It’s early Thanksgiving morning in the 1941. Olivia Smith Moore is in her nightdress and headed out to fetch a live turkey kept overnight on the rickety fire escape three flights up behind Moore’s Drugs in Ellsworth. She and her husband, “Bill,” and their four children live in the apartment above the Moore family business.
“Ollie,” as she was called by her grandchildren, goes to corner the bird, but it takes flight over neighboring buildings toward Main Street. In her nightie, she races out the door and a chase ensues with her daughters Mary and Jane in hot pursuit too.
“She [Olivia Smith Moore] ran up Main Street and trapped it at Austin’s Furniture,” relates Mary, recalling the spectacle of her determined, scantily clad mother who had many family members to feed later that day. The turkey had been won in Joy’s Grocery Store’s giveaway.
More than half a century later, Mary’s account of her mother’s pursuit of the bird was among many Thanksgiving tales drawing much laughter and more recollections at the “Bridgey Girls” weekly game of contract bridge at Ruth Foster’s home in Ellsworth. The eight women, alternating houses, play 28 hands every Monday afternoon. They range in age from 68 to 95.
With Thanksgiving looming, the smelly ritual of making mincemeat, deer-hunting, saying grace, post-football game slumbers and other memories peppered the pre-bridge conversation of Mary, Ruth, Diane Guthrie, Persis “Pop” Ray, Lorna McCormick, Mary Ellen Gilley and Warrene Carriere.
A descendant of the French Huguenots who fled religious persecution and settled in Maine in the late 1760s, Ruth says fruit tarts instead of pies were de rigueur in her grandparents Onward and Ida Meserve’s Machias home.
“I can never remember having a crust on top,” says Ruth, whose family drove from Ellsworth down to Machias the day before Thanksgiving in their Model A Ford.
“We’d go out and bring in the eggs. We would have eggs every way, oatmeal with brown sugar, hot biscuits with homemade butter,” Ruth remembers. “We had gooseberry fool.”
The former state senator’s favorite Thanksgiving, though, was the November when a blizzard and whiteout conditions forced her and daughter Jennifer to turn around on Route 1A and creep back to Ellsworth. They had been headed to Holden, where Ruth’s other daughter Jackie was having everyone for Thanksgiving dinner.
Ever resourceful, Ruth phoned Jasper’s Restaurant and ordered two Thanksgiving dinners to go. Later, snug at home on State Street, mother and daughter dug into their roast turkey, eating straight out of the white Styrofoam containers, with the clear plastic “dinnerware” and paper napkins provided. “It was one of the best Thanksgivings I ever had. No dishes!” Ruth declared.
At the Hancock County Jail, Thanksgiving was the one day when former Sheriff Merritt Fitch, his wife, Dorothy, and their four sons Gregory, Allen, Terry and Ernest and daughter Warrene sat down and eat together. As the jail’s cook, “Dot” Fitch cooked all the inmates’ meals, but her husband made an annual kitchen appearance roasting the Thanksgiving turkey.
“I always remember Merritt would cook the turkey all night long,” Warrene Carriere said, chuckling.
Then the sheriff made a great show of carving the bird and serving the dry bird. Later in life, one of her brothers marveled after tasting tender turkey. He said to his wife, “It’s so moist.”
To Surry resident Mary Ellen Gilley, Thanksgiving means feasting on fried green tomatoes. Growing up in the West Virginia city of Clarksburg, nothing went to waste in West Virginians’ kitchen gardens. A surplus of unripe green tomatoes became a much anticipated side dish.
“We cut them into quarter-inch slices, dipped them in beaten egg, dropped them in flour and cornmeal and fried them in oil,” Mary Ellen says. “They were very nice and crisp. Everyone loved them.”
In the Bar Harbor village of Hulls Cove, Morang-Robinson Automobile Co. owner Percy Goodwin sometimes decamped on Thanksgiving to go deer-hunting with his buddy Silas “Si” Coffin at Bull Hill in Eastbrook. His wife, Elizabeth, and daughters “Pop,” Elberta, Patricia and Martha stayed home and ate with many other relatives.
“Course, we had Gran and Gramps [Sylvester and Mary Bunker] for Thanksgiving dinner,” remembered “Pop,” whose favorite pop-eye toy inspired her lifelong nickname.
All those Thanksgivings ago, Pop did pick up a handy tip from her mother, whose family came from the Eastbrook-Waltham area.
“When you fix turnip, squash and peas,” she advised, “you add butter, salt and pepper and a little bit of sugar.”
Like Percy Goodwin, Winter Harbor’s Francis Chase also headed for the woods to deer hunt but always returned in time for Thanksgiving supper with his wife Florence and their three daughters Diane, Janet and Shirley. Turkey didn’t figure in the family’s holiday meal.
“We didn’t ever have a turkey until we moved to Connecticut,” Diane Guthrie said. “We had chicken and very often roast pork baked together.”
What stood out, most, though, was her mother’s steamed suet pudding. It was a production to make from the grinding of suet — the hard white fat cut from around the kidneys — to the lengthy steaming of the confection in coffee can covered with wax paper and a rubber band.
“It was warm and tasted of spices,” says Diane, noting a warm butter sauce accompanied the pudding.
Then and now, Thanksgiving dinner was a sacred time when family members were supposed to be on their best behavior and observe a certain code of conduct from saying grace before diving into dinner to tolerating obnoxious relatives.
Not so in the Moore family. Mary remembers having a devil of a time trying to inject some piety into the occasion attended by her in-laws and other relatives. But her offspring Douglas Jr., Olivia, Nathaniel and Allison were an irreverent bunch.
“Nobody would say grace. They were very sacrilegious,” fondly recalls the mother of four, who even handed out words to one verse of the hymn “We Gather Together” for everyone to sing. “I made them sing one verse and they sang it off key!”
Looking back, then and now, Mary says one Thanksgiving ritual was faithfully observed in most households. She and daughter-in-law Teri Sargent Smith agree that “falling asleep during the football game after the big meal was a tradition everywhere.”