To understand this article, a little personal history is needed. While you might have a grandma or granny, I have a Gonga. (My father once joked that Gonga sounded like a wild jungle creature that natives once feared and worshiped. Kinda like King Kong.) The origins of my grandmother’s nickname is a vague mystery but this is what I know.
Some thirty odd years ago, when I was born my grandmother, Saundra, decided that she was too young to be a grandmother, being recently widowed and enjoying the singles life once again, so she did all that she could to discourage me from calling her by any forms of granny, grams, grand ma, etc. Maybe I overheard people calling her by her first name and I decided to mix in a grandmother-type sound and Gonga came forth. Now twelve grand-kids, and two great-grand-kids later, Gonga has stuck for good. (One of my cousins thought Gonga meant grandmother, so she called her other grandmother “Gonga Shirley.”)
Gonga is to Thanksgiving like Frosted is to Flakes, like Sonny to Cher. You can’t have one without the other. For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving started on Tuesday night and didn’t end until late Thursday evening. I would ask to skip school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving because I didn’t want to miss the smell and sounds of the day. There were so many ingredients to prep, many pies to bake, and too many pans of dressing to count. To me Thanksgiving will always be about the foods. But it’s not the taste of the food or the sight of a fully loaded buffet, it’s the memories of Gonga directing and cooking that always make me recall this holiday with such warmth.
One of the most important foods brought to the table on Thanksgiving Day is the dressing. In some ways, the dressing was more important than the turkey. I come from a long line of bread lovers, and each Thanksgiving Gonga would take into account how many people would show up for dinner, and then double that number for the dressing. Everyone would go home with their own pan of stuffing to dish out with the rest of the leftovers.
Many people think Stove Top stuffing is the way to go and some are happy to cram some oyster and chestnut mixture up the turkey’s insides, but Gonga will have none of that. Being a consummate Florida Cracker, Gonga would start out with multiple pans of white cornbread, two loaves of dried out white bread, and eight bags of Pepperidge Farms Dressing Mix. Then in giant batches green onions and celery were sauteed for ages in pounds of butter. Somewhere buried in my closet is a picture of me one Thanksgiving, squatting in front of a 20 gallon ice cooler, stirring up the dressing. Yes, we made so much, we had a beer cooler full of dressing.
Like any traditional Thanksgiving feast, the meal would not be complete without a piece of pumpkin pie. We usually made between 8-12 pumpkin pies so there would be plenty to pass around and some to take home. Yet when I think of Thanksgiving desserts, mincemeat pie usually comes to my mind first. Gonga always insisted that there be one mincemeat pie made, as a handful of people wanted to have a small bite of that tart, savory dessert. After years of helping stir in the pumpkin pie spices and begging to make the mincemeat by myself, I was finally allowed the privilege. I was so excited! I was going to show off my pie making talent. And for three Thanksgivings in a row, I messed up the mincemeat pie. One year it was too much water, another year was burnt pie crust, and one year was forgetting the pie crust entirely. Every since then, the running joke at Thanksgiving is that if you want a piece of mincemeat pie, don’t let me near the pie.
A few years back my aunt put together a tribute cookbook album for Gonga. She had invited us to submit our favorite ‘Gonga’ recipes and a special memory down about her. What I turned in was short, and awkwardly worded, but I meant it from the heart. I told Gonga that I was glad that Ester Granny had her, because I wouldn’t have my son if she wasn’t here. She understood what I was trying to say in those few words and loves me just the same.
This Thanksgiving will be a little different this year. Gonga is going out of state to visit my cousin. I won’t be the one who snatches extra cinnamon pinwheels when I think no one is looking. Those have got to be my favorite guilty pleasure: leftover pie crust dough, slathered with butter and heaped with generous handfuls of sugar and cinnamon, baked to a bubbly crisp. I won’t get to laugh when we can’t remember how to do simple math and argue over the amount of evaporated milk that goes into a pumpkin pie. I know she’ll have a good time cooking while she’s gone, I just wish I could have her with me.