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Ah those small-town turkey dinners

I’ve been engaged to provide half an hour of after-dinner entertainment for the 80 or so employees and family members of a local farm equipment machinery dealer. (No gig is too small or obscure for me to accept!) The wingding is in an old one-room schoolhouse down a concession road, now converted into a little community centre.

I arrive and am surprised to find that they have a band waiting for me. It consists of the 87-year-old patriarch of the company on the violin, along with his two pals on clarinet and piano (both comparative youngsters in their 60s). They play pre-dinner swing tunes and old standards, and I join along on guitar and vocals. We have a lot of fun. The clarinet player insists that we play everything in B flat or E flat, so I get a real workout. Little kids cling to the fiddle player’s legs as his bow grazes the tops of their blond heads. The piano player balances a bottle of beer on the edge of the piano, deftly catching it and taking a swig each time it starts to fall off from the vibration of his heavy thumping style.

Dinner arrives, looking disturbingly familiar. It is a virtual carbon copy of the turkey dinner I had at the Minto Township gig the week before. In rural Ontario, there are rules regarding banquets like this, and they are strictly observed. Here is the tried and true recipe for a successful community hall church ladies’ supper:

Dinner for 200

  1. Roast turkey. Cook until perfectly tender and juicy, then cook one hour more till all moisture and flavour has been removed. Remove from oven. Cut into large hunks, then leave out uncovered on platters for two hours, or until crust forms on pieces.
  2. Make a Matterhorn of mashed potatoes. Make a smaller amount of mashed turnip for the really adventurous.
  3. Peas and corn. Remember, this is farm country. Farmers apparently do not want to see fresh produce, as they have been watching it grow all year. Dish out straight from the can only.
  4. Stuffing. Use only bread and celery. Do not use any seasoning.
  5. Jellied salad. Contrary to the opinion of many urban culinary experts, Jello and cabbage CAN be mixed together in one dish.
  6. Gravy. Serve in gravy boats as large as actual boats. Do not remove fat.

No substitutions or additions please.

How to Eat Dinner

  1. Fill a plate to overflowing. Cover entire surface with gravy, then cover gravy with salt.
  1. Empty the entire plate in five minutes.

And yet, there is something indescribably pleasing about this meal when it comes. There is a ritual blandness to it that is deeply comforting. The sameness of it all is oddly re-assuring.

This particular meal seems to have something special about it, though. It has been prepared by local farm wives who formed a small catering business a few years back, when times were as tough as the chewy drumsticks they serve. The farm machinery employees wolf down their meals with proper smacks of appreciation, but the women diners are extra excited. Apparently, the formula has been altered in some subtle, mysterious way that I, an alien, cannot detect.

“It’s very innovative,” says one lady.

“Very creative,” remarks another.

“Such imagination!”

“The gals certainly have a flair for food.”

“How did they dream this up?” one wants to know.

The secret eludes me. What was the slight variation that set their taste-deprived tongues wagging? There is a reason for eating the main course quickly. Everywhere this archetypical communal supper is served, the ladies reserve their true genius for the pies. The pies are the complete opposite of the meal. It’s always this way. They are perfection. Mince, pumpkin, cherry, apple, rhubarb, lemon meringue – all are prepared with a passion and commitment that has been absent till this moment. The pies are the real reason we are all there. The pies are what keeps rural society together. The pies are really really delicious – except that as soon as they appear, it is my turn to go to work. They eat. I play. I go home.

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