Little Details11/26/08

Nov. 26, 2008

Turkey and tips

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Thanksgiving is upon us.

Millions of Americans board planes, trains and automobiles to gather with family and friends. Aunts, uncles and cousins trade stories for simmering bowls of sweet potatoes and stuffing at holiday meals simple and grand. Young cousins play and tumble underfoot, offering up moist thumbs and runny noses to the “great germ exchange” in which viruses seamlessly cross state lines. Thanksgiving reminds us that, even in challenging economic times, we have much to be grateful for.

My own family’s holiday will be quiet. We’ll drive south to Hancock in Addison County for our annual hike around Texas Falls. We’ll clip a patch of fluorescent orange fabric to our clothes before hitting the trail, lest we be mistaken for deer among the trees and branches. It is hunting season, after all. The path might be slippery from snow or rain passing through a scant canopy of leaves. We’re drawn to this patch of land for the gushing water falling and flowing over rocks, filling the air with life-giving exhalations.

After the hike, we’ll spread our worn travel tablecloth on a picnic table at a shelter overlooking a stream. Sandwiches of thick Ciabatta stuffed with fresh mozzarella and summer pesto emerge from our backpack. A thermos offers up steaming cups of hot chocolate, adding warmth to our traditional Thanksgiving lunch.

Hours later, we’ll convene with friends for a collaborative holiday feast that’s veg-, carn-, and celiac-friendly. I’ll pass on the turkey and eagerly indulge in cranberry relish, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie crowned with dollops of homemade whipped cream.

When I was a small child, I felt jealous of friends who travelled “over the river and through the woods” to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. My grandma lived across the ocean; she didn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving. My immigrant parents did their best, preparing turkey with all the fixings and letting us linger in our pajamas lazily to watch Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television.

By the time we were young teens, my sisters and I worked on Thanksgiving, serving up meals and bussing tables at the restaurant where our father moonlighted. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Frankly, I needed the money. I liked the waitresses and cooks with whom I worked. I only felt awkward when a classmate came in for holiday dinner with his or her family and there I stood in my black and white uniform waiting to fill their water glasses.

The owner of the restaurant treated staff to a holiday meal. We’d arrive at10:30 a.m. — no time to watch the parade — to prep the dining room for the onslaught. We’d sit down at 11:30 and eat quickly. Reservations started at noon.

Although the owner offered a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving to guests, he always served us prime rib. I remember greedily digging into thick, juicy slabs of beef cooked to perfection and Delmonico potatoes smothered in cheese.

The next several hours would be a blur as the hostess peppered me with requests: “I need a deuce at table 12; set up table 14 for seven; the bar needs more ice.” I made a game of working as fast as I could, clearing and setting tables. I placed a red linen napkin on my strong shoulder — the one I carried trays on — to keep from marring my white blouse with kitchen grease. My father was busy at the bar preparing Tangueray and tonics and Shirley Temples all afternoon.

By 6 o’clock the dining room was usually empty except for one or two parties that seemed to linger endlessly. The cooks would be gone, as would most of the waitresses. We learned from experience that customers who made us wait weren’t necessarily good tippers. As the person charged with cleaning and resetting their table, I too had to wait, as did my father, who was my ride home.

While waiting, I’d empty my pockets on the steel counter in the kitchen and count out the crumpled dollar bills — tips from the waitresses. I could make $60 or even $70. The waitresses were extra generous because it was a holiday, even if customers sometimes were not.

Tables cleaned and lights out in the dining room, we’d pile into dad’s car for the short ride home. I’d heat up leftover turkey in the microwave and help myself to a thick swath of my mother’s pumpkin pie for dinner.

Growing up in a restaurant family, I learned about teamwork and how to serve people with a smile even if I didn’t always feel like smiling. Folks I worked with on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas Eve were generally there because they needed the money. So, if you’re out over the holidays and the service is good, tip often and tip well.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or