granny added orange juice until she achieved the moisture level she wanted, shredded sweetened coconut, and maraschino cherries. (The cherries were for me. I loved them, and no, I wasn’t spoiled… much.)
When satisfied that the fruit salad was finished, the empty pickled bologna jar (no pickle smell, I promise) was filled to the rim, and the cap screwed on and placed in the refrigerator, not to be touched until the next day when we might get a taste at breakfast.
While the fruit salad and those luscious oranges still evoke beautiful memories, the best moments of the night before Thanksgiving were the fun and the love shared by my family. My grandfather, father, and uncle snuck into the kitchen, swiping apple slices and orange segments. My Chihuahua, Henry, begged for any morsel of food, and my grandmother always saved a little beef from that night’s beef stew (also a ritual) to feed him. Henry, like all of us, ended that weekend a bit heavier.
Thanksgiving has changed a bit over the years, as many loved ones have passed, and others are now grown up with families and traditions. I treasure those moments making fruit salad with my mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin, sharing laughs and stories about holidays past.
On this night before Thanksgiving, however you celebrate, make a memory, even if it is one only you will remember. Life is too short not to fill it with joy and oranges.
About the Creator
A Southerner with saltwater in her veins, Deborah lives in the Florida sun and writes murder mysteries. She is published in several anthologies and her first novel, Crescent City Lies, is scheduled for release in 2024.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!