Thanksgiving with the Powell Family

Every November, a grandmother's legacy calls a family back to its historic South Carolina homestead for a feast of food and memories.

Dennis Powell Family Farm for Thanksgiving in Sandridge, SC
Each year, this clan gathers to celebrate Thanksgiving at their South Carolina farm and rustic log cabin, which dates back to the 1800s. Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Everything changed when the skillet slipped through his fingers and cracked on the brick steps. Given to him by his grandmother, Dennis Powell had her cast-iron pan and butcher knife since he'd left for college and had cherished them for the 40 years that followed. When the skillet broke in two, "it was like it cracked that literal connection to her hands, her cooking, and the place we came from," he says.

Dennis Powell Thanksgiving on Family Farm in South Carolina
Dennis cooks pinwheel sweet potatoes with pecan streusel in one of his skillets. Peter Frank Edwards

When repair attempts failed, Dennis (who was then an architect working in Alexandria, Virginia) set out to cast two reproductions to give his sons after breaking his on a farm in Sandridge, South Carolina. He didn't know it at the time, but the quest would eventually lead him on a long, circuitous journey to build Butter Pat Industries, his own cast-iron cookware company. These efforts were about much more than replacing an heirloom—he was also seeking "a restoration of that connection to our family home," he says. Butter Pat skillets are all named after strong women in his life. The latest, an 8-inch-diameter workhorse, is called Estee.

How to Reseason Cast Iron
Peter Frank Edwards

As it turns out, cast iron is a fitting representation of Estee Hilton Rudd, his late grandmother, a hardworking self-taught butcher who ran a meat market in Charleston where she sold sausage, hog's-head cheese, chickens, and rice pudding. Dennis still remembers the sawdust-and-blood smell of her slaughterhouse and helping out by working gut-bucket detail. While Estee's husband, Hiram Eugene Rudd, raised cattle, she grew her business, often serving lunch for up to 20 work hands, and raised seven children—Dorothy, Gertrude, Miriam, Mary (Dennis' mother), Joseph, Joyce, and Lynwood. Each Thanksgiving, those siblings, and up to 100 descendants get together on the same farm, located about 45 miles northwest of Charleston, for a serious casserole showdown—and a feast of memories.

Powell Family Members at Thanksgiving in South Carolina
With about 100 people in attendance, the holiday also serves as a reunion. Peter Frank Edwards

Composed of cypress logs, shingles, and a sloping, Cabernet-colored tin roof, the remnants of Estee's house is the oldest cypress-log home in Berkeley County. What remains of the original structure (and nearby smokehouse) has survived the Civil War and the earthquake of 1886 that cracked open steam pits and fissures throughout the region. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo ripped off the kitchen and back porch and destroyed the pecan grove and several outbuildings.

Powell Thanksgiving Candice's Bourbon-Pecan Sweet Potatoes
Dennis' sister Candice shows off her bourbon-pecan sweet potatoes. Peter Frank Edwards
Matilde Powell with Wild Rice Salad at Family Thanksgiving in South Carolina
The menu blends old favorites with new additions, like this wild rice salad made by Matilde, Dennis' wife. Peter Frank Edwards

Some family members—like Aunt Gertie, who always brings her tender and tasty boiled sieve ("sivvy") beans (small speckled limas that she's grown and put up)—still live nearby. Others travel from big cities up North, so reintroductions are in order. Before the meal, everyone gathers in a circle to hold hands, count off, and introduce new babies and guests. Uncle Joseph reads a verse from the family Bible, and Dennis' father, Dennis T. Powell, says grace.

Line for Dinner at Powell Family Thanksgiving
When it's time to eat, family members form a line from oldest to youngest. Peter Frank Edwards

Then it's time to line up, from the oldest to the youngest, to serve their plates from a long table laden with turkeys, casseroles, and covered dishes they've eaten all their lives. The original sign from Estee's business now hangs over the table, looking down on the feast and family who've come to honor what she taught them about hard work, perseverance, and the pleasures of sharing a meal together. That means eating at picnic tables scattered around the property or plates near the bonfire.

Powell Potluck Spread at the Family Thanksgiving
The bountiful potluck spread features new additions and old favorites. Peter Frank Edwards
Dinner Table at Powell Family Thanksgiving
The gathering is so large that everyone spreads out around the property to dine. Peter Frank Edwards

Perennial favorites—dubbed the "Hall of Fame"—include Aunt Dot's custardy macaroni and cheese, Denise's pineapple delight, and Mary's carrot soufflé. Newer additions like Candice's baked Brie slathered with fig-ginger preserves and Matilde's wild rice salad muscle in for attention. After a trip or three through the buffet, when it doesn't seem possible to eat another bite, a table on the front porch holding a buttery assortment of cakes (including coconut and caramel) and pies (such as pecan and sweet potato) defies anyone to throw in the towel.

Powell Family Thanksgiving Dessert Table
A separate dessert table is set up on the porch. Peter Frank Edwards

At last, when all bellies are full and the afternoon sun casts long shadows from a towering magnolia tree, heaps of memories emerge. While the kids race around the lawn, the older folks talk about where the old barns were and recall a giant fig tree they used to climb. They remember the year Miriam's son, Dale, fell into a hog-scalding pot. Or, how their mama didn't allow card playing because it reminded her of gambling and the time Joseph borrowed a pink convertible for a date at the drive-in but couldn't get the top back up when it started raining. And so it continues with the soft sounds of easy laughter as the sisters tease their younger brothers with recollections, correct each other on details of their shared history, and contest the ownership of various recipes.

Powell Thanksgiving on Family Farm in South Carolina Hayride
Peter Frank Edwards

Meanwhile, a sputtering tractor tows a trailer for hayrides around a field, and cousins play touch football, drive four-wheelers, and shoot clay pigeons. Estee's children, all entrepreneurs like their mama, say they come together because they always have—and hope they always will. Though they might disagree about who makes the best nut cake, the family thinks this annual gathering helps maintain their connection. "Mama was a peacemaker and taught us that nothing was worth an argument," said Aunt Dot with a laugh.

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