A Cottonpicking Feast

Papa - J.E. CarrMy mother always began preparations on Wednesday for our abundant home-cooked Thanksgiving feast. A main dish of turkey, ham, chicken, duck, or goose–sometimes more than one–accompanied by homemade dressing anchored the meal. Large bowls brimming with potato salad, green beans, and canned garden vegetables from the cellar surrounded plates of deviled eggs, black olives, and relishes. Mincemeat, apple, and sweet potato pies covered the kitchen counter. Occasionally, a fresh coconut cake towered over the pies, giving it bragging rights. Mama made room for other side dishes brought by my married siblings who arrived just before noon. Papa was serious about the precise time. We ate at noon by his pocket watch—not one minute earlier or later.

The adults sat with Papa around the food-laden table in the dining room. Mama seated the younger children at the square kitchen drop-leaf table. I ate in the living room with my twin sister and nieces and nephews our age, balancing our plates on our knees. Mama served everyone first and ate later.

After lunch, the women washed and dried dishes. Children played on the covered porch. Men gathered in the tiny living room to talk. A couple of my brothers drifted outside for an afternoon smoke, forbidden inside our home.

One Thanksgiving Eve the tantalizing smell of chicken frying in a deep cast-iron skillet wafted from the kitchen instead of baked chicken with sage dressing. Even the spicy smell of the apple turnovers was no competition to Mama’s pies. I stood in the open doorway as my parents talked about skipping the traditional lunch to work on Thanksgiving Day. Oh, no! It can’t be true!

The next morning, pork sausage sizzled as Mama fried eggs and shoved a pan of biscuits in the oven. After breakfast, she packed the refrigerated chicken and fried pies. She covered the basket with a tablecloth just before my oldest brother Frank arrived to take us to work.

Just before noon, Mama spread the food on a tablecloth covering a patch of flat ground where we sat at the end of long rows of late-blooming white cotton glistening in the warm sun. Papa removed his hat, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and nodded to Frank to say a blessing.

“Thank You Lord for those of us working here today because it’s only a short time until winter when there won’t be any more cotton to pick. We’re especially grateful for the farmer who allowed us to work today. Prosper him abundantly for his kindness and strengthen our bodies to finish this field before dark. Amen.”

Bless the farmer? We should be at home heaping our plates with warm turkey and dressing and tantalizing desserts instead of eating cold fried chicken in a cotton field. My complaining thoughts were interrupted by my nephew’s voice.

Cold chicken and apple turnovers were no match for previous Thanksgiving feasts, but they stopped my hunger pains. I stood, pulled the strap of my cotton sack over my head, and shook eight feet of canvas straight out behind me as Mama stood and shook crumbs from the tablecloth.

The next year when we gathered at home for our traditional Thanksgiving meal, I overheard my brother Elmer talking about Frank’s powerful prayer from the previous year.

“That farmer did so well that he bought a cotton-picking machine and put us all out of work permanently.”

 

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