Thanksgiving then (and now)
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    Auction Finds

    Prepping to host my first Thanksgiving meal

    The idea seemed to instantly materialize in my brain. I hadn’t done any heavy thinking about it, but I knew it was time for me to step up: I’ll do Thanksgiving dinner this year, I said to Valorie and Kristin, two cousins who are friends of mine.

    It was September and we were on vacation in North Carolina. I don’t know why Thanksgiving was on my mind, but I’d been sponging off the family for the last few years, showing up at holidays with a prepared dish and an appetite. Valorie has been the gracious host at most of the holiday meals, especially Thanksgiving. She and Kristin were delighted at my offer.

    I know one thing, Val0rie said, we’re going to have some good eating.


    A Thanksgiving place setting with my auction finds’ dishes, silverplated flatware and turquoise drinking glass.

    Back home, while the menu began forming in my head, I knew that I had a more pressing issue: I didn’t have enough plates or silverware to set a table for a dozen people. My cabinet held every-day dinner plates I purchased years ago from Pier One Imports, along with some salad plates I had bought at auction as a way to curb my portion sizes, and a lovely set of heavy diner plates and cups. I also didn’t have enough flatware.

    I’d have to go auction-shopping to pick up both. My first thought was to choose individual pieces of dinnerware that I liked, whether they matched or not. I’d seen arrangements in magazines using mixed-matched pieces in place settings and they looked fantastic. Alas, I could not find enough beautiful dishes in separate box lots that appealed to me.

    Then, while browsing the outside tables at an auction house, I saw a huge stack of dinnerware and serving dishes, much more than I needed but I couldn’t just let them get away. The dinnerware set was striking, white with gray leaf scrolls and silver trim around the perimeter. There was a maker’s name on the bottom: Imperial China. Designed by W. Dalton. Japan. 5671 Whitney.


    All of the dinnerware from the Imperial China Windsor pattern that I purchased at auction.

    The lot was so large that it must have been two combined sets of dinnerware with some missing pieces or just a huge set:

    24 dinner plates

    2 large oval serving platters

    2 large round platters/chop plates

    4 vegetable serving bowls

    18 coffee cups

    20 saucers

    2 creamers

    3 sugar bowls with lids

    12 salad/dessert plates

    23 bread/butter plates

    1 gravy bowl with attached underplate

    4 soup bowls

    22 fruit/berry bowls

    When the set came up for auction, I wasn’t the only one who thought that it was a good buy. I went tit-for-tat with another auction-goer, who was likely bidding on the set to sell while I wanted it to use. So I hung in there and got the dinnerware for $45. That was much more than the $10 to 20 that I had expected to pay. Since these dishes were outside the auction house rather than inside with the good stuff, they should have been cheaper. But that’s the way it rolls at auctions.

    The dishes were so heavy that I had to make several trips to my car to get them all packed away.


    An array of Holmes & Edwards and Wm. Rogers silverware, along with some serving utensils bought at auction.

    The flatware was my next project. I couldn’t afford silver so I knew I’d have to go for silverplate. Both come up at auction all the time in special boxes and cases, so I knew that I should be able to get a set of silverplate for 5 bucks or so.

    Each time I came across a set I counted the pieces; in most instances, there were too few forks or knives or spoons. It was reassuring to see that I wasn’t the only one who displaced a spoon here or a fork there from time to time. I found the flatware on the same day as the dinnerware and on opposite sides of the same table. It was not an entirely matched set, but there were more than enough pieces.

    Again, another auction-goer wanted my flatware and again the $5 I had planned to pay became $35. I walked away with it. At home, I polished it and my Holmes & Edwards and Wm. Rogers silverplate shone like real silver.


    A set of 1950s turquoise drinking glasses, along with an Atomic Fish glass at right.

    Glasses were the last piece of the place setting. I saw four beautiful 1950s-era turquoise glasses that were perfect. I got them in a box lot that included a pair of crystal candleholders. I knew that I could pair them with a set of Atomic Fish glasses from the 1950s that I had bought at auction some years ago.

    All the while I was looking for my table wares, I was also thinking menu. My friend’s mother was cooking the turkey and dressing, Valorie was making the mac ‘n cheese, and Kristin and other guests were bringing desserts.

    I decided to add another meat – braised short ribs with polenta and goat cheese from a recipe I found on I’m always interested in trying new dishes beyond the traditional – like the “Bumped-Up Brussels Sprouts” I prepared for another Thanksgiving dinner from a recipe by Food Network star Guy Fieri. I had polenta for the first time at a New York diner some years ago and loved it.


    Some of the pieces in the Imperial China Windsor pattern that I bought at auction. On the right is a close-up of a dinner plate.

    Since this beef dish was new to me, I experimented on myself, first using white wine since the recipe called for either red or white. The gravy was too light-colored, so I tried a red Shiraz Cabernet the second time. This time, the gray was sumptuously dark, the meat literally slid off the bones, and the polenta (I added some beef bacon whose fat was rendered to brown the beef before it hit the oven) was delicious.

    I made side dishes of collard greens (with smoked turkey drumsticks, cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, onions and all kinds of spices), butter beans (which were a bit mushy and a surprise because I cook them all the time; my mother suspected that I cooked them too long this time) and the Brussels Sprouts. Isn’t there always a dish that doesn’t turn out quite right?

    My dessert was blackberry cobbler. As a child growing up in a rural area, I picked and ate blackberries right off the vines (and dodged the wasps and yellow jackets).

    For the first time in years, I used salt and butter in my dishes. These are ingredients I don’t use in preparing meals for myself. Instead, I reach for herbs and Mrs. Dash seasonings.


    Pink Depression glass dishes I bought at auction. The one on the left has curved balloon edges with a concave center; the one on the right is flat.

    I had decided on a simple centerpiece for my two tables because I wanted the meal to be fun. That’s what Christmas dinner is like at my mother’s house – boisterous, lively, loving. I wanted my centerpiece to consist of some of my auction items because they defined who I was and what I wanted to project – items both interesting and different.

    The day before the meal, I had laid out a beautiful white oval platter with red- and caramel-wrapped Lindt Lindor chocolates, peppermint sticks and pecans (one of my favorites), framed on both sides with the pair of crystal candlesticks. The second table held a series of small silverplated cups that I had bought at auction and polished. Each held a peppermint stick and small spoons, framed by small round crystal and cobalt blue candlesticks.

    I had also placed on the main table two pink Depression glass dishes to hold dips and chips, and another dish with inlaid flowers on the other table. And I wanted to find a place on one table for a beautiful electrified cobalt blue (so dark that it looks black) Aladdin oil lamp that I had just bought at an antiques shop.


    An electrified Aladdin oil lamp that I bought at an antiques shop.

    The centerpieces looked dignified and pure, just what I wanted. Until an out-of-town friend walked into my house at 10 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving, turned her nose up at my centerpieces and tablecloths – “They look too much like Christmas,” she said – went through my house, found items with an autumn motif, and pushed aside my arrangements. It was a centerpiece that represented her and not me, but I was too busy with the food and other preparations to worry about it.

    Thanksgiving Day itself was what I had hoped for. Conversations seemed to flow as readily as the over-abundance of good food, my friend’s mother helped me with the final preparations, and everyone pitched in for the delivery of the food and the cleanup.

    As the evening quieted down, some folks asked if I would do Thanksgiving again next year. Here’s what my friend’s mother suggested as an answer: “I’m not sure where I’ll be this time next year.” A very diplomatic answer, I thought.

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