Category Archives: Holidays

Thanksgiving and My Back Porch

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Every single day I count my blessings for the love of my family and friends, my health, the beautiful planet on which I live, and every positive thing that has been bestowed on me. You know what I’m thankful for today? My back porch.

Most houses have a back porch, or a back room, or even a spare bedroom, that kind of serves as the innards of the house. Here are the lightbulbs that light our house, the seeds for next year’s garden, board games we play with friends and family, the linens, our mushroom and berry gathering baskets, and the fresh water we bring from the spring on the mountain. There is paint back there, and wrapping paper, and shelves for the overstock from our pantry. Flower vases in which we put our beautiful bouquets. And outdoor plants who are patiently waiting out the winter by the sunny windows. The porch holds hidden Christmas gifts, the cleaning supplies, and the laundry area where everything has its place.

Our porch looked pretty sad when we first got here. It was painted light shit-brown with scars from dogs who clawed the doors and chewed the door trim, furniture that scraped the walls as it came through, dirt tracked onto the bare plywood floor by endless footprints, dead flies, spiders, and a lot of cobwebs. Earlier this year we painted it sunny yellow with nautical gray trim and a bright woven rug. I have wind chimes and other what-nots hanging in there, and shelves loaded with boxes and coolers, but also important things like clothespins, candles, and my trusty little red toolbox.

My porch is accessible through a door off the kitchen. It’s a wonderful, century-old door with a window in it from the days before the porch was built on. When you look through the window, you can see our green plants lazing about on the sunny yellow shelf. In winter, we open the door when we do the laundry because it helps warm the house. But we also open it when the woodstove makes the house too hot. In summer, the back door opens to let in the sunshine from our yard. Otherwise it remains closed at this time of year, but just going out there to retrieve cat food or a can of tomatoes gives me a very homey feeling.

I’ve always wanted a back porch. My great-grandparents had one, and that is where my great-grandpa mixed his crock of whiskey eggnog and invited all the grown-ups to have a taste. We had one on back of our old house in Pasadena, and I had a teeny one in the first house I ever rented. My stepmother used to have one off the kitchen, in a wonderful old house she and her family moved deep into the woods outside of Flagstaff. My in-laws have a really cool backroom that is accessed through a secret door. In these places, I and dozens before me have held secret conversations, snuck out for a cigarette or a drink, spent time in solace while idly folding laundry, and peeked out to watch birds and squirrels and random cats from the windows.

Sometimes, even looking for the damn batteries is kind of fun, ratting around and finding some other important item you’ve been looking for in the process. “Dang, so that’s where that is,” you might mutter to yourself. Nobody will hear you. Nobody will hear you going over your shoulda-woulda-coulda list as you organize the shelves. Nobody will really care what you are doing back there as you stash some gift or other secret thing only you know about in a cupboard behind the rag bin. It’s a marvelous place, that back porch of mine. It makes me feel like I have truly come home.

1918: The Year of No Thanksgiving

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Colorado Gambler.

“Thanksgiving Parties Are Forbidden.”

So ran the headline on the front page of the Cripple Creek Times & Victor Daily Record in Colorado, a mere two days before Thanksgiving in 1918. Beneath was this command, issued by the Teller County Board of Health: “Eat your Thanksgiving dinner at home and be thankful that the ‘flu’ is under control. Visiting spreads the epidemic.”

Indeed, a world wide influenza epidemic was at hand. Colorado was no exception to the rule. Statewide, citizens had for months known about the Spanish Flu, which began sweeping the whole world off its feet the previous March. The suspected origin of the dreaded disease was Spain. But because the epidemic began almost simultaneously in America, others suspected Fort Riley Kansas, where soldiers fell ill within two days of burning tons of manure.

Forty eight soldiers would die at Fort Riley as others followed troop movements to Europe to fight in World War I. Within weeks, the flu had reached pandemic proportions. To people around the globe, the severity of the Spanish Flu was comparable to the Black Plague of Europe some centuries before. Onset of the illness was quite sudden. Within a matter of hours, a person could go from the picture of health to being so weak they couldn’t walk. Fevers escalated to 105 degrees and doctors were at a loss as to how prevent pneumonia from developing.

In all, the Influenza Epidemic would take nearly three times the lives that World War I did. An early estimate lay at 27,289 war casualties versus 82,306 flu victims. In the end, the final toll in the United States was somewhere between 500,000 to 675,000, with 20 to 40 million fatalities world wide.

It is no wonder then, that by November the epidemic was taking precedence over everything else in Teller County. The November 8 issue of the Cripple Creek Times & Victor Daily Record reported 12 dead. Two more outbreaks had occurred in the previous 24 hours, and five were reported critically ill at the County Hospital in Cripple Creek. In addition, six new cases of Spanish Flu were reported in Victor & Goldfield.

“WAR IS OVER” screamed the headlines on the following day, but the end of the war hardly seemed important as folks received news of a county-wide quarantine. By ordinance, newcomers to the county were automatically put into quarantine for a minimum of three days. In addition, no one was permitted to enter or leave quarantined houses. Schools closed and children were ordered kept at home. Parties and public congregations, including funerals, were forbidden. Anyone daring to venture out in public was required to wear a gauze mask.

In roughly a years’ time, one funeral director alone recorded 45 deaths from the flu. Among them were the Snowden boys, ages ten and fifteen, who died within a day of each other at the Cripple Creek District town of Elkton that November. Their mother Augusta died just four days later, leaving a single grieving husband and father. The Snowden family’s fate was sadly typical of what many residents of Teller County were experiencing on a day to day basis.

The residents of the Cripple Creek District rallied as best they could. Family was told to stay away for the holidays. The obvious lack of advertising for Thanksgiving supplies in local newspapers told the tale. Dinner plans were cancelled as the healthy did what they could to help the sick. Volunteers left warm meals, coal and wood at the back doors of quarantined families.

News traveled by way of notes and messages shouted over the backyard fence. Local newspapers worked round the clock to keep up with the dead and dying, as well as their guardian angels. “Assist the sick in every way possible” was the motto of the day as daily editions included recipes for tonics and syrups, plus important notices.

“If anyone knows of any family in Victor who are needy during the Thanksgiving festivities,” offered the Cripple Creek Times, ‘they will be taken care of if word is left with Mrs. W.O. Higgins or Mrs. T.C. Wilson at the Wilson Art Shop.” A similar list was available from Mrs. Wilson M. Shafer in Cripple Creek.

The temporary health regulations were strictly enforced. In Colorado Springs, a woman was fined $10 for hosting a musicale and luncheon at her home. In Cripple Creek, only one ill-informed scoundrel dared to ignore the ordinance. In what was surely a blatant move in this crisis, the Gibbs House advertised turkey with all the trimmings Thanksgiving day for seventy five cents. The place was probably fined or ordered shut down.

It was surely a bleak Thanksgiving day that dawned on Colorado residents that year as they awoke to newspapers filled with funeral and death notices. Although the Times-Record indicated the flu was “under control” that Thanksgiving, it would be months before the county returned to normal. Schools remained closed through January and it was some time before the virus finally ran out of steam and died off.

There is no doubt that as households dined on what they could gather for dinner that Thanksgiving day in 1918, the feeling of family tradition was accompanied by one of hope. As they gazed over their offerings, each individual had one and only one prayer in mind. The prayer might have evolved into a word of thanks for being healthy and being alive, plus a wish for the continued health of loved ones and neighbors. It was a sentiment worth keeping in mind, with or without the loss.

Thanksgiving in Frontier Arizona

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette

What was Thanksgiving in pioneer Arizona like? In many ways, the tradition and overall ambience has changed very little—except, imagine having to butcher your own turkey. Stewing your own cranberries. Baking pies and dinner rolls from scratch. Cooking on a wood-burning stove. Hand-washing the dishes. This was very much a part of Arizona’s Thanksgivings of old.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Organic Act to form Arizona Territory in February of 1863. Eight months later, he officially designated Thanksgiving an official holiday. Newcomers to Arizona were only too glad to give thanks in their new, albeit primitive, homes. Although the hard work involved to make any large meal was a part of every day life, the workload doubled at Thanksgiving.

The menu from a 1905 issue of Harper’s Bazaar gives much insight into details of a proper Thanksgiving dinner. The courses consisted of “Oysters on the half-shell with cocktail in pepper shells; Radishes, celery, salted nuts; Clear consommé with tapioca; Filet of flounder with pimentos and olives; dressed cucumbers; Roast turkey; cranberry jelly in small molds; creamed chestnuts; glazed sweet-potato; Cider frappé in turkey sherbet-cups; Quail in bread croustades; dressed lettuce; Blazing mince pie; Cheese with almonds; wafers; Angel parfait in glasses; small cakes; coffee.”

As the popularity of Thanksgiving grew during the 1860’s, a number of church cookbooks, ladies’ clubs and professional cooks offered endless numbers of enticing recipes. Amongst the earliest cookbooks was Isabella Mary Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, which favored cooking a “modest” turkey for better flavor. Ms. Beeton recommended butchering the bird and letting it hang for four to eight days, depending on the weather, before dressing it. The required ingredients were one “middling-sized” turkey, white paper, forcemeat (an early term for dressing with meat), flour and butter. The recipe read in part, “Carefully pluck the bird, singe it with white paper, and wipe it thoroughly with a cloth; draw it, preserve the liver and gizzard, and be particular not to break the gall-bag, as no washing will remove the bitter taste it imparts where it once touches.”

More instructions followed, including “flattening the breastbone to make it look plump.” When stuffed and sewn, a “sheet of buttered paper” was fastened to the breast before the bird was put “down to a bright fire, at some little distance at first (afterwards draw it nearer).” The recipe cautioned to “keep it well basted the whole of the time it is cooking.” Gravy was made by dredging the turkey with flour, adding butter and basting with it during the last fifteen minutes.

In time, traditional bread stuffing became a favored alternative to forcemeat. An 1894 edition of the Coconino Weekly Sun offered a fairly simple recipe: “Prepare a dressing of bread crumbs, mixed with butter, pepper, salt, thyme and wet with hot water or milk. Add the beaten yolks of two eggs. Mince a dozen oysters and stir into the dressing, and, if you are partial to the taste, wet the bread crumbs with the oyster liquor.”

As the Victorian era arrived, Thanksgiving Pudding became a favorite dish. The instructions from an 1880 recipe were to the point: “Pound 20 crackers fine, add 5 cups milk and let swell. Beat well 14 eggs. Pint sugar. Cup molasses. 2 small nutmegs. 2 TSP ground clove. 3 ground cinnamon. 2 TSP salt. 1/2 TSP soda. Add to crackers. Finally add pint of raisins. Makes two puddings.”

Other dishes came and went, depending on what was most popular at the time. A staple dating to the first Thanksgiving dinner that has never gone away, however, is the pumpkin pie. A 1927 recipe offered simple, from-scratch ingredients and instructions that can still be followed today:

1 cup cooked pumpkin, 2 egg yolks or 1 egg, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1 cup milk. Mix ingredients and pour into unbaked crust. Bake in a hot oven (450 degrees) for 10 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until custard is done. Serve with whipped cream.

No matter the recipe, the primitive pioneers of Arizona were thankful for their Thanksgiving dinners, and especially to the many women who toiled in kitchen to make the tastiest meals possible. And a bit of humor never hurt either, as illustrated in this 1895 poem entitled “Mother Gets the Neck”:

“The sage may read the heaven’s tale

But can he this explain;

Why does she choose that bony part

And let the rest remain!

Aye, roasted, fried it is the same,

She loves to sit and peck

At the curved, tidgy meatless thing:

A turkey’s crinkly neck.”