by Jesse Halsey
Thanksgiving is the Great Day in New England, or was so in my boyhood. We lived on Long Island, the east end of which is pure New England, while the wet end is Dutch---with a Kriskingle. So we had, both; Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grandfather was much of a Puritan and frowned on Christmas celebrations—in theory. Being a deacon he had to agree with the Parson who never would preach a Christmas sermon at Christmas nor an Easter sermon at Easter! (“It was papish.”)
But our grandmother was different. SHE was supreme in her own domain, indoors, and knew, moreover, just how to handle grandfather who was naturally fat and jolly and, as a young man, had lived in New York where Christmas and New Years were real celebrations that centered largely in the home. This was the beginning of the Nineteenth century—our grandfather’s boyhood; while our childhood was in the years near its close.
We were lucky, I say, with a New England Thanksgiving and a Dutch-flavored Christmas. And then we were blessed with Mary Ann.
She came to help on all great occasions. Funerals, births, butchering days, Town Meeting, Thanksgiving, the Christmas week, and many other times in between. No family occasion was complete without her. The little “back chamber,” a half attic over the kitchen, was her room, never used by another so far as I know.
An Indian of the Poosepatuck tribe, she was born before Eighteen hundred, near Montauk Point, but in our time lived on the Shinnecock Reservation, where she had married. Her features were as severe, as my faded snap-shot will show, but she was the soul of goodness and withal a most excellent cook.
Snow sometimes came with Thanksgiving, and almost always by Christmas time was continuously on the ground. It was my greatest joy, as a boy, early Thanksgiving morning to drive (with some of my cronies), in the old apple-cart, or in a sleigh, to the Indian reservation, two miles away “to fetch Mary Ann.” She had a grandson just my age who always came along.
Her mind was full of old sayings—this old woman; old traditions and superstitions. She believed in ghosts “and such like;” had hard common sense, stoic discipline, but a soft spot for us boys. She remembered wigwam days and knew the nature-lore of her ancestors, could predict the weather and, as I said, she could cook.
The simplest fare became ambrosial at her touch. I mean this in a countrified sense for she knew nothing of salads and appetizers. None were needed. The odors that hung round the home for hours before a meal, though kitchen doors were closed, these were enough to set one’s appetite agog.
She had no written recipes. Like all good cooks, she just guessed, but when my oldest sister was married “Aunt Mary Ann,” as we children called her, consented to be questioned regarding her art and with Grandmother’s help the bride got some semi-recipes on paper. With the passage of the years we came to think that sister “Nynne” had caught some of the culinary secrets of Mary Ann. From her cookbook and other family sources I have tried to write down some of the old Indian’s best dishes best suited to the Holiday Season.
Historic image courtesy Abigail Fithian Halsey Files, Southampton Historical Museum Archives and Research Center.