Jamuel Tarrant's memories of childhood Thanksgiving meals include hunting rabbits with his brother, the bounty of which sometimes ended up on the holiday table, along with chicken.
"We didn't have no turkey," said Tarrant. "My aunt did all the cooking and we'd have fried rabbit, chicken, and collard greens. Sweet potato pie was my favorite dessert."
Tarrant celebrates his 87th birthday the day after Thanksgiving. He spends his days in the Lake City Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, hundreds of miles from his childhood home in Piedmont, S.C. PIedmont was a cotton mill town where Tarrant grew up with his parents, and three younger brothers. He has outlived them all.
"My dad worked in the cotton mill and my mother was a laundress who did for the people at the mill," he said.
Tarrant and several other Lake City Nursing and Rehabilitation Center residents –– the youngest is 75 –– reminisced about their childhood Thanksgivings. It may come as a surprise to kids raised on microwaved fare that the holiday meal was not always prepared from a trip to the local grocery store.
Rosa Lee Williams, 87, grew up in Covington. She listened quietly to Tarrant's tales, but perked up when he started talking about food. "Rabbit? I don't like rabbit," she said. "Well, we used to also cut the whole stalk of the collard greens down and carry them home," said Tarrant. "Then, we'd strip the leaves from the stalk and cook them.
"Now, I love collards," said Williams. "I loved getting a big ole pot and seasoning them up good."
Williams lived on a farm and picked and chopped cotton with her four brothers and five sisters. She remembers fruit being quite a holiday treat. "We got apples and oranges, and even some candy," she said. "It wasn't that much, but we'd get a little. We'd sometimes have turkey, but my favorite was pound cake. I really loved pound cake."
Marie Goodson, 75, was born in Butts County, but her family soon moved to Griffin. Goodson was the youngest of seven children whose father supported them by working at a steel plant. Their mother worked in a chicken factory.
"We always had a garden where we grew our own vegetables, and we had hogs, too," said Goodson. "We didn't do too much going to the store –– just for the necessary stuff like sugar and flour."
As Goodson pondered the good old days, she had a brief moment of food-related regret. "I messed up and let Mama pass before getting her recipe for Japanese fruitcake," she said. "My brother was born on Christmas Day and she made that Japanese fruitcake for him every year. I wonder if anyone in the family got that recipe?"
Tarrant's eyes glazed over as he recalled an incident with one of his mother's pies.
"She used to set the pies in the window to cool," he said. "This one time, it flipped out the window and landed face down in a dry place. My mother thought that pie was lost, and she was going to have to bake another one. But I saved that pie. I thought I was saving it for myself. But she saw me with it and took it from me, calling me an 'old selfish thing.'"
Nell White Lundy, 88, lived her entire life in Clayton County. She grew up on a farm with one brother and four sisters. She and her husband ran Lundy's Produce at the Forest Park Farmers Market. After all the talk about food, the residents' thoughts turned to the holiday itself, and what they were thankful for.
"I am so thankful for God and our freedom," said Lundy. "We always put God first, and He's blessed me. America has been blessed, too."
Goodson said she is grateful to be alive. "I am so thankful God let me live to see my kids become grandkids," she said. "Also that my kids are in pretty good health."
Even more reflective, Tarrant agreed he was thankful for his life, but for reasons buried in the past. As a child, his grandmother told him her right foot was injured in a plowing accident. When Tarrant was older and studying history, he learned the truth.
"My grandma was 12 when freedom came," he said. "She was a slave. They cut off half her right foot because she was a runner. She tried to get away."
Upset, Tarrant confronted her, wanting to know why she told a different story.
"She said she didn't want us boys to know what a hard time she'd had," he said. "She was a stout, stout black woman."
Amanda Tarrant raised her family in the house of former slave owners and grew crops on a portion of land given to slaves, he said. "She had a quilting rack with a pedal attached to a fan to fan flies from the table," said Tarrant. "I always wanted to be old enough to press that pedal, but I never was."
Living in a nursing center, the residents don't get kitchen privileges. Someone else prepares the menu, cooks the meals, serves the plates. But they'd give it all up to be able to cook a Thanksgiving meal for their families again.
"Do they know we want turkey?" said Williams. "Somebody needs to tell them we will be wanting turkey for Thanksgiving. Do you think we'll get it?"