On Facebook the other day, one of my friends was asking for good recipes for leftover turkey.
That one’s easy, for me.
The greatest recipe for leftover turkey, for me, is to take a homemade bread roll, slab a generous amount of real butter on it, stuff some leftover turkey meat in there, and munch on it and wash it down with an ice cold can of Schmitt’s beer. It might be the most delicious thing ever.
This recipe is best enjoyed on Granny Russell’s porch in Canton, Minnesota, at about 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving night somewhere around the year 1978, with a bunch of your cousins and three outspoken and opinionated men who love to laugh. Even better if two of those men are your uncles and one is your dad.
Serve with a side of pumpkin pie eaten with your hands and without utensils, and a couple jars of home-canned pickled cucumbers that were somehow simultaneously awful and wonderful.
And yes, I was only about 10 years old, and therefore not legally allowed to enjoy the cold Schmitt’s beer, but my dad made an exception because it was Thanksgiving and because I would only be allowed to drink about one-half of one can.
Please don’t report Dad to the authorities for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, as he is almost 80 now and probably wouldn’t thrive in a prison setting. I believe the statute of limitations is long passed, anyway, and on balance, Dad taught me a lot more good things than bad things over the years.
Without meaning to, those three men were teaching all of us younger cousins about love and family. They were brothers-in-law, not related by blood, and all three were loud and loving, contentious and caring — and sometimes obnoxiously hilarious. There were no limits to the conversation, everything from President Carter to football to Bing Crosby to pheasant hunting to the price of gas to Jesus Christ to the strange taste of Rocky Mountain Oysters.
Eventually, the Norwegian jokes — the “Ole and Lena” stories — began to flow freely, from dumb and innocent puns to the most raunchy stories, and the howls of laughter echoed through that quiet Canton neighborhood.
“Once while praying, Ole asked God why he made Lena so pretty and beautiful to look at. And God replied, ‘So you would love her, Ole.’ And then Ole asked God why he made Lena so dumb. And God replied, ‘So she would love YOU, Ole.’”
These guys could’ve taken it on the road, and you’d leave the arena saying you’d paid better money for worse comedy shows.
And in my mind, 40-some years later, that’s what Thanksgiving is. Even though it probably only happened that one year, in my mind the highlight of every Thanksgiving growing up was eating cold turkey sandwiches, drinking beer and telling jokes on Granny Russell’s front porch.
And today, we’re being asked to please try to avoid such Thanksgiving gatherings, and that’s perfectly understandable. It’s also perfectly understandable that many of us are upset and resistant to that. I think it’s the right thing to do, because I’ll gladly spend Thanksgiving away from my parents if it means they can avoid spending Christmas in an intensive care unit.
You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and I just hope you choose to do the smart thing, the thing that’s best for all of us.
I can understand, though, if you choose to gather together. I don’t like it, but when I think of those three men, back in 1978 — those three outspoken and opinionated men who taught me what it means to love my family, blood-related or not — I think those three guys would’ve probably figured out a way to get together. They would have somehow celebrated on Granny’s porch, regardless of the circumstances around them.
We did not know at the time that we’d lose Granny a couple of years later, and after she left things would never be the same, and reunions would become more and more rare until they ceased altogether.
A few years after that, Uncle Beanie would leave us, and we’d never enjoy hearing his throaty chuckle again. Cousins Mike and Ricky would also leave us way before it was their times, and when I think about that, sometimes I’m sad and sometimes I’m angry.
And sometimes I’m thankful, and happy, because I was lucky to have known them. I was lucky to have been able to experience with them the greatest recipe for leftover turkey, best when eaten on Granny Russell’s front porch around 9 a.m. on Thanksgiving night, 1978.
Wash that memory down with one-half of a can of cold Schmitt’s beer, and you’ve got yourself a real damn Thanksgiving.
If nothing else, I’ll always be thankful for that.