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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
MORE BY REUBEN “BIG RUBE” HARLEY