In Thanksgiving: chicken pies for the soul

Illustration by Peter DeHart

When I think of Thanksgiving dinner, my mouth does not water in anticipation of roast turkey. To me, the holiday’s greatest delicacy will always be chicken pies — crisp, buttery hand pies filled with meat smothered so tender that chewing is purely optional.

For as far back as I can remember, I stood at our communal table, bowed my head for grace and stared dreamily at that golden half moon, resting on a china plate with my name beside it.

My grandmother, and anyone lucky enough to accompany her in the kitchen, spent hours making these pies each year. Partly because she insisted on crafting her heavenly dough from scratch, and partly because she needed upwards of eight dozen pies to accommodate her expanding guest list.

The matriarch of 12 children and 30 grandchildren, she didn’t bat an eye when our numbers crept into the triple digits. Never fazed, she took comfort and pride in the crowd. Another wedding? Another baby? Add a place at the table.

Much like our growing family tree, our ritual sprawled from a traditional, South Louisiana Thanksgiving potluck into something worthy of the front page — yes, it’s already been documented in local newsprint. It wasn’t her menu, table settings or place cards that inspired awe. Rather, all of these holiday standbys became extraordinary when multiplied by 100.

My grandmother was the magnet that drew us all in. When the second generation of our family reached adulthood, my cousins and I could count on her phone call sometime in late October, delivering a no-nonsense invitation: “Are y’all coming to Thanksgiving?”

She never said it — that was not her way — but we all knew our presence counted for something more. We shrugged off long car rides and expensive flights, bargained with our spouses, but not because of a guilt trip. There was genuinely nowhere else we’d rather be.

Nowhere else where a late-morning cocktail hour consisted of spicy Bloody Mary pitchers and crudités with a side of Fritos, or more accurately, vehicles for shoveling her signature cream cheese dip into our mouths by the handful. Nowhere else where you could compete to see how many people can pile onto a couch before it breaks. Nowhere else where the post-dinner highlight was not a football game, but a conversation, outside on an old swing, warmed by a rainbow-hued afghan, next to the woman who not only had a hand in making the blanket, but practically everyone around you.

Last Thanksgiving was the last time we had the honor of swinging beside her. She passed away peacefully a few weeks later at the age of 97.

I’m painfully aware of the universal heartache of this particular kind of loss, especially this holiday season as I watch two of my dear friends say goodbye to their own grandmothers. This generation of women, our Maw-maws, Nanas and Grandméres, showed us the power of family and shaped our entire concept of tradition.

As Thanksgiving approaches, my aunts and cousins have lovingly resurrected my grandmother’s recipes as best they can, creating a meal that represents gratitude and honors her legacy.

We will miss her, as we do every day, but I know she’s smiling down at the sight of those chicken pies — even if the dough is not made from scratch.