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Thinking about giving thanks

How, asks James Peterson, can we give thanks — express and practice gratitude and gratefulness — in a deeper, more meaningful way, seeing beyond the “hegemonic holiday colonialism?”


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Big Rube’s Philly: Thanksgiving with Nan

The legendary photographer and chef recalls how his families gatherings went down — and offers a couple of tips for making your turkey tastier

Big Rube’s Philly: Thanksgiving with Nan

The legendary photographer and chef recalls how his families gatherings went down — and offers a couple of tips for making your turkey tastier

Thanksgiving wasn’t a real traditional thing for the maternal side of my family in that we didn’t go in for the stories about the pilgrims making nice with the Wampanoag. It was more about camaraderie, and togetherness. My grandmom, she cooked and wanted everybody to come together.

From left: Lil’ Rube, my older brother and mom on Thanksgiving 1988. Notice the “Flavor Flav” inspired watch around my neck.

There were at least a couple dozen of us: the cousins, the aunts, the nephews. There was camaraderie. And it was something, because there was always the yearly curse-out about what you didn’t do and what you did.

Me with my grandmother, Mary Gibson, “Nan.”

Nan, my mom’s mom, would go in on us teenagers. “The school called and said this. The school called and said that. You think y’all slick,” she’d say. Then, as you matured, you’d look forward to it. You’d think: Wow, somebody cares about me, and it’s my grandmother. Last Saturday would have been my grandmother’s 94th birthday.

The Thanksgiving meal

Every year Nan (her real name was Mary Gibson), roasted turkey and chicken, and you better get there at a certain time, or you’d hear how much she had slaved over that food. We would always be there early, watching the games. I had to be around my Nan.

My favorite photo of Nan, who was a dressmaker.

Nan hated sweet cornbread. She’d say, “That’s not real cornbread. That’s not Black folk-style cooking. The Negros came up here, and they started working for the White folk, who wanted something sweet, so they put sugar in the cornbread.” Not my Nan. Her cornbread was savory.

Besides the  roasted turkey and chicken — both offerings — she would always make turnips, mac and cheese (that recipe came from my great-grandmother, who passed when I was 14), the savory cornbread. Candied yams were a must, and collard greens. She served garlic string beans: Us Black folk, we don’t do green bean casserole. That’s a no. And glazed pound cake for dessert, with a scoop of Breyers ice cream.

My grandmother, Mary Gibson (left) with her mother, Inez “Sugar” Hammond.

I loved when we’d all get together, how she and the other old folks would tell you about their journey, about how they came to be. I soaked it up. We were so close: Out of all the grandchildren, I was the one with Nan.

Advice for the chef

Greens: Before (left) and after.

These days, I work on Thanksgiving. I’m making six turkeys and doing a whole dinner for a family in the suburbs. I always get freshly slaughtered turkeys from Cannuli’s in the Italian market. You have to brine your turkey 24 to 48 hours ahead of time, in an acid. I use organic apple cider vinegar with raw turbinado sugar, salt, granulated garlic, granulated onions and lemon pepper.

A brined turkey, ready for the oven (left) and macaroni and cheese, based on my great-grandmother’s recipe, with my own twist.

When you roast it, slather it with unsalted butter. Cook it with the breast side down for the first hour so all the fat goes into the breast. It’s already going to be moist because of the brine. Then turn it over right side up. The skin is gonna be crispy. When it’s done, tent it with aluminum foil and let it sit for about half an hour so the juices can redistribute. Then it’s ready to go.

In honor of my grandmother, I call this “Northern Black-folk sweet cornbread.”

West Philly born and raised with a slosh of Brooklyn New York in between, Big Rube partnered with Mitchell & Ness in 2000 to help make it a global brand marketing and selling high-end vintage jerseys. He has been photographing Philly since 2009, including in a Daily News Column from 2011 to 2017. He’s also a chef, operating Chef Big Rube’s Kitchen seven days a week at Pitcher’s Pub in Manayunk, selling the best handmade food in a Main Street dive bar.


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