Five years ago Dan and I made the long drive from the mountains of Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia. We were still dating, and I was about to spend Thanksgiving with his family for the very first time. I could not have known the culinary culture shock I was headed for. Now, I'd already met everyone because of the horrid, horrid New Years I'd spent with them two years earlier. Yes, it was that bad. Here's the two-minute summary:
One Christmas my Dad got me plane tickets to Atlanta to go spend some holiday time with Dan. We had been dating for a sum total of 2 weeks, so I was all high on puppy-love-crush and thrilled to go. As we were sitting around the table on New Years Day, the family received a phone call saying that "Big Mama" (Dan's Great Grandmother) had passed away. I spent the next two days of my romantic vacation at the funeral home, where I knew not ONE. SINGLE. PERSON. Unless you count Dan's parents whom I'd met the night before. Dan was a pallbearer, and I certainly wasn't considered "family," so I waited outside of the viewing area with a bunch of strangers for the most uncomfortable hour, and everyone kept asking me how I was related to Big Mama. When I told them I was Dan's girlfriend, they said, "Oooh, how sweet of you to come all this way for the funeral. It must be serious. How long have you two been dating?"
"Ummm...for exactly 14 days now. Is there a casket somewhere in back that I could go crawl into?"
So - I'd met Dan's family before, but Thanksgiving was the first holiday I'd ever participated in where someone didn't die.
My Dad grew up in Nebraska/Pennsylvania, and my mom grew up in Illinois/Ireland. We don't exactly do southern food. I didn't have sweet tea until I was in high school, and I used to think okra was a type of seafood. I'd graduated from college before Dan gave me my okra education.
Dan, however, grew up in Georgia. Like, Gone With The Wind Georgia. So it stands to reason that our Thanksgiving meal experiences were quite different. Take dressing, for example. I thought this was a verb, not a food.
That year, as I stood in Dan's Grandmother's kitchen and surveyed the buffet line, I noticed that stuffing was nowhere to be found. Thanksgiving with no stuffing? And the sweet potatoes were not mashed with a touch of brown sugar on top. They were sliced, like sweet potatoes au gratin, except for they were swimming in an entire bottle of Karo syrup and probably a whole bag of melted sugar, too. The green beans were not in a casserole. WHERE ARE THE FRENCHES FRIED ONIONS? IS NOTHING SACRED? And then there were strange foods, like tomato ketchup to go in the black eyed peas, but it's really not ketchup at all. And pepper sauce - the juice that comes out of a jar full of shrively green peppers. (Pepper juice is for pouring into your bowl of collards. Before that day I could not have told you what a collard looked like.) And a little piece of my soul died when I inventoried the dessert table: no pumpkin pie.
Culture shock. I swallowed hard and scooped a few green beans onto my plate - all cooked down to a deep forest green color.
Because God is hilarious, I ended up MOVING to Georgia. I worked with a few southern belles in an office before I had Madeline, and one fall afternoon I was telling them about my first southern Thanksgiving. When I mentioned stuffing à la the North/Midwest, my friend Bridget piped up, "With sage! In the bird!" Bridget was from Ohio.
Our eyes sparked and in that moment she was my soulmate.
"Yes!" I exclaimed. "My brother was always pouty because he had to cut up all the bread!"
"Did you make acorn squash?
"And cut it in half and stick it face down in a pan of water?"
Now, I'm not a foodie kind of person. I don't like to cook and I'm not a recipe-posting variety mommy blogger, BUT LET ME TELL YOU, that day Bridget and I talked food for nearly an hour. You would have thought we were chefs in a former life. It was magical; we were food sisters.
After having spent many Thanksgivings with the Conners, I know the ropes. I know that dressing is basically the same thing as stuffing, except it's made with cornbread and baked in a pan. I also know that if you douse it in gravy it is heavenly. As you've probably deduced based on the bag of sugar/bottle of corn syrup thing, the sweet potatoes are also divine. And biscuits! When I rule the world there will be southern biscuits at every meal. For the last two years I've brought my green bean casserole to the table, which people really like, and I also make a pumpkin pie. I'm usually the only one who eats it, but truthfully, I'd be alright if it stayed that way.
I'm really looking forward to traveling to Georgia to spend Thanksgiving with Dan's parents this year. The jittery, I-might-start-packing-tonight kind of excited.
And now I live in Alabama. ALABAMA. I love fried okra, fried catfish, and fried pickles. I could even pick Paula Deen out of a lineup. Who am I??? Sometimes I even say holler - as in, "Madeline stop hollering," or "Dan, holler if you can hear me!" (Please don't tell my mother.)
If you had told me five years ago that I would be here today, I would have laughed. Or fainted. But that's how life goes. In the book of John, Jesus tells us that He's come to give us life more abundant, and since I've become a Christian, my life is certainly that. Abundant. Abundant in surprises. Abundant in challenges. The highest highs and awfully low lows. Abundant in brokenness and humility, and abundant in joy.
Thanksgiving (and southern food) remind me of how full and brimming my life is. Here's to living with open hands, palms facing up to God as if to say, "My life is open before You. Take anything, take everything. And I will gladly accept whatever You choose to give me. Even if it is collards."
What is the biggest food culture shock you've ever experienced?
What is your "it's not Thanksgiving without it" dish?
What things remind you of your abundant, surprising life?
This is what I want to know.