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Nashville Scene A Guy's Holiday

Thanksgiving offers a chance to kick back--and sticker shock on value-added ham

By Walter Jowers

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  I like everything about Thanksgiving. First of all, it's the only holiday that always comes on a Thursday. That means four guilt-free days off for every American, except health-care professionals, police, firefighters, and others in the life-or-death business.

For four solid days, our house is blessedly quiet. The phone hardly rings. If it does ring, it's family. Nobody calls trying to sell me long-life light bulbs, spring water, vinyl siding, carpet cleaning, or dance lessons.

Best of all, though, Thanksgiving is the perfect Guy Holiday. It's as if God Himself handed down the Ten Commandments, then asked Moses if there was anything special He could do for the guys. Of course, Moses would've replied, "How 'bout a holiday based around food and sports?"

How else could we have gotten a holiday with no shopping, no wrapping paper, no greeting cards, and no decorating? In this modern age, all we guys have to do for Thanksgiving is enjoy a giant meal, then jump in the Barcalounger, throw up the footrest, and watch football on TV. I figure it's an earthly preview of heaven, created to keep our eyes on the prize.

Of course, Newtonian physics says that for a holiday to be so fine for men, it has to be at least somewhat of a hassle for women. Wife Brenda had her big-hassle Thanksgiving five years ago. Back in '93, it was Brenda's mother's turn to make Thanksgiving dinner for all of the in-law clan--the Kearses--down in South Carolina. But this time, Brenda's mom decided to pass the torch and asked Brenda to come home and feed the family. Brenda cheerfully accepted the assignment.

Brenda makes pretty much the same dinner her mama made, which is pretty much the same dinner my mama made, and every Southern mama made, all the way back as far as anybody can remember. Besides the turkey, there's cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, and sweet potatoes. Somewhere in the Eisenhower years, the sweet potatoes collected a marshmallow crust, and the scratch-made biscuits mutated into brown-and-serve rolls.

For her '93 assignment, Brenda decided to expand and update the menu just a little. When we took off for South Carolina, we were packing a case of wine, half red and half white, and a case of fine imported beer. "They're all hellfire-and-brimstone Baptists," I said. "You really want to get 'em liquored up? I predict disownings and fistfights. Remember the time uncle Fred hauled a trash bag full of beer cans across two counties, just to make sure nobody from the church would see him with beer cans at the Dumpster?"

"I'm willing to take the chance," Brenda said. "I'm not going to make anybody drink the stuff. If nobody wants beer or wine, we'll just haul it all back to Nashville."

In the trunk, along with the Kearses' first Thanksgiving alcohol, rode two Honey-Baked hams. "Two fewer things for me to cook," Brenda said.

Brenda and her sister, Gwen, cooked most of the day Wednesday and all of Thursday morning. They set up an appetizer table in the garage, so people would walk by it on their way into the house. On this table, Brenda put out two bottles of red wine and two bottles of white. She set out a few wine glasses, hoping people would take the hint.

The Kearses started arriving about 11 o'clock. By noon, the four bottles of wine were empty, and all the Kearse wine glasses were busy. Brenda put out more wine and two big stacks of red paper cups. The cups were gone by 12:30.

"Maybe Aunt Esther got 'em started," I said. "She's the Lutheran, right?"

By 1 o'clock, dinner was spread out over several tables, and the Kearses were helping themselves.

I went through the line last, with Brenda. By the time we got to the meat section, the Honey-Baked hams were gone. There were no scraps, no residue of any kind. The only way I even knew there had been hams was that I saw some people sucking on ham bones. The Kearses stayed until 9 o'clock. They drank all the wine and all the beer, except for a six-pack that I hid for myself.

The next morning, at the breakfast table, Brenda's father, Grady, complimented her on her work. "That was a fine dinner," he said. "And I want to reimburse y'all for those two hams."

I caught Brenda's eye and shook my head, No. First, the hams were gifts. Second, Grady grew up in the Depression, and he retired in the '60s. He once told me that he thought beach houses on Edisto Island were up to $80,000. In truth, empty lots cost about four times that much. Grady didn't need to know what the hams cost.

Brenda declined, "No daddy. The hams were our contribution." But Grady insisted. Brenda declined again. Grady insisted for the third time.

I've got a rule: If a person insists on giving you something three times, you're going to insult them if you don't take it. So I caught Brenda's eye again and shrugged my shoulders.

Brenda relented, "OK, daddy. You can pay for the hams."

"Good," he said. "How much were they?"

"Eighty dollars."

"Eighty dollars?" Grady straightened up in his chair. "For two hams? Girl, you can buy hams for $10 apiece at the Piggly Wiggly. I am not paying $80 for two hams."

He handed Brenda a twenty.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nashscene.com>, or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.

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