November, 2010

“Mom, what do you want for Christmas?”

“Oh me, you know I don’t need a thing. Look around here,” she said as she looked about her Morgan Road home. “I’ve lived here nearly sixty years and this place is just full of stuff.”

“Well, you have to want something.”

“I really enjoy getting things I can use, like car washes, and maybe a little money  to get a new perm. That’s all I need. I have a closet full of clothes – clothes that I don’t even wear. Goodness gracious! I don’t need another what-not! I have a rooster collection, mouse collection, angel collection, rabbit collection, all kind of collections, and a world of souveniers. Lord knows what all I have in this house! I don’t need another thing, Diane!”

“Bah humbug!”

A Christmas Snowflake, made by Emilee Rose Story

A Christmas Snowflake, made by Emilee Rose Story

“No bah humbug me,” laughed Mama as I pressed her for an answer.

“I thought you liked Christmas, what about a real tree this year?”

“I do like Christmas, but my Christmas’ have changed. Your Daddy’s gone. And ever since that last tree, well, I just don’t want another Christmas tree. My little ceramic trees are enough for me. I’m not able to decorate a big tree anymore – nor do I want one decorated for me.” Mama pressed a tissue to her face to wipe her eyes, “Not since that last one. Your brother put up that tree for me, and I was gonna decorate it that weekend when some of the grandkids come over. But, you know that phone call I got.” Mama fanned herself and wiped her eyes again. “Well, I went to the hospital right away. I stayed there three weeks, until he passed. I couldn’t bring myself to leave him. Lord knows it’s hard to see your grandson leave this earth. It just broke my heart, and then to come home a few weeks later and the first thing I saw was that Christmas tree. It was dead – turned completely brown with the needles on the floor. I couldn’t go no further. I sat down in the living-room and cried my eyes out. I never want to see another live tree in my house again. You could fill this house plumb full of the prettiest Christmas trees in the world, and it wouldn’t fill that empty place in my heart.” Mama took a deep breath, “I enjoy going to my young ‘uns homes and seeing y’alls. That’s what I enjoy.”

“It bothers me that you can’t really enjoy Christmas…”

“Oh, but I do,” said Mama as she regained her composure, “I really do. I love Christmas.” I saw a little twinkle start to shine through in Mama’s eyes as she grinned and said, “I do get a special gift every year. It’s always a surprise, and I can hardly wait for it to come, and it does, every year – just like clock-work – just for me.”

“What? From who?”

“Oh, you could say – from Santa Claus.”

“Santa Claus! What in the world are you talking about?”

Mama laughed and said, “I love all the gifts I get from you kids. But that one gift makes me feel like a child waiting for Santa to come. It makes be plumb giddy with anticipation. I can’t help myself.”

“Tell me what it is!”

Mama laughed hard and said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“It comes at the same time every year. I enjoy Thanksgiving and then I can hardly wait  two days later for Saturday. I get in my car early that morning, and drive up Morgan Road. I turn to the right onto Chamblee Tucker and right again on Lavista, as I get to the Browning District Courthouse…”

“You’re going in one big circle; why not take the short cut?”

“Because, I want to see it head on – that’s why. And the whole time I driving, I’m praying. Please let me get lucky this year. Please, let it be a snowflake for Mrs. Story.”

“A snowflake?”

“Yes, oh, I enjoy the candle and the little drummer boy, but the snowflake is so special. It’s my favorite.”
“What are you talking about?”

“The Christmas decorations the Tucker Fire Department put up on the telephone poles!”

“Are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m not kidding. It’s wonderful! It’s just for me. Well, not really – but it’s on my street! Just behind my house! I feel like I’ve been a good girl when I get the snowflake,” laughed Mama.

This will be the third Christmas without Mama. She now celebrates her Christmas’ with Daddy and her beloved grandson, Lowry. I think of her often, especially near the holidays. Thanksgiving comes and I display a cake in her glass cake dish. I enjoy the day, but I can hardly wait for Saturday morning to come. I find myself driving an hour to Tucker. I exit 285 and turn left at Chamblee Tucker. I pass Morgan Road, take a right onto Lavista, and go past the Tucker Courthouse – Mama would correct me and say, “It’s the Browning District Courthouse.” Anyway, as I pass the courthouse, I look up and maybe, just maybe I’ll get lucky this year. Maybe I’ll  get a snowflake.

“Hey, what’s that Patricia?” I asked my nine year old sister.

“Fingernail polish, I found it in my stocking. Look, a whole set of different colors. Do you want me to polish your nails?” asked my older sister.

”Yeah, let me look at the colors – wow, pink, lavender, blue and green.” My choice was an easy one, since blue is my favorite color.

Patricia polished my nails pearly blue. When my nails dried, I went back to examining the box of sparklers I found in my stocking.

Daddy came into the living-room with his new Gibson guitar. He sat across from me strumming the strings. He really looked tired. “Tom, why don’t you take a nap, now that all the gifts are opened?” asked Mama.

“No, I’ll stay up a while and play for my girls,” he said as he took a cup of hot coffee from Mama’s hand. He played a few Christmas songs and then I noticed something strange about his face. He turned pale as could be and looked startled. He suddenly put his guitar a way and left the room. Something was wrong.

Moments later, Mama burst into the room. She came straight for me and looked at my hands, “What’s that on your nails?”

“Patricia’s fingernail polish…”

Before I could finish, Mama left the room. She came back quickly with polish remover, and took the polish off my fingers.

“Why? I like it.”

“Because you are sick right now, and blue fingernails make you look even sicker. You scared your father to near death. Now, that looks better. Go into the bedroom and show your nails to your father,” said Mama.

“Really, I can stand up and walk in there?”

“Yes, just this one time. It’ll be okay. Go on now and show him.”

I was a little wobbly, so Mama helped me down the hall to the door of the bedroom.”

“Is he mad at me?” I whispered just before I approached the door.

“No, of course not – just show him your nails. Now go on.”

She left me alone to walk into his bedroom. Daddy was lying across the bed with his head buried in the sheets. I walked around the bed to get to his head. There I spread out my fingers and said, “Daddy, look at my nails.”

“No, I can’t,” he sobbed, “I can’t.”

“Why not? Mama took off the blue polish and told me to show you my hands.”

Daddy slowly lifted his head and looked at my fingers, “Let me see them.” His smile slowly returned to his face, as he took my hands in his for a good long look. “Now that looks good. You don’t need any polish on them. I like them just like they are, pink and healthy.”

“I know – I’m not going to polish them blue again, nor lavender nor green – just pink or clear.”

“Clear’s better. That way I can see what color your nails really are. If they turn bluish, I need to know, so I can take you back to the hospital.”

“But we don’t have any clear polish.”

“As soon as Doc Newsom opens his drugstore, I’ll go get you some.” Daddy stood up, put my arm around his neck and picked me up in his arms. He was all smiles now, “What do you think you’re doing walking around? Just ‘cause it’s Christmas? Huh?” Before I could answer, he said, “Let’s go back into the living room and take a look at that Christmas tree. What’s that I saw you playing with? Sparklers? Surely Santa didn’t bring you sparklers!” Daddy laughed.

“Yes he did! The stocking had Diane on it! It’s mine!”

“Santa must have made a mistake! You can’t play with sparklers.”

“Yes I can!”

Daddy laughed even more, “I want to see everything Santa brought to my four girls.”

“Four girls? But you have three girls!”

“I have you, Pat and Barbara and Mama – that’s four.”

“He carried me down the hall where Mama stood, he winked at her and said, “I’ve rested enough, Helen. Let’s enjoy Christmas.”

The swing next to Mama's front door - a welcomed sight. The home where she prepared more than fifty Thanksgiving dinners.

The swing next to Mama’s front door – a welcomed site. The home where Helen Story prepared more than fifty Thanksgiving dinners.

Morgan Road Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time of gathering to enjoy good company and ancestral culinary arts. I learned how to cook from my mother, Helen Voyles-Story. She learned to cook from her mother, Lois Jenkins-Voyles and Story sisters-in-law. Lois my Memi, learned to cook from her mother, Cora Maddox-Jenkins and Grandma Dilda. Cora was born in a log cabin at the end of Morgan Road – the road I grew up on in Tucker, Georgia. Considering all of that Southern cooking history, many Thanksgivings have come and gone – without recipes. I learned what I could and streamlined it. For better or worse, I still get asked how I cook certain things. So, here goes on Thanksgiving main course: turkey, dressing, giblet gravy and cranberry sauce – the 4 essentials.

Giblet Gravy

Prepare by removing the neck and bag of gooshie stuff from the cavities of the turkey. Don’t forget, there is a cavity in the top and bottom of the turkey. When no one is looking, place the neck and bag of gooshie stuff in a plastic bag and carefully place it in trash can – there goes your giblets. Mama would not be happy with that. I can hear her say, “Waste not – want not.” She got that way of thinking from her mother, my Memi. But, this is the way I do it.

In a large heavy skillet and melt equal amounts of margarine and self-rising flour. Mix well for four to five minutes. This forms rue. Slowly whisk in about 2 cups broth that has been carefully drained from the cooked turkey. Allow the broth to thicken, add can of chicken mushroom soup. Stir to dissolve the soup into the broth mixture.  Dispose of the soup can the same way as the gooshie stuff and neck. Lower the heat and simmer while adding bits of turkey meat cut from under the turkey so that no one will know. Be sure to include mostly dark meat, because that’s the color of giblets. The bits of mushrooms in the soup also mimic the giblets, salt and pepper to taste.  Just before serving, add 3 sliced hard boiled eggs.

Gravy too thick or cold, add a little canned chicken broth to it and stir while heating. If not thick enough, dissolve a heaping tablespoon of self-rising flour in an ounce or so of very hot water and slowly add to gravy, stir.


As far as cooking the turkey, follow the cooking chart on the package. Allow for thaw time in the refrigerator, about 6 days for a 20 pounder. Keep the turkey wrapped in the original packaging covered with at least one plastic bag and always place in a pan. When thoroughly defrosted, unwrap and wash cavities until water runs clear. Place turkey in a large baking pan on a rack. Add about 3 cups of water to the bottom of the pan. Salt and pepper turkey liberally.

In a skillet, melt two sticks of butter (or margarine) and add almost  that much self-rising flour, making a pourable rue. Cook five minutes or so. When thickened, pour rue over the raw turkey. The thickening of butter will hold butter on turkey not in the pan. Cook the turkey in an open pan for about thirty minutes on high. That will give the turkey a nice browned appearance. Don’t be tempted to walk away and forget about the bird. Lower the temperature according to the cooking instructions on the package. If the turkey gets too brown during cook time, tent with aluminum foil tent.

The secret to cooking a good juicy turkey opposed to a dry turkey is the timing. For emergency timing charts Mama relied on the Mrs. S. R. Dull Cookbook who says cook twenty-five minutes per pound. That’s too long. If you go by the cooking instructions on the turkey package, it should be juicy. To be certain, insert an oven thermometer into the fattest part of the breast, careful not to rest on a bone. When your oven thermometer hits one hundred sixty-five, it is done. If the dark meat is at all red/pink, cut away the white meat and return the dark meat to the oven. Wait fifteen or twenty minutes before cutting the turkey or removing the thermometer. Mama tended to overcook the turkey a bit, because she just could not believe that anything that big could possibly be done in such a short time, and often quoted the famous Mrs. Dull. Mama didn’t want anybody getting sick. And if you serve undercooked poultry, your guests could wind up in the hospital. As you can see, timing is crucial.

Clean up is also crucial. Wash your hands and counters well to dispose of raw turkey liquids. As a child I got aggravated with Mama about the cleanliness thing. I sassed her a little bit about it, “How did the Pilgrims survive? I bet they didn’t do all this. I don’t remember reading anything about them hauling bleach over here on the Mayflower.”

My father, Tom Story, was passing through the kitchen, “That’s probably why so many of ’em died the furst year they landed at Plymouth Rock. Listen to your mothah, Donnie.”

Rats! He was always on her side.

Mama’s Southern Cornbread Dressing

And of course, it’s not Thanksgiving without the dressing, not stuffing. Mama never made stuffing. It was always cornbread dressing – without sage. She did not care for herbs in dressing – although some do. If so add whatever you like. Here is Helen Story’s Southern Cornbread Dressing recipe – if you can call it that. She never measured or wrote down much of anything.

First of all, make a 9″x12″ pan of cornbread. That’s easy. Mama made it from scratch, but I use a good mix like White Lily or Aunt Jemima’s Self Rising Cornbread Mix. Follow the directions. It’s just cornbread mix and buttermilk – about half and half. You don’t want the cornbread to be dry. I can hear Mama laugh as she lovingly spoke of her sister, Frances. “Your Aunt Frances was a good cook, but in her younger years, her cornbread was dry. When her pone came out of the oven, you could still see her little hand print on it. Make it wet enough so that your hand print doesn’t show. The best thing Frances cooked was fresh food – right out of the garden. She always had a beautiful garden. But Frances’ greatest talent was playing The Old Rugged Cross on Grandma Jenkin’s organ.”

Crumble cooked cornbread into a large bowl. Mama “broke up” left over homemade biscuits into the cornbread. Stale white loaf bread will work just fine. If she ran short of cold biscuits, she crumbled a sleeve of saltine crackers into the cornbread mixture. Make sure there are no lumps. Work it. To do a really good job, as Mama would say, “Use the tools the good Lord gave you, your hands.”

Add chopped celery – the whole bunch, two large chopped onions, salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt, if you used saltines. Now for the dangerous part – add enough hot broth (from cooked turkey) to wet down the cornbread mixture. This can be tricky. Too much broth – dressing will be greasy. Not enough broth – dressing will be tasteless. Pour enough to wet it down – then finish with hot water. You want the consistency thick but not dry – never soupy. Use the Aunt Frances hand print test. Last but not least – add 6 raw eggs to the mixture and stir well with a heavy spoon. Pour the dressing into a large greased baking pan. Cook in a quick oven – about four hundred degrees for about thirty five to forty five minutes. Depends on thickness of the dressing. Cook for about thirty minutes to cook through, and extra time to brown nicely. Just keep an eye on it. You may want to place a drip pan under it to avoid a sticky mess in the oven and a smoky kitchen. No (more) fire alarm dinners wanted.

Cranberry Sauce

I’m the only one in my immediate family who likes cranberry sauce, so I open a can of jellied cranberries for me. If I have guests who care for cranberries, I add can of jellied cranberry sauce together with a can of whole berry cranberries, then serve in a small delicate crystal dish with a fancy spoon.

There are certain foods that are a must at Thanksgiving because the Native Americans introduced them to the Pilgrims. Cranberries, corn and pumpkin, in one way or another will grace my Thanksgiving table. My way of honoring America’s beginning.

Helpful Hints

* Day before: Boil eggs and cook the cornbread and biscuits. Frozen biscuits are great. Go ahead and crumble up the bread and crackers.

*Day before: Chop the onions and celery and store separately in plastic bags in the refrigerator.

*Have extra canned chicken or turkey broth in case you have the bad luck of cooking a not so fat bird. You need enough broth to make the dressing and gravy. After reading this, my sister Patricia asked me, “Do you know Mama’s secret for making dressing?”

“No, what secret?”

“She cooked a hen the day before and used mostly hen broth. Mom said all turkey broth was too strong.”

Aha! We all have secrets – even Helen Story!

*Chill the cranberries before serving. Make a list of your menu and check them off as you cook and don’t forget – the cranberries are in the refrigerator.

*Figure up the turkey cooking time and write the done time in big numbers on a sheet of paper and look at it often. Opening the oven door prolongs the cook time.

*Short on time? Forget the rue. Rub turkey with olive or vegetable oil, salt and pepper. Cook at 325 degrees without browning step. Turkey will brown on its own.

*Optional: Flip the turkey over for the rest period so juices run down into the breast.

Never Let ’em See the Whites of Your Eyes

No matter how hard you strive for perfection, accept the fact that something will go wrong. It seems like a catastrophe, but in time we realize it’s what made us laugh so hard. One of my sisters, who will remain nameless, decided to cook biscuits one year. Mama was pleasantly surprised and gave her run of the kitchen, encouraging her to “do your thing.” Mama always made biscuits by hand and pinched off little balls and flattened them on the baking pan with her knuckles. My sister rolled the dough, and used a gingerbread man cookie cutter to make biscuits. She proudly served them and waited anxiously for the accolade. They were beautiful, but we couldn’t bite them, couldn’t break them, couldn’t cut them with a sharp knife. Nothing worked. My husband Jim, who can be long on humor, and a tad short on manners, stood up and threw his little biscuit man against the wall. The biscuit fell and hit the floor. Mama rescued the little biscuit man and examined him closely. “Not even a crack. How much shortening did you use?” Her only answer was, “Huh?” Mama suggested we share our Thanksgiving biscuit men with the birds. They survived the winter into spring-time.

Years later, in my Williamsburg home in Dunwoody, I planned the perfect Thanksgiving. Every detail noted and checked. Brass chandelier polished, table set two days ahead of time. Food ready. Organized. Just before the guests arrived, I ran upstairs for a quick shower. Had to look as though it was effortless. My Thanksgiving outfit laid out on my bed waiting for me. Out of the shower and putting on clothes, I suddenly realized my panty hose were missing. How could that be? I lived in a house with a husband and two small sons. I looked for another pair – nothing without a run. Time was ticking; I heard folks coming in. I settled for a pair of slacks and sweater. I hurried downstairs to welcome my guests. After a while, we all gathered in the dining room joining hands to bless our Thanksgiving. As I walked in the room, I was shocked to see a huge – though very skinny – turkey hanging from the chandelier. It had long colorful feathers made of construction paper and the structure was a stretched out coat hanger. It was hideous. I looked a bit closer to see what the body was made of. Found my panty hose. To this day, no confession. And every Thanksgiving, I remember that moment with a smile. Priceless.

A priceless moment is not always a perfect moment.  No matter how burnt or flopped, smile with grace. Have a sense of humor. As my father’s sisters would say, “When (not if!) something goes wrong, never let ’em see the whites of your eyes.” And as you can see, it is hard to pass on recipes where recipes don’t exist. I spent many hours, year after year watching my mother, Helen Story. “It takes practice,” she would say, always encouragingly. And that’s it – trial and error. I’ve tried to cover every mistake I’ve made. There will be more.

Happy Thanksgiving from the South

Never know about the weather in Georgia; one Thanksgiving felt like a spring day. After the dishes were done we enjoyed Mama’s homemade pumpkin pie on her front porch.

“Mama, I want to cook something besides biscuits. I’m ready to move on.”

“Let’s work on those biscuits a little longer, Barbara.”

“I think cooking the turkey would be easier.”

“Well, you’d have to spend the night.”


“Because I cook that ol’ bird all night.”

“All night?”

“Mama, that might be too long,” I suggested

“Not according to the Mrs. Dull Cookbook. Eleanor Roosevelt stood by Mrs. Dull. Even had a copy in the kitchen down at the Little White House in Warm Springs. I don’t believe in short-cuts, neither did Mrs. Roosevelt.”

“Mom I seriously doubt Eleanor Roosevelt did much cooking.”

“Patricia, go look at her home in Warm Springs – just plain and simple.”

“Ever seen her home in Hyde Park New York? They called it the Big House,” said Patricia.

“Yeah, the Roosevelts were some of the wealthiest people in the world,” I said.

“I believe Mrs. Roosevelt was a humble woman. Not a drop of make-up ever touched her face. And I still stand by Miss Dull when it comes to cooking turkey. By the way, Di, you ever watch that girl on the cooking show?  That seventy percent store-bought girl. Do you know who I’m talking about?”


“You know, she buys seventy percent at the store and dabbles around with it a little and calls it homemade.”

“Sandra Lee, Semi-Homemade?”

“Yeah that’s her. Can you believe it?”

“Yes I can!”

“I need to write that name down, anybody got a pen?”

“Here you go, Barbara.”

Happy Thanksgiving from the South!

Helen and older sister, Frances Voyles.

Helen and older sister, Frances Voyles.



Happy Thanksgiving Y'all!

Happy Thanksgiving Y’all!