Your Best-ever Thanksgiving?

Homey’s question was simple. “What’s your best-ever Thanksgiving?”

I’ve long loved Thanksgiving. I like being thankful for the living beings which continue to sustain us. It’s pretty easy to honor the trees which provide some of our heat and furniture, and the plants which give themselves and their fruit to our winter’s cache. And the antelope and deer and pheasants and rabbits and fish which pass through our freezer. I’m thankful for how easily we are sustained today. I’m really thankful for big traditional Thanksgiving dinners. Finally, I had to give Homey two best-evers.

Thanksgiving first really settled over me during my first year in radio in Boise. 1961. I was a DJ at KATN, a small country and western station, and produced a daily few-minute program on “Idaho Outdoors.” I’d interview outdoor writers like Ted Trueblood, Game & Fish people, fishing guides – anybody who had a handle on fun stuff to do. Then I’d round up sponsors to help supplement my $1.10/hour pay. One of my regular sponsors was George Dovel, who flew people back into the Salmon River Wilderness – that “River of No Return” country.

George kept offering me a chance to go back onto the Middle Fork of the Salmon and stay at one of the camps for a couple days. Finally, in November, I got three or four days together for a wilderness deer hunt. Before we took off, George said, “By the way, if it snows, I may not be able to get you out of there for a few days, until the outfitter packs down the strip. Is that OK?” I said, “Of course,” knowing full well that there was no way I could be stranded. He flew me into the Mahoney Bar camp, run by a Swedish packer and his wife, Maude. They had six or eight tents set up.

There were three or four planes on the ground, including a classic old biplane flown in from California. The three women and seven men in the camp were friends of George and the Swede, and they soon made me welcome.

I had a good hunt, made some meat, and enjoyed a great couple days at the camp. I was getting my gear ready for George to pick me up, when it started snowing. “Happens almost every year,” they told me. “So what do we do?” I asked. “Well,” said Maude, “We start planning Thanksgiving dinner!” We all pitched in – firewood, gathering herbs, preparing food. On Thanksgiving day, we ate most of a deer, a small turkey stuffed with wild sage dressing, sourdough rolls and several pies – all prepared in or on a sheepherders’ sheet metal stove. After dinner, we played cards until the moon was up. And talked about being thankful.

After ten days, George got me back to Boise. As I climbed out of his Supercub, I could still smell that wilderness kitchen. Every Thanksgiving since, I smell those aromas and recall the simple pleasures shared by eleven thankful people.

September, a couple-plus decades later, I spent a few days in Grand Junction, Colorado, in “Adobe School.” At the time, I was planning to build a mud house the following spring. Anyhow, on my way back from the school, I stopped at an orchard to pick up some apples.

I grew up in East Wenatchee’s apple country, of course, and a lot of my early deer hunting was done in and around the apple orchards. For me, apple harvest and deer harvest are hopelessly intertwined, and I felt an old, sweet anticipation of fall as I stood in that orchard and paid the young woman for the apples and the freshly-pressed cider.

Those apples went home to the basement, as antelope, deer and elk seasons rolled by.  Carcasses came into the kitchen and off to the freezer. Tena and Anna pitched in as they “got littler and littler and disappeared into the freezer!” Two-year-old Last-of-the-Hucklings Edward (“Taco Eddie” he called himself then) would climb to the table and exclaim, “Gotum antgope!  Gotta deer!  Meat! Meat!” as we cut and processed.

One morning during the elk season, I heard a radio talk show host and his guest talking about how children learn that a place or a family or a situation is safe. They discussed the role of “mobile” traditions – those a family takes with, wherever it goes. I thought about it, but ours didn’t seem like all that much, really.

When the last deer of the fall was in the freezer, we had to move. Another fresh start on the way, hopefully, to our adobe on the hill. A bit unsettling for the kids, of course. And their parents.

The evening before Thanksgiving, the family settled down a little after I whipped up my renowned breaded game cutlets, with skin-on mashed potatoes and gravy. Still, we weren’t quite there.

In the moving furor, those Grand Junction apples were almost lost amid all the stuff piled in the basement. I dragged them into our new kitchen, found the knives, and set about making my famous chunky applesauce.

I was filling a couple large kettles with apple chunks, as the kids were herded toward bed.  “Abbosauch?” Taco Eddie asked, hands full of apple pieces. “Yup,” said Tena, “they’re going to put it in jars for us to eat for breakfast and stuff. It’s going to be a good winter!”

Best-ever Thanksgivings? I could add more, but I’ll take those two.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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