At the holidays, dishes can hold much more than turkey and gravy


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For many of us, Thanksgiving just wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the food staples we know and love: a glistening roast turkey, mounds of mashed potatoes and fragrant bread stuffing, wedges of pumpkin pie. And to be sure, the meal Betsy Ossler and her siblings will share at their brother Sean's house in Cincinnati next week will include all of the above, plus much more.

But the happy feelings this annual meal evokes don't all flow from the food. In fact, it's the turkey-shaped gravy boat her mother, Georgenne, made in a ceramics class back in 1978 -- when the family was living in Spring Church, Armstrong County -- that always gets the most attention. Not one holiday has passed in the past 29 years where the football-sized dish hasn't been the star attraction -- and the source of a few good laughs.

To get to the gravy, Mrs. Ossler explains, you have to take off the turkey's back feather. But because its head and neck were crafted as two extremely delicate pieces, you have to be careful when passing it around the table. One clumsy move and it's a lap full of hot gravy.

"The running joke was, and still is, 'Don't grab it by the head or it'll break off,' says Mrs. Ossler, who now lives on the South Side.

When Georgenne passed away from cancer in 2002, the turkey made its way into Mrs. Ossler's china closet, and she says, "As long as our family gets together for Thanksgiving, the turkey gravy boat will be there." Because without it, well, the meal just wouldn't be complete.

I know exactly where she's coming from: Aside from my children's beautiful faces, nothing gives me more pleasure at the Thanksgiving table than the vintage blue-and-white Currier & Ives dishes my mother gave me almost 15 years ago, when I (finally) moved back to Pittsburgh.

Made by Royal in the '50s, the plates are neither fancy nor unique; you can find them at most flea markets and antique shops. But my mom, who as a newlywed received them from her own mother back in the '50s, always used them on our Thanksgiving table when I was a kid. So it's hard to imagine the holiday without them.

Well, at least for me. My sisters have always been more smitten with the two sets of "good dishes" my parents save for special occasions, and the rest of the year keep in the massive wild-cherry sideboard they purchased on their honeymoon trip. One is an exquisite set of porcelain china by Lenox in the "Pine" pattern, a wedding gift so translucent you can almost see through it; the other, a collection of antique ruby Phoenix glass made in Monaca during the Depression that belonged to my father's parents. So revered are these dishes that until very recently, no one but my dad was allowed to wash them.

I don't deny either set's beauty. In fact, when my house was on a neighborhood Christmas tour a few years ago, I begged my mother to lend me the red dishes for my dining room table, so tour-goers might be suitably impressed.

But when it comes to the dishes on which I imagine my grandchildren eating Thanksgiving dinner, it's those inexpensive Currier & Ives dishes, with their depiction of a snowy grist mill, that pop to mind. They symbolize what the day is about: home, family and tradition.

Cindy Schmargen of Emsworth is equally sentimental about the pale-green covered casserole her 97-year-old Italian grandma, Virginia Delett, received as a wedding gift. Most people wouldn't give the quart-sized vessel a second look. But to Ms. Schmargen, the "green dish" is nothing short of magic.

As a child growing up in Greenville, Mercer County, her grandparents lived "just over the tracks," so she and her two sisters visited almost every day. Greeting them in Grandma's refrigerator or on the table was the green dish and inside, some delicious fare such as meatballs and sauce or homemade bread balls.

"We couldn't wait to find out," says Ms. Schmargen.

What they best liked to find inside the green dish, however, was an intoxicating mix of dandelion greens, escarole and cabbage cooked with salt pork. Those Italian greens were always the best thing on the table. "There was never enough," she remembers with a sigh.

When her grandmother moved out of her house a few years ago and it came time to divvy things up, Ms. Schmargen says, the green dish was the only thing she wanted. And so today, the beloved casserole sits in a place of honor in her china closet as a reminder of what is truly important in life: family. So special is the green dish that Ms. Schmargen can't bring herself to actually use it.

As she puts it, "I feel I can't do it proud."

Of course, a dish doesn't have to be old to be treasured -- it just has to have a great story. And Connie Van Asdale has a good one.

Holiday meals are always a big affair at the Crafton native's home in Grant-Valkaria, Fla., with all four of her grown children and their families at the table. Yet the dishes used to take home leftovers seldom return. So she never sends the goodies off with her children in dishes that hold history or sentiment.

Well, at least she tries not to. Four years ago at Thanksgiving, her eldest son, David, walked off with a "good" bowl full of stuffing and sweet potatoes. When he returned it at Christmas, Mrs. Van Asdale shared her joy via e-mail with her good friend, Lucy Angelo, a retired art teacher and potter in Erie.

"I told her, 'I guess if you live long enough you get your bowls back.'" ...

All was forgotten until four months later, when a package arrived in the mail for Mrs. Van Asdale's birthday. Inside was a ceramic serving bowl from Ms. Angelo, which in homage to her friend's roasted red pepper dressing, she'd decorated with peppers, garlic and parsley. But what caused her to burst into laughter was the script around the rim: "If you live long enough, you get your bowls back."

At first none of the family who had gathered for the gift opening got it. Even after she explained it, David (a k a The Bowl Snatcher) just looked at her like, What's the big deal?

"But it was a big deal," Mrs. Van Asdale says.

Needless to say, any leftovers now leave her house in a plastic storage bag. And the bowl her artist friend made -- the perfect size for a pile of mashed potatoes -- makes an appearance only on "state occasions" like Thanksgiving, Christmas and adult birthdays.

"It's sacred," she says.


Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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