An Easton Thanksgiving – 1955
Thanksgiving Day will look considerably different in many Easton homes in 2020. Family gatherings will likely be smaller, in some cases with just the immediate members of the same household in attendance. There will be fewer grandparents and college students flying in for the long weekend. Turkeys are apt to be smaller and Aunt Lillian’s green-bean casserole may be just as absent as Aunt Lil. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be a virtual event – a first in its 94-year history, all of one city block in length with no live spectators – not really a parade at all. The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys will still be hosting football games – albeit to largely empty stadiums. However, Thanksgiving will go on. It’s an American tradition. But as we will see this year, some things change while others remain the same. In that light, we thought you might enjoy a look back at the holiday in 1955. It will be nostalgic for some and perhaps enlightening for others, since a lot has changed over the past 65 years.
Everybody liked Ike! Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Disneyland opened its doors to the public for the very first time in July. Doctor Jonas Salk’s Polio Vaccine was approved for use in April, marking the beginning of the end of the terrible disease. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born.
It was still a challenge getting from the center of town over to the Black Rock Turnpike. The bridge across the Aspetuck Reservoir’s northern end on Center Road was still closed and the one on Valley Road was completely gone. The October flood from a late tropical storm had caused so much damage that the schools were closed for over a week that month.
Thanksgiving that year would be a new experience for our family. My grandfather had retired from the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company that spring and moved to Maine to relive his youth by running a dairy farm like he had before the Great Depression. At fifty-nine years of age, everyone but Gramps thought he was crazy when he bought thirty dairy cows and headed north. This would be the first year that my twenty-nine-year old mother would be cooking her own turkey. Up to that point, her mother had hosted every holiday dinner that our family had ever attended.
To make matters even more difficult for my poor mother, my father had invited his sister to Thanksgiving dinner.
Looking back, I suppose our planning for Thanksgiving began in late October. We had several apple trees on our property and autumn meant picking the fruit from those trees before it fell to the ground and became bruised. Apples were one of the few fruits that could be stored for several months without spoiling so long as they were kept cool and undamaged. One of the highlights of any Thanksgiving feast in our family was the fresh apple pie that followed the meal. That October was a bit different in that a good deal of our apple crop had been lost between back-to-back August hurricanes named Connie and Diane and the mid-October storm that had devastated Easton and most of lower Fairfield County. None-the-less, we managed to collect enough apples to bake several pies as well as provide a nutritious snack for my mother to pack into my metal Roy Rogers-themed lunch box.
Sometime around the first week in November, a rather heavy shoebox wrapped in brown paper arrived in the mail. It was postmarked Monticello, Maine, and my mother audibly sighed when she saw it. She knew exactly what she would find inside: two mason jars packed tight with mincemeat.
If you’ve never sampled authentic mincemeat, consider yourself lucky. It’s unquestionably an acquired taste. Much like the quintessential fruit cake that arrives one Christmas and is then regifted on subsequential holidays, eventually reaching untold numbers of unfortunate recipients, the flavor of real mincemeat is quite unusual. And just like that fruitcake, true mincemeat lasts forever. It is meant to be baked in a pie. While over the years, those pies have become savory desserts for some, they were initially intended to be the main course of an evening or noonday meal.
My father’s mother made her mincemeat with venison. Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that meat was not cooked. It was never meant to be cooked. It didn’t need to be cooked. The entire idea behind making mincemeat was to preserve the meat so that it did not require refrigeration. Which is why it could be sent regular parcel post in a shoe box that could take a week or two to make its way from northern Maine to southern Connecticut and be no worse for wear when it arrived than when it was shipped.
About a week before Thanksgiving, I rode along with my mother over to John Kay’s poultry farm on Stepney Road, just before the Monroe border. The task at hand that day was to pick out the turkey we would be roasting on Thanksgiving Day. The turkeys weren’t neatly packaged in a refrigerated case, they were all outside walking around in a giant screened-in enclosure, totally oblivious to their destined demise. It took Mister Kay’s expertise at approximating the weight of the birds and my mother’s somewhat hesitant approval of which bird would receive the honor of being carved and served at our dinner table by my father. Once the decision was made, Mister Kay tagged the unfortunate winner, and we were told we could retrieve it on the following Wednesday morning – all neatly butchered, plucked, and wrapped tightly in brown butcher’s paper for its final ride.
The final ingredients for the big day would be purchased on Tuesday. It was about an equal distance between the two “supermarkets” that were closest to Easton – Smirnoff’s in Stratfield, and the First National in the Compo Shopping Center on the Post Road in Westport. The First National was likely my mother’s choice that year. There was a conscious effort to consume as much of the perishable food in the refrigerator as possible over the weekend prior to Thanksgiving to make enough room for everything that would be needed for Thursday. Our refrigerator was likely the average size unit for 1955. Probably around 10-12 cubic feet with just about enough room in the freezer compartment at the top for a couple of quarts of ice cream, and two trays of ice cubes – ice cubes that were the manually made variety in aluminum divided trays. Automatic ice makers weren’t yet offered, and drinking water came from the kitchen sink, not the refrigerator door.
Our refrigerator was a Kelvinator, the same brand as our stove. Both had been purchased at the Nash dealer in Bridgeport. Nash was a make of automobile, and yes, car dealers often sold appliances as well as cars. Kelvinator appliances were produced by the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation. Powel Crosley sold millions more radios than he did his tiny little cars and you could order a Kaiser Henry J sedan rebadged as a “Sears” in the same store where you could purchase a new Kenmore washing machine. Fridigdaire appliances were a product of General Motors and their air conditioning units were often displayed in automobile showrooms.
Our kitchen had recently been remodeled and all new appliances purchased – a fully applianced kitchen in those days consisting of a refrigerator and a stove/oven. Home microwave ovens hadn’t yet been invented. Dishwashers? That would usually be dad and the kids after supper. A few households had portable electric dishwashers that could be rolled up to the sink and hooked up to the faucet, but they were relatively rare and not really all that convenient. Built-ins were available, but usually only found in newer luxury homes of the day where the kitchen had been designed to include cabinets and countertops to make storage and food preparation easier. A trash compactor? That would have been dad’s size-eleven foot. Warming ovens and built-in griddle/grill in the stove? Hardly. A simple two-slice pop-up toaster and an electric mixer – the kind that took two men and a boy to hoist up onto the kitchen counter, were about the only other electrically powered items normally found in a 1955 kitchen.
Larger refrigerators weren’t really a necessity in 1955. Milk, eggs, and butter were delivered daily to nearly every home. If our door was unlocked, our milkman would usually let himself in and place our order directly into the fridge and then take away the empty bottles my mother had washed and left on the doorstep. Freshly baked breads, cookies, and cakes were delivered a couple of times a week by the local breadman. At least once a month, the Watkins’ man would call at the house with his car filled an assortment of household cleaners and a multitude of spices. We couldn’t order things online, but we were able to shop for many items without leaving home.
Supermarkets were in their infancy and absolutely nothing like what we know today. A large grocery store might consist of five to ten thousand square feet that was filled mostly with canned goods and dry foods that didn’t require refrigeration. Independent butcher shops provided the best quality meats, and in some cases even delivered them to your door. If you ate fresh fish, you usually had to catch it. Fresh fruits and vegetables were mostly offered in-season, with only limited selections of some items available on a year-round basis.
Like most older homes in the Easton area, ours had a “root cellar.” Usually accessed through a small door in the basement, most root cellars were small, windowless underground rooms, often with dirt floors and rubble-stone walls that were designed for storage of root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and carrots, as well as fruits such as apples that could be stored for several months in cool, dark places. In addition, many homeowners had built shelves along one wall to store other vegetables that had been “canned” shortly after harvest. “Canning” by the 1950’s usually meant preservation in sealed mason jars. Much of what might be stored in a modern refrigerator was kept in the root cellar in 1955. It’s interesting to note that by the 1970’s and 80’s, some younger real estate agents were mistakenly suggesting that some of those old root cellars had been part of the underground railroad during the middle of the nineteenth century. The fact that the route for the underground railroad never ran anywhere near Easton didn’t seem to matter – the mere thought that those root cellars may have held something more interesting than apples and potatoes helped sell houses.
There was only a half-day of school on Wednesday in case your parents were planning on driving the family to visit grandma. Nobody flew to Thanksgiving dinner in 1955 – passenger planes were generally of the DC-3 variety with two propeller driven engines and a seating capacity of only about 20 people. Flying was noisy, not particularly fast, and quite expensive. It was either drive or maybe take the train.
Our phone rang sometime in the middle of the afternoon on Wednesday. Three short rings signified that the call was for our house. Like almost everyone else living out in the country, we could only get a party line. Five houses on one phone line, each with its own number of rings. If you needed to place a call, you would need to pick up the receiver and listen first to make sure that one of the other parties sharing your line wasn’t already using it. The difficulty in getting a private line in the early 1950’s was due to the rapid expansion of building – the phone company couldn’t physically install enough additional lines to handle the increased demand for service. Probably not what Alexander Graham Bell had in mind, but although extremely annoying, it somehow worked.
The caller was my very apologetic father. He informed my mother that he was on his way to the train station in Bridgeport to retrieve his brother Bob. Uncle Bob had just served four years in the Army. He had been stationed in Germany for almost his entire hitch and he hadn’t been in the States for Thanksgiving since 1951. He had just been discharged and decided to surprise us with a visit on his way home to see his mother in Maine. Somehow, I don’t think my mother appreciated that particular surprise.
With the refrigerator then packed with just the ingredients needed to make her Thanksgiving Day meal, my mom needed to come up with a meal for Wednesday night that wasn’t something straight out of a can. Uncle Bob would be going home to visit his mother after spending a couple of days with us, and my mother wasn’t about to allow him to report that he had been served Chef Boyardee Spagetti-O’s for dinner on the night of his arrival in Connecticut.
Our Boxer’s name was Dusty, and she was more than happy to jump into the back seat of mom’s Hillman Minx for the trip over to Chris Rudolph’s North End Store on Stepney Road. Chris had the highest quality meat in town – he may have had the only meat in town, as I don’t recall either Halzack’s or Greiser’s offering fresh beef or pork back then. I rode up front. We didn’t have seat belts – those were for race cars in 1955, and the Hillman was certainly no race car with it’s advertised 38 HP motor and a 0-60 time of 34.5 seconds – seriously, I looked this up and it’s true! In 1955, The world was more concerned about being blown to bits in a nuclear holocaust than it was about dying in automobile accidents, so kids rode anywhere in the car their parents would allow them to sit. As boy scouts, we ran a yearly newspaper drive and at least 6 of us would ride standing up in the back of a pickup truck, so sitting beltless in the front seat of mom’s Hillman was certainly no sin.
Chris provided mom with 4 nice porkchops and Dusty with a real bone still covered with the remnants of whatever poor animal it had been removed from when Chris had carved it up.
Uncle Bob spent that night sleeping on the pull-out bed in the sofa. My mother was up before the sun on Thursday morning making the stuffing and wrapping the turkey with bacon. The bird was in the oven by the time that my father and I sat down for breakfast. Dad would leave around nine that morning to drive to New Haven to pick up his sister Jeanette – the least favorite of my six aunts. Jeanette was a hugger and I hated being the huggee. She was also a heavy smoker – as in three packs a day heavy. Add to that, she wore enough perfume to off-set the foul odor produced by any skunk within a half-mile radius.
I could have gone along with my father that day, but I really didn’t want to miss the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1955, Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy Doody were the TV hosts, and one of the main attractions in the parade was Hopalong Cassidy and Topper, his horse. Hoppy was unusual in that he was one of the very few western “good guys” who wore black. No, Hoppy and Topper trumped being half-squeezed to death by Aunt Jeanette and then riding for nearly an hour in a closed automobile full of smoke and the over-powering aroma of Yardley English Lavender perfume.
Uncle Bob joined me and the dog for the parade. He walked into the living room and plunked down in dad’s favorite chair with a cup of coffee in one hand and a lit Chesterfield in the other. We had a new Westinghouse 21-inch TV that my father had recently purchased to watch the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, the Dodgers took the series in seven when Johnny Podres pitched a complete game shutout despite the Yanks scattering eight hits over the first six innings. Fortunately, the parade had a better ending.
It was nearly noon when my father and his sister arrived. Aunt Jeanette walked through the front door dressed like she was going to the Metropolitan Opera to see Aida. In her arms was the largest stuffed monkey I had ever seen.
“Oooh, look at you!” she oozed when she first spied me. Ugh! I knew I was about to be half-crushed and I was also pretty certain that the ugly monkey wasn’t a hostess gift for my mother. “Come here and give Aunty Jeanette a big hug! And look what I brought along for you!”
Just what every 7 – going on 8 – year old boy wanted. A four-foot high brown stuffed monkey that reeked of cheap perfume and stale cigarette smoke. The dog had a quick sniff at the new arrival, sneezed, and headed for the kitchen where the roasting turkey was providing a much more pleasant aroma.
“And what are you going to name him?” she asked as I tried to breathe once she was through squeezing the last vestiges of air from my lungs.
“King Kong,” was my answer. I was figuring I could pretend the birdbath in the back yard was the Empire State Building and shoot him down with my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, but I wasn’t going to disclose that information to the over-dressed human vise, who by then was cracking the ribs of poor Uncle Bob.
There was a roaring blaze in the large stone fireplace in the living room. Thankfully, the chimney had an excellent draw, because within an hour, the cigarette smoke in the room was beginning to rival the Pittsburgh skyline. My dad was about a pack-a-day guy, but he seldom smoked much in our house and when he did, he usually smoked less than half of each cigarette. His cigarette of choice was the one that more doctors smoked than any other brand – Camels. Turkish tobacco with no filter. Uncle Bob was a Chesterfield man, but more like two-packs-a-day that were drawn down enough to make his right middle and index fingers yellow with nicotine. And then there was the Pennsylvania steel factory smoke producing rival, Jeanette, lighting a new cigarette with the remaining embers of the previous one with her L&M filtered smokes.
Dinner was proclaimed ready somewhere around 3 PM. Dad carved the bird while his siblings looked on through the haze of cigarette smoke that hung from the ceiling like an early Spring morning fog.
As I recall, the food was pretty close in taste to what Nana had made for the all the previous holiday’s our family had spent together. Mom and I enjoyed our apple pie while the dad’s clan oohed and aahed over the spiced dead deer ingredients in their mincemeat pie.
Before dad took Aunt Jeanette home, a long-distance call was placed to dad’s mother. Placing a long-distance call in 1955 was both expensive and time consuming. While direct dialing a long-distance call was technically feasible as early as 1951, during heavy holiday calling periods, many of the long-distance trunk lines weren’t able to complete every call. Instead, it made more sense to have a local operator initiate the call and that operator would call you back once the long-distance call had been connected.
Once my grandmother had answered the call, each of us wasted about three minutes talking about the weather on each end of the call, and perhaps another minute or two talking about something of importance. Of course, Gram’s three children spent most of their phone time gushing over her stupid mincemeat.
As the sun began to set, Aunt Jeanette squeezed the life out of me one last time before getting into dad’s car and being driven back to New Haven. My Uncle Bob helped my mom with the dishes, and Dusty and I hauled King Kong outside. I hoisted him up onto my make believe Empire State Building – the bird bath in the back garden, and soon took aim.
All in all, I have nothing but fond memories of those days. Well, except for all that secondhand smoke and those rib-crushing hugs!
Stay Home, Stay Safe, & Stay Healthy this year – Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!!!