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.
The moment the skillet slipped through his fingers and cracked on the brick steps, everything changed. Dennis Powell had been given his grandmother's cast-iron pan and her butcher knife when 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.
That place is a farm in Sandridge, South Carolina. When repair attempts failed, Dennis (who was then an architect working in Alexandria, Virginia) set out to cast two reproductions to give his sons. 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 named Estee.
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.
Composed of cypress logs and 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.
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.
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 that 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 and perseverance and the pleasures of sharing a meal together. In this case, that means eating at picnic tables scattered around the property or from plates on laps near the bonfire.
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.
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 which old barns were where and recall a giant fig tree they used to climb. They remember the year Miriam's son Dale fell into a hog-scalding pot and 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 then 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.
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, they're convinced that 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.