Woster: The bounty of the Thanksgiving meal
These days we seem to cram Thanksgiving between Halloween and Christmas, almost an afterthought, or a chore to be done, like feeding the chickens between breakfast and the fieldwork. Too bad. It’s a fine holiday.
The closest I ever came to a Norman Rockwell style Thanksgiving meal were times when we gathered at my in-law’s house in Chamberlain.
Paul and Lorene Gust had a large house not far from the old school in Chamberlain. The place had two main floors, a full basement and a walk-up attic where decades of mysteries and treasures gathered dust as wasps buzzed against the window panes. Wooden shingles protected the sides, and a porch with sturdy pillars welcomed guests to the ornate front door. You could have fit the first house Nancy and I owned into the high-ceiling living room.
The living room sat to the left of the front door, protected by heavy pocket doors that were seldom closed, perhaps because they squealed in protest when moved. To the right of the front entrance, the formal dining room sat, with its own set of seldom-closed pocket doors. The main features of the dining room were a massive set of built-in cupboards and cabinets and a long black table that gave the room the feel of a mead hall from the Middle Ages.
That table, lined with impressive rows of matching chairs, is where Paul and Lorene created their version of Rockwell’s oil painting, “Freedom From Want.’’ The Thanksgiving dinner guests varied from year to year, and in my time with the family, the number of guests grew as grandchildren entered the mix. But the basics of the holiday feast followed tradition, with turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and rich gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberries and fresh-baked rolls that held hefty chunks of real butter. And no one could take a single bite until every serving bowl and platter had been around the table once.
I first saw the Rockwell painting when I was a kid. I never knew the history of the piece until I had been participating in the Gust’s Thanksgiving dinners for several years. I don’t know if Paul Gust knew the painting, but he knew the meaning of the holiday feast.
In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union message named four essential freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. In 1943, Rockwell created oil paintings that depicted each of those freedoms.
Freedom From Want is the one captured in the Thanksgiving meal, with guests around an elegantly set table, a grandmotherly person setting a cooked turkey near the head of the table and a grandfatherly person in dark suit and tie standing nearby, presumably waiting to carve the bird.
It has become a part of my pre-Thanksgiving routine to call up an image of the painting and study it a bit. Perhaps it’s a way to get in the mood of the season. These days we seem to cram Thanksgiving between Halloween and Christmas, almost an afterthought, or a chore to be done, like feeding the chickens between breakfast and the fieldwork. Too bad. It’s a fine holiday.
I noticed this year as I looked at Freedom From Want that, while many of the people around the table are watching the grandmother carrying the turkey, a man in the lower right corner is looking out from the painting. He looks like he has a cell phone extended out of sight of the painting. He could be snapping a group selfie, to pass around before the first course. In fact, later that day I saw a spoof showing nearly everyone at the table holding cell phones, and I thought, “Man, Norman Rockwell captured the essential image with brushes and paints. No selfies needed.’’
My in-laws, Paul and Lorene, were raised on small family farms during the early 1900s. Paul’s family lost their farm when he was still a boy. He grew up fast, working in gas stations and grocery stores, operating his own dairy and later an A&W restaurant in Chamberlain. He knew what it was like not to have enough food. The bounty of the Thanksgiving meal meant something extra to him.
He has been gone a long while now, but I still can hear him say, “Always give thanks for your daily bread.’’
That is about as basic as a Thanksgiving message gets.