The Thanksgiving Mystery
Mary S. Black
My family used to spend Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house out in the cotton fields near Lubbock, Texas, when I was a child. It was a six or eight-hour drive for my mother, with three kids packed in the back seat. The night before she would always make fried chicken and butter and lettuce sandwiches on soft white bread for our lunch. We loved those lunches!
We knew we were almost there when we passed the Four Sixes Ranch. Sometimes we would even see a real cowboy riding a horse. The closer we got to my grandmother’s, the more newly-plucked cotton fields we would see, with white cotton blowing along the road like snowdrifts. Hundreds (or maybe tens) of cotton trailers would be parked around the old metal gins, waiting their turn to be processed.
When we arrived, we jumped out and squealed to meet our cousins, our favorite people in the world. Soon my older cousin and I would be playing paper dolls or trying on our grandmother’s jewelry, a wonderful secret thing we loved to do. The grown-ups gathered in the kitchen for coffee and were soon down to serious conversation about farm production and politics.
On Thanksgiving Day I loved to set the table. Beautiful china on a worn, white damask cloth. I thought I was chosen especially for this task because I was so responsible. It made me feel grown-up. Meanwhile my little brother and our boy cousin were running through the house shooting plastic guns at each other, having a great time re-enacting their favorite TV shows.
If there was enough room, we kids could sit at the big table, but otherwise, we had our own table off to the side. That’s what usually happened. We always had turkey and plenty of giblet gravy, cornbread dressing, home-grown green beans, and pumpkin pie with Cool Whip. And Mrs. Baird’s store-bought white rolls. Delicious! But the best part came at night, hours after the big mid-day meal. That’s when we would wander into the kitchen one by one, and make ourselves great turkey sandwiches, complete with dressing and cranberry sauce. And gravy, lots of gravy. Yum! Those sandwiches seemed somehow luxurious to me. All was well as the elders played dominoes and we kids enjoyed our own luscious diversions.
Until the middle of the night. That’s when the puking would start, usually with the kids. Often two or three of us were throwing up all night and into the next day. I remember lying on the sofa, feeling helpless, while my grandmother urged me to drink some Seven-Up. I had just thrown up and I didn’t want anything in my stomach ever again. But I would drink it at her urging, and then barf again just to prove I was right. This “food poisoning,” as my grandmother called it happened year after year.
Why were the kids always sick at Thanksgiving? Well, they caught something at school, one grown-up would say. Or she’s run-down said another. Too much candy someone would always add. Just “food poisoning” my grandmother would say.
There were two kinds of poisoning when I was growing up: food poisoning and blood poisoning. I never have figured out what blood poisoning is. But about thirty years later it hit me that food poisoning was what we call today “food-borne illness,” caused by a number of different bacteria.
It was those wonderful evening sandwiches we’d made. Where did we find all that food when we went into the kitchen at night? Sitting on top of the stove of course. There wasn’t room in the refrigerator for all those left-overs, and I’m not sure High Plains women of my grandmother’s generation would have even thought to refrigerate cooked food anyway.
So all that turkey and home-made gravy sat on the stove, reaching the perfect temperature for the nasty bacteria Clostirdium perfringens to flourish. And flourish it did, right in our digestive tracts. It’s commonly found in meat and gravies that haven’t been kept hot enough after cooking, or left out too long. Symptoms usually appear with 8-16 hours. Yep, that was us!
May you all have a wonderful—and food safe—Thanksgiving holiday!
***Mary has taken an area in Texas and made it her own. She fell in love with the Lower Pecos more than twenty years ago. Since then she has studied the archaeology and related ethnography of the area with numerous scholars. She has an Ed.D. from Harvard University in Human Development and Psychology and lives in Austin with her husband, and archaeologist, and two cats.
Please check out her fiction at http://marysblack.com/!