Chow Bella took a bite out of the holidays earlier this month with our annual "Eating Christmas" event at Crescent Ballroom. No worries if you missed it -- catch the essays here through the holiday season.
The Kellers, like most people in Winifred, Kansas, in the 1940s, grew their own tomatoes, carrots and onions, milked their own cows and slaughtered their own pigs. When they set the turkey on the Christmas table, my mother, Jeannine, knew exactly where it had come from. She had a hand in raising it.
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There were nine Keller children when their mother died. Ida, my grandmother, was one of the middle girls. Aunt Emma, the oldest, who stepped in to take care of the family, was in charge of raising the chickens and turkeys. Uncle Ed ran the nearby family farm, harvesting wheat, corn, oats and milo, and tending to the cows, pigs and horses.
Ida married a teacher, moved to Emporia, and named her baby for the song, "Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time." She came back to Winifred each weekend to help with the chores.
From as early as she could remember, Jeannine gathered eggs, plucked chickens, walked with Aunt Emma to deliver them door-to-door, and milked goats at Aunt Edith and Uncle Oscar's place by the railroad tracks.
Each year, Aunt Emma ordered about 100 turkey eggs. Jeannine, barely able to peer into the incubator in the brooding room, turned the eggs under the warming lights and waited for the little beaks to poke through.
The poults stayed under the lights until they were a few weeks old, eating grain. It was the last time Jeannine thought they were cute.
When it was still frosty, the turkeys were moved to the outdoor shed, and it became Jeannine's job to mind them on weekends.
They were mean, nasty birds that pecked each other's heads until the skin was gone. Aunt Emma sewed little bonnets for them out of denim from cut-up overalls, muslin from flour sacks and cotton prints from dress scraps.
Jeannine tied the bonnets on the tiny turkey heads to cover their exposed skulls, and used a long stick to shoo the mob up the hill behind the turkey pen, onto the new wheat. There, for hours in the cold, she would watch the multi-colored bonnets bobbing up and down as they thinned the wheat shoots and foraged.
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Often, as they neared the top of the steep hill, one would take off and the whole flock would fly over Jeannine's head to the bottom. She would cry and start over. Once, when she had built a snowman near the pen, they kept flying to its base, thinking it was someone bringing grain. She couldn't believe how stupid they were.
Christmas dinners were held in what the Kellers called "the big house," the two-story one that Grandfather Keller built after his wife died. The men would cut a fir tree from the timber and put it in the foyer. The grandchildren would climb the curving staircase to light candles on the tree, and Aunt Rosina would play carols on the piano.
When they gathered at the table, Jeannine took great joy in eating the turkey.