Many people adamantly resist any attempts to change a thing about their traditional Thanksgiving feast, from the dishes carefully made from dog-eared recipe cards to the fine china that comes out only once or twice a year.
Every family has something that has been passed down from an elder that comes out on this uniquely American family day of feasting — anything from candlesticks and plates to goblets and pans. However worn, they are our treasures, the totems of our tribe that have been entrusted to us and that connect us over the generations.
At a time of mix-and-match culture and forgotten traditions, Thanksgiving remains the one day when we can pull out our heirlooms and remember our ancestors.
“It’s really about love. It’s about how those things trigger wonderful memories,” said Carole Murko, who founded the website “Heirloom Meals” dedicated to celebrating and preserving old family recipes and mealtime traditions. “They’re a tangible connection to a legacy, to something we crave — to know we belong to something bigger than us.”
Murko, who lives in Stockbridge, Ma., produces two shows — Heirloom Meals Thanksgiving and Heirloom Meals Christmas — in which people from all over the country share their traditions and stories. The programs air on public television stations across the U.S.
People take great comfort in their heirlooms and their rituals.
“I have found in talking to people, even my own family, that if you want to change anything about it, by adding something or taking something away, it’s a crisis,” she said.
These precious things serve as a “warm blanket,” she added. “Even if it’s fleeting, they pull you back to who you are and the memories that surround them.”
We asked readers to share their priceless tabletop heirlooms, the items that have an honored place at their Thanksgiving feast.
Depression Glass Basket
Bob Canning’s first memories of a certain pink bowl go back to early childhood. Blown to look like a delicate-handled Easter basket, the classic pink Depression glass sat unused in his grandmother’s china cabinet in Jersey City, N.J., in the 1950s. When his grandma died, his mother inherited the glass basket and put it to use.
“My mother was a great cook and she always had the bowl on the table,” said Canning, a retired advertising and trade copywriter for Disney who now lives in Petaluma.
His mother used it to store the packets of Sweet ‘N Low that she and her friends would tuck into their purses whenever they went out to eat.
Now Canning is the keeper of the bowl. And just like his mother, who died in 1992, he brings it out for special meals. Like Thanksgiving. Like his mother, he uses it for sweetener, although it’s more likely to be Truvia or Splenda. Still, he always includes a few Sweet ‘N Lows.
“In the proud, time-honored tradition carried on by little old ladies who dine out, those are the very same Sweet ‘N Lows my Mom lovingly re-appropriated from various restaurant tables and frugally slipped into her purse. That was in the ’70s and ’80s and those packets have never been opened, so they are almost as old as the glass basket.” Cranberry Server
It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving in Patricia Driscoll’s house without her mother’s cranberry server.
Every thanksgiving the spoon with holes for draining came out and was placed beside the canned Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce that was a staple for Thanksgiving meals in the 1950s and 1960s.
Driscoll treasures this server for the memories it evokes of big family gatherings in Westport, Conn., where she grew up.
“This is the thing that seems to have lasted all these years and that makes me think of Thanksgiving,” said Driscoll, a retired San Francisco probation officer. She now writes a series of mystery novels about a character named Grace Tolliver on Cape Cod, where her mother lived for many years.
“When my mother died, I brought it back from Cape Cod because it’s such a memory for me,” said Driscoll, who will be hosting Thanksgiving for her family in her Santa Rosa home. “It doesn’t work as well for the recipe I use; cranberry with port and dried figs. But we use it anyway, drips and all.”
Every Thanksgiving, Kathy Hesse Larsen brings out the crystal glassware that her parents received as a wedding gift in December, 1941.
“They were brought out for special occasions when we were growing up. There were eight of us children and I completely understand why our parents did not use them often — rambunctious children and crystal are a bad combination,” said the retired principal of Penngrove School.
It has now fallen to Larsen to host the big family Thanksgiving feast for her seven siblings, their families, and her own grown children in her home in Petaluma, so she is the keeper of the crystal.
And just as it has for more than 70 years, the remaining six water glasses and seven wine goblets grace the holiday table of the now extended Hesse family.
“Many pieces are long broken and some have slight chips. But it makes me feel like my parents, who both died in the 1980s, are part of our celebration,” Larsen said.
“I know my parents would be thrilled that we are using them and all still joining together in gratitude and toasting the Hesse family.”
Four Generations of crystal, china and silver
The Thanksgiving table at Allie Andrews’ house in Petaluma is an homage to four generations of her family. Onto her own tablecloth she lovingly places her mother’s Lenox china from the 1940s and crystal from her grandmother and great-grandmother.
“And I have tons of serving pieces from my grandmother and great-grandmother,” said Andrews, whose father, Godfrey Hartzel, was rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Petaluma for many years.
The family sterling silver is engraved with the initials of her foremothers — Alice King Sudam and Alice King Sudam Bigley. Andrews’ mother is Alice King Hartzel and she is Alice King Andrews. One of her granddaughters carries on the proud name of Alice King.
Using the old items is a comfortable touchstone to the past for Andrews, who recently retired after traveling the globe as an airline attendant for United Airlines.
“I think of all the generations of people that have used it and touched it and enjoyed it.”
Her mother shipped the china out from New Jersey. She must have prized it to do that, Andrews reflects.
One of the great pleasures of the day is to have her granddaughters Sammi, 24, and Sasha, 11, help her set the table, placing with care “four generations of crystal, china and silver.”
It was 1945. A 16-year-old girl named Dorothy, working her first job at a Santa Rosa drive-in, invested the small fortune of $50 to present her mother, Ruth Johnson, with a new set of china.
Johnson didn’t have much finery living in rural Penngrove. So the china was treasured. It still is.
“We had wonderful holidays at my grandmother’s. We had a big family. There were 30 of use. It was always just a good time when we are all together at her house,” Patricia Robinson of Santa Rosa recalls of those gatherings in Penngrove when she was a girl.
Grandma is gone but Dorothy Vyenielo, now 85, is still enjoying Thanksgiving with her family on the china she bought for her mother at Hardisty’s Homewares at the end of World War II.
Robinson was so attached to the plates that she began collecting additional pieces.
“Over the years, my cousins and sisters and everybody when they go to a garage sale or a flea market and see a piece of it, they pick it up for me. I have some wonderful serving pieces,” said Robinson, who is a retired banker.
She will bring them out again on Thanksgiving, when about 25 family members converge on her home for the traditional feast.
“It’s always a topic of conversation on the holidays, the dishes,” she said. “And it’s always neat because it’s like having grandma’s spirit there.”
They look a little tired after more than 50 Thanksgivings. But every year for more than half a century, a pair of pilgrim candles stands firm, front and center, on Valerie Adams’ family table.
Time has taken its toll. They are a little melted and distorted.
“They bear a 15-cent price tag underneath, and I’m sure my mom bought them at Grant’s in Montgomery Village or perhaps Sprouse Reitz. Holiday meals were my mom’s passion as they are now mine,” said Adams.
“Poring over recipes months in advance, doing trial runs with new dishes, bringing out the best china and using only the finest ingredients to spoil our family ... and always including the couple (of pilgrims) to remind us of the first Thanksgiving.
“My mom’s been gone for eight years now, but I don’t roll a pie crust without seeing her hands demonstrating the perfect crimp.”
Adams said the dime-store candles were never lit although temperature changes have caused them to melt a bit.
And apparently she’s not the only person to treat this exact pair of pilgrims like a priceless heirloom. She was watching a commercial the other day for Windex and just about fell out of her chair.
It was a nostalgic piece that started with a woman looking out her window and seeing her husband come up to the door to present her with a pair of pilgrim candles — the exact same mold as the pair that Adams inherited from her mother.
The commercial went on to show the family bringing out those candles every year.
“It was very surreal to me,” she said of the shock of seeing her family tradition played out on TV.
“Even when my parents were doing better financially and mom had nicer candlesticks, she always put those pilgrims on the table,” Adams said. “I know she would be thrilled to know I still have them.”
Way back in 1932, Melissa Stoufer’s aunt gave her mother a pair of pink candlesticks as a wedding gift. The set, made of translucent Depression glass, sat on her mother’s holiday table every year until she died in 1981.
Stoufer vividly remembers those candle holders in the cabinet of their bungalow in the old Burbank Gardens neighborhood in downtown Santa Rosa.
Stoufer now keeps them in her own hutch in her living room, and brings them out for her own Thanksgiving table.
“I’m her only daughter and her things were very special to me,” she explained.
She was also close to the aunt who gave them to her mother. That aunt was her godmother. So those candlesticks remind her of two women who were so precious to her.
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.