Ode to Noreen and Nila Ann

Based on a recipe that revolutionized, and continues to revolutionize, Thanksgiving.

The five McLaughlin girls, my Grandmother and her sisters, were raised on a farm outside of Kokomo one hundred years ago. My Great-Grandfather Otis (whose in-laws are pictured above in the masthead) insisted they all have post high school educations which was unusual for women in the early 20th Century. Especially in rural Indiana where it’s still rare today. He wanted them to be independent and to be able to support themselves. By 1925 two of them graduated from college, two from beauty school, and one from secretarial school.

All of them married and lived on farms in close proximity. They remained a tight-knit group their entire lives, socializing and traveling together. Church-going was de rigueur though they were not hardcore, fundamentalist types. They were intelligent, gentle, fun-loving people who didn’t have a mean bone in them.

Which was what made the prayers at our large family dinners so bizarre. When we gathered to start the buffet, randomly one of the sisters would throw the challenge to another by saying something like: “Myrtle, will you return thanks?” The recipient would dive in without hesitation, improvise a blessing and then say Amen. The exchange was always unpredictable, rapid fire and direct.

It made me uncomfortable because it felt like people were put on the spot. And I was terrified they were going to pick me. It’s the only time I sensed aggressiveness or rivalry among the sisters.  Maybe it was a holdover from their childhood dining rituals: I’ll get her tonight, I’ll make her say the prayer.

When their daughters became adults they joined in the prayer round robin too. My Mother was never called upon probably because she would not have cooperated. She seemed to be exempt.

Mother’s cousin Nila Ann, on the other hand, was often asked to say grace. It was a way to include her. She was slow mentally and stuck in her routine within the family. She finished high school and had a job as a clerk, but otherwise did not venture too far from home.

There was a lot of family humor and teasing in which Nila Ann tried to participate. But she’d always repeat the same joke when making small talk: “you been working hard or hardly working?” It was followed by her self-satisfied chuckles to help sell the quip. Or maybe she was genuinely amused each time she told it.

Another cousin, Noreen, was more like my Mother. She’d graduated from Purdue, was poised, reserved, and loved to laugh. Her worldliness caused her to her commit the blasphemy of blasphemies: she married a Catholic. But what a hunk of a Catholic. Even at 10 I knew he was worth losing your religion for.

These personal detractions and transgressions were never talked about openly. The sisters firmly believed if you can’t say something positive say nothing at all. At family gatherings compliments flowed freely for everyone’s cooking. Nila Ann would be praised for her fruit cocktail and jello salad.

Noreen showed up one year with a dish that had a lasting impact. She received kudos that day and from that Thanksgiving on because, thereafter, someone would always make her version of Cranberry Relish.

Her secret was to include diced celery and toasted pecans. The refreshingly cool taste of the celery against the tartness of the cranberries works perfectly. I’ve played with adding apples, oranges, or pears but the sweetness takes away from the cranberry/celery mojo. Usually celery plays the Thelma Ritter role, the supporting part. In this recipe it shows star quality.

This year Kathy and I visited our friend Linda who is in the hospital. Linda loves Thanksgiving so I prepared a traditional menu to take to her. Kathy implored me to keep it healthy which resulted in making cutbacks–somewhat on the butter, significantly on the sugar. For dessert I got out the ice cream maker and we had the world premiere of Sorbet a la Noreen: a cranberry ice garnished with pecans and celery.

The seismic activity felt last Thursday was the McLaughlin women turning in their graves. That an offspring of theirs would prepare Thanksgiving dinner and not bake a pie was just too much for them.

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