Presented by Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum

These Thy Gifts

I’ve never liked turkey that much, at least not the holiday kind. 

Processed turkey at Subway, yes. But the blood and guts kind that requires someone to reach inside the carcass in full view of the elderly and little children and yank out the guts before you cook it, no. Which is probably why my parents began preparing a ham alongside the dead bird at Thanksgiving and Christmas, hoping in vain that I’d “fill out” someday.

The memory of this conciliatory ham leads me to another topic, which is broiling hot ham juice, and that leads to memories of my dad, who got involved in holiday prep because he wanted things done a certain way and figured it was up to him. And the memory of my dad in the kitchen wearing his cowboy hat and an apron instantly calls up memories of that magma-hot ham juice scalding one or more of his hands as he struggled to remove the ham from the oven, blaming other people for “aggravatin’” him.

The scenes of holidays past that play in my mind are pretty much dominated by the food—both the mishaps and the triumphs—and I’m probably not alone in that. Yes, we’re thankful for the good crops and the Lord’s gift of salvation but is Aunt Mary bringing pies this year or not?

In the Panhandle, food has long been the focus of both celebration and mourning. The native tribes of the Plains honored their dead with feasts, while modern-day flatlanders carry on similar traditions with casseroles that arrive in the homes of the bereaved as soon as the news hits Facebook. And at any time of year, even the most obscure religious holiday is an excuse for a good feed in the parish hall.

Then there’s the Thanksgiving/Christmas marathon for the big finish, and in the land of my people, we ate every five minutes during those weeks and would argue with great scriptural authority that anything contrary to that was Old Testament and didn’t apply anymore.

The first Thanksgiving feast involving European newcomers in the Texas Panhandle (and possibly the first in North America) was celebrated by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in Palo Duro Canyon in 1541 with help from Juan de Padilla, a Franciscan missionary who conducted a Thanksgiving mass prior to the breaking of bread. There’s no record of hot ham juice injuring anyone, but no doubt somebody got distracted by thoughts of retiring comfortably in Quivira and burnt their fingers on something.

By the time I was a kid, we had pretty well shortened the religious component of Thanksgiving to that solemn moment when one of the old people was asked to say grace using their best Elizabethan English. “Bless us oh Lord, and these Thy gifts, and thank Thee that Thriftway had one can of French’s Fried Onions left for Myrtle’s green bean casserole.”

Before the food could be blessed, it had to be worried over. A lot. In my early years, my mom and my grandmother Lucile, who lived nearby in Memphis, would team up for holiday meals. But Lucile (we called her “Nanny”), was a working woman until she was 77 and really didn’t have a lot of time for banging around in the kitchen all week. So, like any red-blooded American, she contracted the drudgery to someone else. For several years, some of the main fixin’s came courtesy of her friend Jessie Orcutt who had a turkey dressing side hustle going every November. I still think Mrs. Orcutt’s dressing was the best of all time, but my dad claimed it was too dry and eventually took on that key assignment in addition to the preparation of animal proteins.

Then there was that one year Nanny’s friend Dorcas Ruth sent a jar of punch over from Memphis and we were all a bit perplexed why there was so little of it (and why punch?). We were obliged to take a thank-you sip so Nanny could tell Dorcas Ruth how good it was, but it was terrible. It was like drinking syrup. Only later did we realize it was concentrated and we were supposed to cut it with water to make it delicious. We still talk about Dorcas Ruth’s punch to this day.

I also can’t forget the year ants colonized a pumpkin pie and someone mistook the pan of cornbread for a sheet cake and put chocolate icing on it (that tasted awful, too). These stories live in just the top layer of our family memories, and we all can swap similar tales. But it was the reactions and laughter of the ones we loved that made it all special. These memories remind us that food can still bring us together no matter how diverse we become. And the best part is we’ve got more memories to make, so start hoarding those key ingredients now and have a blessed holiday season.  


  • Wes Reeves

    Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.

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