Thanksgiving goes from a grab-bag holiday to a more traditional holiday this year: Column

Ceason Ranson
Ranson Ritings

By the time y’all read this in print, I will have solved one of life's greatest mysteries: Does the shopping channel, QVC, make a good ham?

I’ll back up. Thanksgiving has become one of the more random holidays in my year. Used to be, Thanksgiving was as scheduled as a school day: The holler men hunted first thing in the morning while my mom put our turkey on. The whole extended family would congregate at my grandma Kate’s at noon, where we’d feast on turkey, ham, Waldorf salad, deviled eggs and German chocolate cake. Then my branch of the Ransons would come home and nap and we’d have a smaller dinner in the evening. Simple and filling (pun intended).

Even when after Grandma Kate died and we switched to Ranson Thanksgiving, there was still a predictable rhythm to the planning and dinner. Every Ranson and every Hill (my grandma’s sister’s family) who was planning on being in town gathered at our barn around 1 in the afternoon with whatever dish they’d brought (or been assigned to bring — as the keeper of the Ranson Thanksgiving menu, I am very good at assigning dishes), and we’d sit down together, anywhere from 60-90 of us, while we gave thanks over some really great fried turkey (thank you, Uncle TL), and for me, super excellent prime rib (thank you, Cousin Scott). And afterward, Santa would show up and we’d do a few family photos.

But over the last few years, Thanksgiving traditions have gotten pretty loose. I think it started back when my dad had a heart attack, sometime in the 2010s. Up until then, we’d never had a family member in the hospital over a holiday, so we’d never had to figure out how to celebrate anywhere other than someone’s house. But off to Charleston Mom and I went that Thursday, but not before we stopped to pick Dad up a pre-ordered Thanksgiving meal. Y’all, until the moment I stepped into the Kanawha City Cracker Barrell, it never once occurred to me that people eat out on Thanksgiving. Hand to my heart, I never knew one person who went to a restaurant on Thanksgiving, or if I did, they never made it known.

I have been to Cracker Barrells on busy days — Easters, Christmas shopping days and Sundays after church — and the crowd on Thanksgiving beat them all. There was a butt in every seat in the dining room and a butt in every rocking chair on the patio, and the general store area was butt to butt in every aisle. I was dumbfounded, because I was semi-young and naïve and just assumed everyone had a grandma or mom or uncles and cousins who could, and wanted to, cook a Thanksgiving meal. So in case you’ve been telling yourself that all people sit down to a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner, please take yourself to the Kanawha City Cracker Barrell on Thanksgiving and dispel yourself of that notion.

But anyway, Bo got his Thanksgiving dinner, and Mom and I left him to pick up our own Thanksgiving: a Chinese take-out feast that we’d been talking about every since we decided not to bother with a typical dinner. So you can imagine our disappointment when we got to Main Kwong on the West Side and found it closed. We had to settle that Thanksgiving for McDonald's hamburgers and fountain Cokes (thanks, Greg Mills and the Fairplain McDonald's crew), which if I’m being totally honest, made me far happier than having a turkey anyway.

Now Thanksgiving for us has become a lot closer to what I imagine the first Thanksgiving must have been like for the Pilgrims. Like the Pilgrims, we’re still navigating that strange land of trying to find a new tradition when it's just Mom and I. Sometimes it feels like we’re flitting around fall leaves, trying to find out a place to land for the length of a meal. And this year, enter my Grandma Betty.

I have, of course, eaten Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents in Logan before, and it's always an experience, because my grandma is both a traditionalist and a trier-outer, which is to say we can expect the typical Thanksgiving dinner, and at least one item she read a recipe for in the Ladies Home Journal or on the back of a box and decided Thanksgiving was the time to try it out. I really admire that about her: When it comes to recipes, Grandma Betty is fearless. She’ll try out anything that sounds good, and not think twice about putting it on the Thanksgiving counter buffet. Maybe it’ll become a staple, maybe not, but she likes a least one different thing to try out every year, and as a person who can eat the same lunch every day for a year straight, I admire a trait in her that I will never have.

What I don’t love is that she doesn’t believe in pre-heating her oven. I’ve told you all I was a pretty serious baker in my past, so as you can imagine, I take pre-heating instructions very seriously. Grandma Betty, on the other hand, thinks pre-heating is, at best, a suggestion, and at worst, a waste of electricity. I have attempted over the years to explain why preheating is important, but my grandma is steadfast in her refusal to preheat. So every year, we put Thanksgiving food into a cold oven, then play the “Is it done yet?” game all afternoon, because the suggested cooking times on food have no meaning if the oven is cold when you put the food in. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but it is the Logan Thanksgiving tradition I’ll always remember the most.

But this year, Grandma Betty is about to, reluctantly, find out the wonders of pre-heating, because Mom and I are in charge of the meal this time.

It’ll be all your typical Thanksgiving dishes, and if I can remember to call the order in, a Nu Era bakery cake, which if you haven’t had it, is a Logan baking institution with a Big R-level white cake, just deliciousness at every forkful. They’ll also be chicken tenders, because Cousin Josh only eats chicken, deviled eggs with no pickle relish (because I’m in charge of the eggs and we all know how I feel about pickle relish in deviled eggs) and apparently a QVC ham, which has made me laugh to no end. I am well aware that QVC sells everything you can stick a barcode on, so I’m sure that whatever ham they sell is fine, but I’m just having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the same place that sells Joan Rivers apparel and Miracle Mops will also be providing our Thanksgiving meat.

And afterward, we’ll be decorating Grandma’s Christmas tree, which will be super fun for me, because my mom got her taste for decorating from my grandma, and that includes an unhealthy obsession with properly fluffed tree branches. So I foresee my Thanksgiving evening spent in the floor of the good living room while not one, but two, Burgess women nit-pick my branch-fluffing skills to death, then get on to me for putting ornaments in the wrong place. Because you are never too old or too educated to be reminded by the women who raised you that when it comes to simple household skills, you are near useless.

You want to hear a secret though? I’m looking forward to all that. The fight over pre-heating, the QVC ham, the “helpful” branch-fluffing instructions — all of it. Because even if Thanksgiving has become my most grab-bag of holidays, I know what a gift it is to eat dinner surrounded by family, either by blood or because you chose them. To make a meal together, serve it together, eat it together and then clean up together: If your love languages are “acts of service” and “gives gifts,” then Thanksgiving is your Super Bowl.

All those acts of love presented in dishes on a table? It really is something to be thankful for.