Thanksgiving morning, 1983 — the year I was 8, the same age The Toad is now — my mother handed my brothers and me three baby-food jars. Her smile went flat and wide, the way it does when she’s got some scheme of which she’s especially proud. She took a jar of cream from the counter — not the fridge, she said, because it was better for the cream to be room temperature — and filled our jars half full. Then she opened the drawer that held the letter opener and the 19 paper clips and the recipe cards, and produced three marbles. She dropped one in each of our jars, screwed the lids on tight, leaned down, and whispered, “Shake.”
“Why?” we whispered back.
“Because I need you to make butter.”
This was years before my brother fell down laughing at my grandmother and my father trying to figure out how to turn a turkey, flash-roasting at 450, from breast-side-down to breast-side-up without getting third-degree burns. This was years before my brothers and I, trying to make pumpkin pie, dropped an entire canister of sugar on the kitchen floor and tried to Shop-Vac it up, only to discover that the filter on a Shop-Vac has a tolerance slightly larger than a grain of sugar, and thus will equally distribute a pound of vacuumed sugar around an entire room and/or house. This was during an innocent time. A time when holiday calamity hadn’t fully come home to roost. A time when my mother thought it a good idea to hand small children glass jars, projectiles, and perishable dairy. Naturally, this is my plan for my kids this Thanksgiving. Only we’re going to go with Mason jars.
• • •
A grand plan needs a trial run, so we pay a visit to our local creammonger and return with a jug of Homeland Creamery high-test. The boys are full of questions: You just shake? For how long? And it’s butter? How?
Let’s see what happens, is my answer to most of those questions. It’s the answer I try to reach for all the time and so often fail to find — but Thanksgiving can be a time of resetting, of early resolutions, and here we are on our front porch, shaking away. The light’s long this time of year, and the air has the promise of sleet soon, and the kids are laughing and complaining: This hurts; my arm’s tired; there’s no way this makes butter.
Keep going, I say. We didn’t believe it, back in 1983, but then we had whipped cream, and soon enough something else, and my boys on our porch — riddle me that, 8-year-old self! — work their way through the same progression. Eventually: butter. We think. We go inside to find out.
The Internet said to wash the butter once we had some, so there are my boys wrist-deep in a bowl of ice water, kneading the buttermilk out of just-churned North Carolina butter. The Wee is giggling that hose-water laugh of his, and The Toad is an expert already, telling everybody how to do it. We get the butter washed and onto a plate, and we stand there looking at it, unsure of the next step. My wife saves us: Last night’s bread goes into the oven, and it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and we’re feasting.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. There’s less performative pressure than Christmas, or at least it’s of a different kind: It’s just turkey and stuffing, green beans and sweet potatoes. And the people who think it’s just one meal are wrong. It’s the before, the during, the leftovers; it’s a month and a season. It’s my mother, handing us kids those jars and that cream, saying, I think this might work. It did, and it does: My boys made butter, by hand. They’re the pilgrims here; for them, the world really is still new. We’re still weeks before pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, even, our long-standing potluck tradition of grilling a bird and inviting friends to bring the side that most says Thanksgiving to them, but the holiday’s in full swing. We’re grateful, thankful, together — and once again, we’re fed.