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Move Over Norman Rockwell

Oct. 30, 2012

Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go! Many Jacksonians spend their Thanksgivings around a dining room table in what looks like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Plates are piled high with turkey, dressing, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes. Afterwards, families retreat to their respective places on recliners and couches for the afternoon football smack down. Families also have Christmas traditions, yet some are not so traditional.

Not all families spend the holidays gathered around the dining room table - or, at least, not around a table in the dining room. Jonni Webb of Deerfield spends her Thanksgiving with family at their Carroll County lake house. Family members travel from all over the state, Tennessee and from as far away as Wisconsin, to come together for a weekend of catching up. When the weather allows, the large farm table from inside the house is moved out on the dock for a lakeside Thanksgiving feast.

“We all fix our plates inside and take them down to the dock,” said Webb. “There’s something about being outside in the fall that makes Thanksgiving more special.” In addition to the requisite afternoon of football, Webb’s cousin, Ann Parker of Memphis, organizes an afternoon craft session, with a new craft project each year.

After a night of sleeping off the mass quantities of turkey, the Webb women make an annual trip to Carrollton and Winona to start Christmas shopping. The outing always includes lunch out somewhere while the men stay back at the lake house to watch football and eat leftovers.

Eight years ago, friends in Fondren gathered together to hold an “Urban Family Thanksgiving” the weekend before Thanksgiving. Beth Kander, a transplant from Michigan to Jackson, invited all her friends to gather, complete with turkey, dressing and other potluck fare. Diana Howell, executive director of Fondren Theatre Workshop, assisted with the event that has become an annual tradition. “Beth wasn’t able to go home that year, but she didn’t want to miss out on a ‘family’ tradition, so she gathered her ‘urban family’ around her before they left town for their own usual Thanksgiving destinations,” said Howell. The dinner was such a hit that it has become an annual event for the growing “urban family,” (mostly theatre folk, but others are included as well).

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“The size of the crowd has grown each year, and in the past two years, we’ve moved it to our home to accommodate the number of people who attend,” Howell said. But Beth is still at the center of it, and it’s something that has come to represent Thanksgiving just as much (and in some cases, more so) for many of us than the celebration that takes place on actual Turkey Day.”

Turkey and dressing may be the typical Thanksgiving fare, but dinner at the Wessman home is anything but typical. NancyKay Wessman learned all she could about Swedish and Scandinavian cooking when she married her late husband, Dick. “Holidays were a time for us to roll out a full Swedish smorgasbord,” recalled Wessman.

One year, the Wessmans entertained 25 for Christmas Eve brunch. "We used Dick's mother's recipes as well as other favorites from our collection of Scandinavian cookbooks to prepare the traditional dishes from Dick's childhood. I learned to prepare dishes like jellied veal, potato sausage and limpa, a type of bread, from scratch, and we ordered other delicacies from Chicago and Lindsborg, Kan, and of course, the divine Aquavit Mary (equal parts Aquavit and tomato juice with one half lime, serve over ice). That continues to be a precious memory."

Sergio Fernandez, who owns Fernandez Creative Services in Jackson, said that his family has a tradition of gathering together for a big Christmas celebration, except they do it in July. "We are all too busy in December, so we started celebrating Christmas at our family reunion each July in Destin. We sing a couple of carols, and eat a traditional Christmas pizza or grill some 'Bethlehem Burgers.' We drink a variation of eggnog and have a rousing 'Dirty Santa' gift exchange with crazy things like mullet wigs, Batman costumes for dogs, or a slam dunk toilet basketball game."

Fernandez said the celebration began very spontaneously about 10 years ago when someone brought a Christmas gift they didn't get around to sending the previous December. "We lost my dad a while back, but he really loved the party. My mother still looks forward to it every summer."

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About 25 years ago, Cleta and Edward Ellington and their three children went to the Egg Bowl in Starkville on Thanksgiving Day. They stopped at a McDonald’s, with friends Mary and Hilary Zimmerman and their four children, on the way home and her family, and they decided that they should combine forces and share Thanksgiving dinner the following year.

Ellington said, “You just have to keep re-inventing yourself in terms of holiday traditions, especially after family members die.” The Ellingtons and the Zimmermans, along with three other families started their new Thanksgiving traditions, which are in full force today.

It’s a potluck affair, and by now, everyone knows exactly what to bring. “My cousin Scottie from Lafayette, La. knows he must bring two turkeys, which he fries in the garage. Others from Louisiana know they need to bring fresh oysters,” said Ellington, and other close friends and relatives bring kibbe, deer sausage and hot tamales. “Everybody just fixes their best stuff,” she said.

Mary Zimmerman said, “My husband, Hilary, is the cook at our house, so he makes a wonderful seafood casserole, and I make the more basic ones like sweet potato or green bean.”

Bloody Marys start pouring at noon. Children play in the yard and throw things at each other, like footballs. The group has now grown to about 75 for Thanksgiving dinner. Ellington recalls, “The weather usually cooperates with us, and only once in all those years did we have to move dinner completely indoors.”

The Ellingtons were active members of the International Visitors Center at Jackson State University. The first year they had Thanksgiving dinner, JSU called and asked if a visiting judge from Spain could join them for dinner. Maggie Wade, the longtime anchor at WLBT, covered the judge’s visit and arrived at the Ellingtons, with a cameraman. Ellington recalls, “The Spanish judge was extremely handsome. In fact, he was amazing.” But Ellington’s two sons and nephew thought he was amazing for another reason. “He drank bottle after bottle of wine, and during the hours and hours he was at my house, he never once rose from his chair to use the facilities.”

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Among these close-knit friends and family members, there happens to be an inordinate number of musicians, per capita, and in years past, they played music in the Ellington’s carport. Now, though, the group gathers at a local nightspot, to which they have been granted access, for the music portion of their Thanksgiving dinner.

Johnny Rayford is pastor of Crestwood Baptist Church on Bailey Avenue, not far from the Jackson Mall. Johnny is a remarkable cook who had a restaurant in New Orleans earlier in his life. Beginning early, a group of people gets together at Crestwood Baptist Church to help him prepare a big Thanksgiving dinner -- turkey, the best dressing I've ever had, vegetables, desserts, and Johnny's famous gumbo.

Each Thanksgiving, Phyllis and John Geary, with their four children, pick up a van from Broadmoor Baptist Church. "About 10:30 or so, we head out to pick up people," Geary said. "We visit the streets regularly and know a lot of homeless people. We start by going to places where they hang out, picking them up, and taking them to Crestwood. We also go to the Opportunity Center, a city-run facility for homeless folks, and pick up people there. We'll make several runs, as time allows. In the process, we drive around inner Jackson and find people who look like they don't have anywhere to go and try to get them to go with us. Some do, some don't. Funny, we mention Thanksgiving dinner and eyes light up. And then we say it's at a church, and they change their mind about how good it sounds."

People from the neighborhood come as well, and typically the group feeds 200-300 people. A worship service is held, with lunch served afterwards. "We fire up the van and take people back to wherever they want to go after dinner,” said Geary. "By the time we clean up and make the last van runs, it's about 3:00 p.m." Geary said that everyone involved has a great time. "Everyone has a job  making van runs, cooking, serving food, attending to guests, visiting with people. Even the younger kids are very much involved. Our youngest son, Patrick, has homeless friends, and he is great at serving food and waiting on people."