Thanksgiving: Food, friends and family

John Oncken
A little bit of a lot.

There were always just two days on the farm where little work – other than necessary chores – was done: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although Thanksgiving might have been a tobacco stripping day (thus a hard work day) if the weather had allowed the tobacco to be moved off the poles and stacked for stripping. But, mostly those were the two days of rest and recreation on the Oncken Farm.

Except for mother (and maybe my sister) who were busy fixing potatoes and cranberries and getting the turkey, but most likely the chicken, ready for the oven the next day. Note: When I was a youth turkeys were few and far between. Perhaps a local farmer would have purchased a few turkey poults from the hatchery and raised them for special days like Thanksgiving for those who had gotten on his “I want a turkey” list.

No frozen turkeys

Of course, the days of buying a frozen turkey at the supermarket had not yet arrived. Believe me, that might be hard for young readers to believe that there was a time when frozen (or fresh) turkeys were not sold in stores. It took the arrival of the mega growers and mass marketing to bring that about.

Eating and resting

After milking and completing as many night chores as possible, Dad and my brother and I headed for the house to wash up and get ready for Thanksgiving and the meal that we had thought about all morning. After the mealtime prayer we did our best to demolish in maybe a half hour what mother had spent two days preparing. Then my dad headed for his easy chair to read the newspapers he hadn't gotten to yet and digest The Saturday Evening Post and The Farm Journal magazines. In the later days of my youth (after TV) it was Packer-Lion football time with perhaps a brief nap thrown in.

Years ago big meals were served to those seated around a big table. Over the years, buffet-style serving is popular. Filling their plates are John Oncken's son, John C. Oncken, right, and his son, John and wife Joan.

Why mother? 

A few days ago, my daughter Laurel asked an interesting question: Why did your mother do all the Thanksgiving meal cooking and preparation and then all the dishes and cleanup? Where were were all you guys? Two answers: 1) In my youth I guess I thought that's just the way life was: men did the outside work like milking, hauling manure, plowing and stripping tobacco while women did the house and family work like taking care of young children. 2) Today work responsibilities have changed with women holding outside jobs and men involved with the home and child raising with lots of discussion and give and take.

A different group 

After marriage, our Thanksgivings often included one or maybe both sets of in-laws with all three women helping in the meal production (the two grandmoms were always proud of their cooking skills and eager to help) and the men watching football on TV along with entertaining the kids. Thus still a sort of ancient routine continued.

Thanksgiving was sort of a smallish family affair (my brother, sister and me alternating as hosts while Christmas involved aunts, uncles and children, something like 25 people.)

Turkey seems to be the “official” meat of Thanksgiving.

Too many turkeys

The most interesting Thanksgiving I remember occurred in Korea where I spent a year. My little group of some 18 railroaders stationed at UeJong-Bu received 30 turkeys from the supply providers about a week before Thanksgiving. Our cook was overhelmed: "What should I do Lt. I hate to thow them away?" After a bit of thought I asked several of my men what we needed at our little encampment? “We always need paint,” one man said.

“Bingo,” my brain said. I instructed the cook to keep the turkeys you need and take the rest to the First Sergeant at the Company level and tell him you'll trade turkeys for paint. He made the trip and was greeted with a “Glad you came, we're short several turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner. What kind of paint do you want?" For the non veteran readers, trading was a common practice in outlying and faraway Army units. (Note: First Sergeants really do run the Army.)

John's daughters Lynne Oncken, second from left, and Laurel Oncken Curet, gather with Laurel's children, Trace Curet, left, and Cameron Curet for a California Thanksgiving.

Out to eat

In the last few years before my wife died, we went out for Thanksgiving dinner because of the the labor involved. This year I'll be a part of a casual noon meal and a sit down Thanksgiving supper that my daughter Laurel will host. Sort of a split schedule as some of the family guests have special plans for part of the day. But, I know it will be great!

Thanksgiving dinner schedules do indeed change as do family member numbers, ages and lives. I hope you and your family get together for food, family talk and fun. Happy Thanksgiving!

John F. Oncken can be reached at