USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘thanksgiving’

Cherokee Yam Cakes

The informant (D) is a married father of two now adult children. D grew up in various parts of southern California, but spent his high school years in Chino, California, in the same house that his mother now lives. He and his wife shared the cooking responsibility about 50/50 while their children were still in the house but now that they have both gone off to college, he has taken over more of the responsibility. D’s father came from Oklahoma many decades ago, before my father was born, and claimed to be “part Cherokee,” though that was never formally proven. I asked D about the so-called “Cherokee yam cakes” that he makes every Thanksgiving. Cherokee yam cakes are best described as yam stir-n-roll (non-flaky) biscuits. He emailed me the recipe when I asked about the cakes.

The recipe is (copied from email):

“2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 T. sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
1 cup mashed yams

Mix oil, milk, & yams.
Add to sifted dry ingredients.
Mix lightly until it holds together.
Knead gently (about 12 times) until smooth
Roll out 1/2″ thick.
Cut into circles.
Bake on greased sheet, 425 F, 10-12 min.

I have always used whole wheat flour, my mom used all purpose flour.
I usually make a double batch.”

I also asked him several questions about the yam cakes. The interview below is verbatim via email.

Me: Where and when did you learn the recipe?
D: When I moved out of my mom’s house, I asked to copy the recipe. I moved out in 1983, back in in ’85, and back out in 1990 when [my wife and I] got married. I may not have got the recipe until 1990 but I don’t remember.
Me: Do you know where she got the recipe?
D: I never asked where she got the recipe. I assumed it was from my dad, but never asked [my mom] about that.  I know it was the one “add-on” to a Thanksgiving menu we had every year:

Rock Cornish game hens
Wild Rice dressing
mashed potatoes and gravy
He got the menu from Playboy magazine!
Me: For what occasions do you make the yam cakes now?

D: Thanksgiving, though I made some also around Christmas last year, for the first time ever.  I think we missed Thanksgiving actually too for the first time but made some later, [my son] asked for them. I like to make a large batch so I can keep eating them for a few days.

Me: Why do you continue to make these yam cakes instead of something else for those occasions?

D: I don’t know of anything else like them- they’re so mellow and satisfying. They seem to settle your stomach if you overindulge in rich foods. Will and I used to credit them with making it possible to eat more after you thought you were full.

Me: What do the yam cakes mean to you?
D: Makes me remember my family  and family holidays when I was a kid, makes me proud of my unconfirmed  (1/32?) Cherokee heritage, makes me proud to have a good yummy recipe that nobody else makes and everyone always seems to like. Plus I think they’re pretty healthy and they’re easy to digest.
The fact that D calls them “Cherokee” yam cakes instead of just “yam cakes” tells me that small detail really does mean a lot. I have known D literally since I was born and do not remember him ever NOT saying “Cherokee yam cakes” when he was talking about them. As he mentions, the Cherokee ancestry has not been verified. I think this remains to be so important because being Native American (even a teeny bit) would connect him to the earth in a different way than the rest of his immigrant ancestry does (his mother is from Friesland, a Dutch province). The yam cakes really are unique and do settle an over-full stomach and are good hot or cold. It seems that though the naming is highly symbolic, the practical reasons to eat them are also important.
Additionally, the nostalgia factors into the importance of these cakes, both for D and his children.
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Thanksgiving Tradition: “Trashcan” Turkey

Informant: “It’s from the Florida Keys, I don’t know how old it is. I don’t think it’s that old. It might only go back to like the 50s and 60s. But, it’s a way to cook food for a bunch of people quickly and easily because the trash can turkey is all about 2; a 20 gallon trash can, metal of course, a 20 pound turkey, and 20 pounds of charcoal for 2 hours and anybody who has ever roasted a turkey on thanksgiving knows that doing one in the oven takes a damn sight longer than 2 hours. But in the trashcan oven you can do it in 2 hours and it comes out really good. It holds in the moisture and the bird comes out pretty tender and every time I’ve ever done it, it comes out good. But basically what you do is you take the bird and you have to stand it up, sort of, and so in the true red neck fashion that started this whole thing, you use a jack stand from a car, you know like you would jack up a car and then put a stand underneath it so it will stay there. So, you take one of these things and cover it in tinfoil and basically set the bird on top of it so he is sitting there sort of with his wings up and his legs down and this thing is sort of up the cavity of the dressed bird. So anyways, then you set that on the ground, on top of another piece of foil, and you set the metal can over the top of the bird and then fold up the corners of the foil, and in some cases, they say you seal it up with sand. And then, you take your 20 pounds of charcoal and then you spread it around the bottom of the can and take half a dozen or so briquettes and set them on top of the can and you use a charcoal lighter, and because you don’t actually expose the bird to the charcoal lighter flame, you don’t get any charcoal lighter taste in the bird. So, you cover the briquettes, you light them off and then, just like you would a charcoal fire in a grill, you let it go. And, of course, that stuff burns pretty hot and gets the inside of the can really hot and it roasts the bird and, you know after that, after about 2 hours, maybe a little longer, but around 2 hours, the charcoal is pretty much all reduced to ash. There may be some red cinders inside it, but it’s mostly ash at that point, you’ll take the can off and the can is freakin’ hot so be careful, and then be careful not to get any of the ask on the bird, but you will find the bird inside golden brown and really moist and so there you go redneck trashcan turkey.”


Interviewer: “And who did you learn this from?”


Informant: “My redneck parents. (laughs) My parents retied to the Alabama coast or what my father affectionately refers to as, he lives in LA, Lower Alabama, or otherwise known as the Redneck Riviera. So on the Alabama coast, apparently they learned about it from some other retired friends of theirs who apparently spent quite a bit of time in the Florida keys and they learned about cooking the turkey in the trash can and of course I didn’t believe this at first but my dad came over and showed me and I found, how about that, it actually works.”


Interviewer: “And you like this folklore because the end result tastes good?”


Informant: “Oh yeah, and its easy, its really easy. All you’ve got to remember is 2. 20 pounds of turkey, 20 gallon trash can and 20 gallons of charcoal for 2 hours.”

The informant is a middle-aged man, who grew up in East Windsor Connecticut with his parents and two sisters. From there he attended the University of Connecticut and then lived in France for about a year and then in Montreal for about two years. From there he moved to California where he lives today. While the informant was in college his parents moved to Georgia and then to Alabama where they currently reside. Both the informant and his parents enjoy cooking.

Every year the informant’s parents visit him and his family, occasionally the informant will travel to Alabama, usually around either Thanksgiving or Christmas. The informant learned this folklore when he and his family visited his parents in Alabama. The informant’s father had learned the recipe from a friend and practiced the technique to use for Thanksgiving. The informant then decided to continue using this technique for Thanksgiving back in California because, as was stated in the interview, the end result tastes good and doesn’t take nearly as long to cook as other turkey recipes.

Because I have had the opportunity to try a “Trashcan Turkey,” I appreciate this lore. It is interesting to see this lore in action because it is literally a trashcan with charcoal on top of it (see images below). In addition, there are a few requirements to cook the turkey properly. Most importantly, there needs to be a place where the turkey can cook; this is usually over a small pit of sand or dirt. Also, achieving the proper cooking conditions can be difficult because rain or excess wind can blow out the flames and prevent the turkey from cooking. In addition, if you have pets, you need to make sure they stay away from the flames.




Saying Thanks

Every Thanksgiving, the informant’s family goes around the table while each person says what they are thankful for before they eat the meal.  The informant records all of the thank yous on tape, and he says that many people who have shared Thanksgiving with the family have brought the tradition home with them and adopted it as their own.

The informant said he liked to do it, first of all, because it made all the kids nervous, but also because it got everyone involved.  Each person would have their own version of a thank you from his sister in-law who would read a pre-written 4 page one to the kids who year after year would repeat “Thank you for the food.”

He got the tradition from his in-laws and started recording them, but then the traditional meal moved to his house so he could control it a bit more.  The thank you is also a bit of an initiation for new members of the family because everyone has to say something.

I asked if he ever plans to watch them, and the informant replied, “Oh yeah, some point I will.”

The tradition of saying thank you brings the family together, and it gets everyone to really think about their lives in the past year.  It allows people to say the things that are normally too cheesy to say in public.  For the children, the Thanksgiving where they say they are thankful for more than the food also represents a rite of passage where they are now adult enough to say something more meaningful to them.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Thanksgiving Ham

In the following, my informant recounts how her family traditionally has Ham on Thanksgiving rather than the more traditional Turkey:

We always have Ham for Thanksgiving, always, I mean, yeah, its not a Thanksgiving without ham. Turkey? Not turkey. We’ll have some turkey,  but we always have ham because my great, my grandma, or my Nana on my dad’s side, she cooked the best honey baked ham, oh my gosh, and um , we loved it when we were little, and, so each Thanksgiving she would make it for us, and we’d always have that.

The fact that my informant and her family continue to celebrate Thanksgiving with ham rather than turkey, even after, as she informed me, her grandmother, who made the ham, has died, shows that they do it in remembrance of her. My informant told me that for her family Thanksgiving is a way of not only celebrating the family currently there, but the family which either is absent or has died, and eating ham is a way of remembering not only her grandmother, but all the family members she once shared a Thanksgiving with.


Thanksgiving Traditions

I learned from my informant that ever since she was a little girl, her family has always hosted a large Thanksgiving dinner.  Members of her extended family as well as members of the Stern extended family would come to her house and all have a big dinner.  Her mother would make the turkey and everyone else would bring something along or make something.  One person usually brought a vegetable salad.  She herself started baking desserts for Thanksgiving when she was in high school.  And these desserts rarely included anything pumpkin because no one in the super-extended family liked pumpkin very much.  Then after everyone was done eating and talking, they would all gather round and play card games and eat popcorn.  Hearts was usually the game of choice but some people also played spades.  Later in life, after most of the younger family members grew up and had gotten married, and the large family became even larger, they started playing huge games of hearts with multiple decks.

The rules for regular hearts are listed here so that the extended rules make more sense for those who have never played the original.  In hearts, a standard 52-card deck is divided between four players.  The player to go first in a round plays a card, then the next player must play a card of the same suit if possible.  After all four players have played, whomever played the highest card of the leading suit takes all the cards, then must be the starting player in the next round.  For the first round, the player with the 2 of clubs must go first.  Hearts may not be played on the first turn, and a player may not lead a turn with hearts until hearts have already been played.  Hearts are worth one point, and the Queen of Spades is worth 13 points.  At the end of the game, you tally all the points you have, and at the end of all the games, the player with the fewest points wins.  Additionally, before each game, you must pass three of the cards in your hand to the player in a given direction, alternating between left, right, across, and no pass.

For the extended version, all of the regular rules apply, except that the player to go first on the first round is the first player to the left of the dealer who has a 2 of clubs.  The only major addition to the rules is that multiples of the same card cancel out.  So if there are two King of Clubs on the board, and clubs is the leading suit, neither king counts for the highest card, and instead the turn goes to the player who played the highest singular card (non-canceled) in the leading suit.  In games with three or more decks, if the third multiple of a card comes out, then that card is not canceled and is treated normally.  Additionally, the passing order is slightly modified, and is now left, right, two to the left, and two to the right.  According to my informant, these new rules lead to emergent play.  First and foremost, players have a lot more power depending on where they are in the turn.  Players near the end are often begged and pleaded to cancel out whoever is highest (or not to cancel out the high player if said beggar/pleader has the second-highest card).  If you want to screw over a particular player, you may choose to cancel the high card and force someone else to take the turn.  Also, she says that when you are passing cards at the start of the turn, and your hand has multiples in it, you should pass one of the multiples to the designated person and then try and work with them to hurt others.  For instance, if you are dealt both Queen of Spades, you can give it to the designated person, and then plot to play them one after another, preventing either of you from having to take your own queens as well as sticking some unlucky bastard with 26 points in one turn!

My informant also told me of one last tradition that revolves around this large game of hearts.  At the end of the game, either when someone gets 100 points or everyone gets tired, the three players with the highest scores all got to go on the family vacation.


Tradition/Foodways – Thanksgiving Dressing

Thanksgiving Tradition/Foodway – American

“I have a grinder that we use once a year to make the Thanksgiving dressing. I helped my father make it when I was little.. so, um, he left it to me when he died. When I started making it my sons would help me and we use the same grinder, and now my grandson helps his father and I do it. So when I go to the happy hunting grounds, I will leave the grinder to him. The traditional part is, uh, that the boys come to the house and stay over the night before Thanksgiving. We get up very early in the morning, before the sun, and grind the ingredients together. And we always do it outside because it’s messy, and we attach the grinder to a table. We mix the boiled onions and stale bread together with the grinder. And another thing is that the bread has to be really stale.. I start that part two days before we grind. I put the bread out two days before and flip them every once in awhile to get them really stale. The day before Thanksgiving I peel and boil the onions. Then the boys come, we get up early, and grind the bread and onions with seasonings, eggs, and butter.. and then stuff the turkey. There is no recipe.. we just do it by taste. You know when it’s done because of the taste. This has been going on for six generations at least.. it started in Manchester, England, where my father’s ancestors are from. I don’t think there is any real reason behind which child it gets passed to, but it usually alternates genders every generation…with the exception of this one. It’s like ‘the gender switch.’ My dad was the forth child of ten, so there’s no real reason it was him.. I guess he just showed interest.. like I did over my brother. The grinder is still in the same box from when it was bought in the early 1900’s. I think this is just a way to pass down our heritage… a way for the adults to teach their kids about our ancestry.”

I agree with the informant’s analysis for the reason behind this tradition. It teaches children how to cook and uphold ancestral traditions that have been passed down for generations. It contributes to their perceptions of cultural identity, but also teaches them about the turkey tradition that comes with Thanksgiving. The only inconsistency I noticed with this tradition is that it supposedly began in England, yet it is in celebration of a decidedly American holiday: Thanksgiving. I mentioned this to the informant, and she seemed a little confused, as though she had never thought about it. She came off as a little defensive, as though I was questioning the validity of her story. She responded that the dressing recipe has been passed down from her ancestors in England, but that it was adapted to the American Thanksgiving tradition. I’m not sure how valid this is, as I’m not quite sure how much turkey they eat in England. I highly doubt they ate much turkey in England six generations ago, at least not enough to justify a custom such as this one. Nonetheless, this tradition is obviously extremely important to the informant, as is the story that goes along with it. It provides a method of connecting generations of family members, which after all, is the point of traditions such as this.

Rituals, festivals, holidays


“Thanksgiving Traditions”

Gerad is presently a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, but he grew up in Tujunga, California. His mother is African-American and grew up in Augusta, Georgia and his father is Caucasian and grew up in upstate New York.

Ever since he was a young boy, Gerad recalls his family celebrating Thanksgiving in the same manner every year. Each year over Thanksgiving break, Gerad and his family travel to Mammoth Mountain in California. All of the members of his family who live in California join them at a ski resort in Mammoth. The family goes to Mammoth for four days, where they spend three days skiing and one- day enjoying Thanksgiving Day food and fellowship. On Thanksgiving Day, the family spends hours preparing home-cooked dishes that reflect their Southern heritage. The menu for Thanksgiving dinner includes a variety of greens, turkey, ham, cornbread, macaroni, ribs, and crispy hot wings prepared by his aunt. The meal incorporates both the tastes of the family as well as reflects the Southern background of the family, where many of the recipes for these dishes were first collected.  After the meal is cooked, the head of the family (who is always considered to be the eldest male figure in the lineage that is present) prays for the family giving thanks for the past year in addition to blessing the food.

Gerad believes that this tradition successfully unites the family and allows for recognition of his own cultural heritage, in particular in the antiquated recipes of his mother’s family from their years spent in the Southeastern United States.

Personally, it seems that this tradition is a fairly common practice in the society of the United States of America. However, it is interesting that Gerad’s family brings together a sort of potpourri of folk recipes in their preparation of Thanksgiving dinner.  In addition, the fact that the eldest male of the family is always responsible for the prayer and blessing of the meal seems to prove that this family has a history of patriarchal structuring.