My mother, Helen, could turn out the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, all according to her Fannie Farmer cookbook. But the real challenge was the size of the family to be fed, a lively brood of nine boys and five girls.
Thanksgiving in the Carey family was first celebrated on Shelter Island after my parents bought a house in Westmoreland in the 1960s, one of the original cottages known as The Hawthorne.
As with most things, Thanksgiving at our house would always be bigger, noisier and a little zanier than most. My mother, who held everything together in our tumultuous household, would quietly start cooking early in the day, working the giblets — mysterious inner organs that I’ve never been able to identify — into a broth that would add to the magical turkey flavor.
While she was doing the cooking, she needed some way to keep the little ones safe and out of trouble, so she devised the buddy system. Each older child was paired with a little buddy, and those bonds endure to this day. One brother, Paul, was so prone to wandering that she put a bell on a ribbon around his neck.
More than one of our Shelter Island neighbors awoke to see little Paul in their room, asking what was for breakfast. He may, in fact, have been the strongest impetus behind the buddy system.
Our house on Shelter Island has a picnic table on the porch that seats 20 easily, perfect for summer barbecues. My father always said they bought the house just to get the table. When it came to fall and winter, though, the indoor facilities were a bit cramped, given our numbers. My mother nevertheless managed to turn out a perfect Thanksgiving dinner from a kitchen that was 11 by 15, and had a washer, dryer and dishwasher squeezed into it.
When it was time for the Thanksgiving meal, we’d gather at the dining room table — much smaller than the picnic table — that had also come with the house. There was only one table, no kiddie table. We just put all the leaves in the table and crammed the kiddies around it.
Our Thanksgiving meals had all the classics, from Ocean Spray (canned) cranberries to Pepperidge Farm stuffing. There always had to be two turkeys, of course, and that meant my parents could experiment with four different stuffings, usually oyster, plain, sausage and chestnut.
We called the heel of a loaf of bread “turkey bread,” because my mother would tuck it into the turkey once it was stuffed to absorb the flavor. Most years, there was a baby in the house who was not ready for a turkey dinner, but would get a tasty bit of turkey bread on which to chew.
Of all the dishes that have come and gone over the years, there’s one appetizer that’s never left the rotation: Vienna sausage. Ironically, it’s the one that comes in the smallest possible can. With our extended family meals sometimes feeding 50, we need to buy them by the case.
My parents had named our house Twillow Cove after they found two willow trees overlooking the creek behind it. Years later, we realized it was time to renovate and expand. The Carey offspring were having offspring of their own, as Irish families will. We tripled the size of the house with the help of some financing, and my father changed the spelling of the name: “It’s Twillowe Cove now,” he said. “Because the family, ’twill owe forever!”
Now, at last, there was room for our whole family. And the new kitchen had a commercial stove, not to mention three ovens. My mother, who died in 1974, would certainly have liked to have all those ovens at her disposal. And I’m sure I heard her laughing one Thanksgiving when the ovens failed and we had to call on our friend, chef Marcel Iattoni, to finish cooking our turkeys at his restaurant.
Did I mention that my father was the governor of New York? We called him “the Guv” or “the Huge,” and for good reason. He was a larger-than-life patriarch for whom holidays were a bigger canvas on which to paint.
He would dress in a green smoking jacket or plaid pants and hold court, taking the greatest delight in the youngest children, as more and more grandchildren were added to the mix. Full of fun and mischief, he made sure there was always music, whether from the player piano or his own golden pipes. It was like having Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier in the house.
Some of our brothers and sisters have built their own homes on the Island now, but several of us still live at Twillowe Cove, the one place we can all gather for holidays or just big family meals. We can now seat 20 in our dining room. But we’ve kept that original dining room table, and it’s put to good use for the holidays, as a kiddie table — one of several.
This story originally appeared in November 2018.