Everyone has a tall turkey tale to tell. From the family dogs eating Aunt Helen’s sausage stuffing to the newlywed couple serving the remains of an overcooked carcass to their hungry guests, stories abound and are shared around the table, year after year, to much laughter. Memories like these, as well as assorted family traditions, are a large part of what makes Thanksgiving such a special holiday. At its heart, Thanksgiving is a time to focus on life’s blessings and the importance of faith, family and friends. But while Thanksgiving can be a wonderful, relaxing day of celebration, even the pilgrims had lengthy to-do lists as they prepared their fine feast. Cooking, decorating and entertaining the children can be made easier with some advanced planning, and several Columbia families share their helpful hints.
On Thanksgiving Day, the Kimbrell/Woodward clan arrives at various times from around the state, and dinner is served at 2 p.m. Willann hosts more than 30 people, and everyone contributes to the meal. Those traveling long distances bring food that is easily transported and does not need to be served hot, such as cakes and pies. Family members contributing hot food bring their dishes fully cooked. Willann has devised a warming system that keeps food at a good serving temperature for up to three hours. “I boil two big pots of water and place them in the bottom of a large boat cooler and close the lid,” she explains. “When casseroles start to arrive, I remove the pots and place a beach towel on the bottom of the cooler. Casserole dishes are then placed on top of the towel and covered with newspaper. We have wooden slats that fit the width of the cooler so we can repeat the process and layer multiple casseroles.”
Willann provides the turkey, rice, gravy and stuffing. She suggests cooking as much as possible ahead of time. Renting tablecloths and glasses is also helpful, and makes one less thing to clean up. Willann rents Irish coffee mugs for after dinner coffee and dessert, eliminating the need for cups and saucers. In recent years she has opted to use decorative paper plates rather than china. She is dedicated in using silverware and cloth napkins, though, which keeps the meal casual but special. “Our Thanksgiving meal is organized chaos with the volume dialed up to a dull roar,” says Willann. “I want it to be fun and memorable because being with family should be.”
Across town, another Columbia family gathers for a country casual feast for nearly 60 people. The late Bill and Nancy Milliken built a cabin on Woodcreek Lake more than 50 years ago and took great pleasure in having their extended family gathered together. About 35 years ago, after many years of spending days before and after Thanksgiving Day cleaning and then putting way fine china, silver, and linens, Bill and Nancy decided to try having the Thanksgiving celebration at the cabin, and a new family tradition was born.
While Woodcreek has changed, and multi-million dollar homes now are on either side of the quaint cabin, the family’s Thanksgiving holiday traditions are still the same. “We are an inclusive crowd,” says Susan Milliken Umbach. “We have in-laws, out-laws and cousins’ cousins, and we have a ball.”
Pam, Susan’s older sister, brings their grandmother Milliken’s antique napkins and Dansk wooden cutlery for the occasion. Real wine glasses and linen tablecloths are also used, in keeping with Southern customs. The Millikens gather punctually for a 3 p.m. dinner. Like the Woodward family, everyone in the Milliken family contributes to the meal by bringing many servings of a signature dish.
Most of the Milliken men spend the morning hunting and fishing, with the afternoon devoted to plenty of football. The Woodcreek house has a large picnic shed under which up to eight tables are joined so everyone can sit together. This year will be the first family Thanksgiving without matriarch Nancy Milliken. “This tradition was started by my parents,” says Susan, “and it makes it even more special for us to all be together and carry on the tradition now that they aren’t here.”
Thanksgiving is a beautiful time for decorating. The colors of fall and the mixture of textures can help create a unique centerpiece for your table. Lynn Evans hosts a smaller gathering for her family, and she enjoys mixing fine china, rattan chargers, wrought-iron candlesticks and silver goblets. Cloth napkins are tied with raffia, and a paper leaf is attached and used as a place card.
“It is a holiday table that should be special, but not necessarily extravagant,” says Lynn. She fills a collection of unique containers with natural foliage. Aucuba, an attractive variegated evergreen shrub, and wheat stalks flank her family table. In the center, a pumpkin serves as the essential fall container and is filled with three dozen orange, yellow and winter white roses. The Evans family enjoys participating in the Camden Hunt’s Blessing of the Hounds and foxhunt held in the early morning hours on Thanksgiving Day. Consequently, an evening meal works best for them, allowing for the use of candlelight. Small votives in the windowsill and scattered throughout the room create an intimate family feel for the occasion.
For larger families, decorations are often kept simple, but festive. Susan and Nan Sammataro, her daughter, create several large arrangements for the long family table. It varies each year, but usually includes pumpkin topiaries, gourds, mums, bittersweet, fatsia leaves, pinecones and nuts. “We use things we have and try to recycle. An uncut Halloween pumpkin can become part of a Thanksgiving centerpiece,” says Nan.
Entertaining the Children
For children, many wonderful memories are made during the holidays. Nan remembers Milliken family scavenger hunts with the oldest cousins paired with the younger ones in search of the perfect round rock or a pinecone on a stick. The weather in Columbia can be gorgeous on Thanksgiving Day with fair skies and crisp temperatures, hence, outside activities such as scavenger hunts and games of hide and go seek are a great way for children to stay entertained and out of the kitchen. However, since South Carolina weather can go from fair to foul in a moments notice, moving festivities and children indoors is an option that must be considered.
Blair Morris and her two sons enjoy preparing for the holidays. “My boys love to help, but sometimes their ‘help’ isn’t very helpful,” she says. Having an activity or craft for the children gives them something fun to do and lets them feel like part of the day. Blair and Henry, her youngest son, have created a unique turkey made out of fruit. The tail feathers included kabobs of grapes and cheese, a perfect side dish for picky eaters. Older children can craft a felt turkey head and attach it to a pineapple, making a perfect centerpiece for the kid’s table.
Once the decorations are complete, the table is set and the turkey is roasted, it’s time to enjoy the gathering of family and friends. And if disaster still strikes after all the thoughtful planning, remember what the holiday truly celebrates – giving thanks for the many blessings in life.
a bosc pear for the head
a melon for the body
cheese for the beak and tail feathers
red, yellow, and orange peppers for the snood, feet and side feathers
raisins for the eyes
grapes for the tail feathers
Cut off a shallow slice of the rind of the melon to create a flat base for stability. Using a bamboo skewer, attach a Bosc pear to the front of the melon to create the turkey head. Trim skewer if needed. Cut cheese into a triangle for the beak and add a small piece of red pepper for the snood. Use toothpicks to attach these as well as the raisins for the eyes. Cut red pepper to create feet and place them as shown in the photo below. Cut cheese into cubes and slide cheese and grapes alternately onto skewers; place into the melon to create tail feathers. Slice peppers to create side feathers and use toothpicks to attach to the sides of the melon.Planning Ahead
The date is non-negotiable. Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday in November. When the leaves begin to turn shades of orange and red, it is time to start thinking about Thanksgiving. Willann Kimbrell Woodward has been hosting her family’s Thanksgiving dinner for 15 years. She begins her planning weeks in advance by looking at the lists she keeps from years past that include menus, number of people served and notes on things like too much cranberry sauce or not enough sweet potatoes. She also schedules both yard and cleaning services well in advance so she can have her house cleaned and her yard fluffed the day before Thanksgiving. Cleaning out the refrigerator and decluttering the kitchen help things run more smoothly on the day of the event.