Her first Thanksgiving away from home, the country star discovered that gratitude and tradition can travel far.
I'd recently moved to Oklahoma when Garth Brooks popped the question. No, not that one. It would be a while before he got down on one knee and proposed to me in front of 7,000 people. This was a more private request, one that gave me goosebumps nonetheless.
“Honey,” he said one October night, “I’ve been thinking maybe we could do Thanksgiving with my family. What if I invited them over?”
“That sounds wonderful,” I said.
“One more thing,” he said. “Could you do the cooking? You know how to make everything, right?”
“Of course,” I said, trying to project confidence. “I’d love to.” What else could I say? I was proud of my talent in the kitchen—I love it when somebody who only knows me for my singing discovers I can cook too. How could I admit that at the age of 38 I’d never made Thanksgiving dinner on my own?
The holiday was so special for our family that even if I was touring, I made sure to come home. But I just assisted with the feast. Mama and my older sister, Beth, were in charge of the turkey, the sides and the pies. They’d be cooking back home in Monticello, Georgia, and here I was in Oklahoma.
“How many people are we talking about?” I asked casually.
“About fifteen,” Garth replied. “Nothing fancy.”
Fifteen people for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings? He made it sound as easy as whipping up a bunch of pimiento-cheese sandwiches.
That night I got on the phone to Mama. How should I cook the turkey, how would I know it was done, what all went into Grandma Lizzie’s cornbread dressing anyway?
“You’re making this way too complicated,” Mama said. “Keep it simple.” Simple? This was a big deal! It was my chance to prove to Garth’s family that I was more than some chick singer. That I could make a warm, happy home for him and his three daughters. I didn’t want to blow it.
I took out a notebook. “Hold on, Mama, let me get this down. How many hard-boiled eggs go into Grandma Lizzie’s dressing? What’s the right ratio of cornbread to white bread?” Then it occurred to me. “Mama, can you just send me the recipe?”
“I would, but it’s not written down,” she said. “It’s all in my head.”
I should’ve known. I come from a long line of fabulous cooks, but the knowledge was passed down from generation to generation in the kitchen, not on paper. There are casseroles Mama taught Beth and me to make that she learned from watching Grandma make them for Granddaddy when he came in from working the fields.
And Daddy too. He knew his way around the kitchen—and the grill. If there was a fundraiser in town, people would ask, “Is Jack making his Brunswick stew?” or “Is Jack barbecuing the chickens?”
Every recipe in our family has a story. We still laugh about the time Beth put too much ranch dressing in her Super Bowl Sunday cheese ball. My dad renamed it “cheese wad,” and that’s what we call it to this day.
Or the year my career took off and I was looking for Christmas gifts for folks in the music business. Mama made a special batch of her cheese straws. We got a kick out of treating the movers and shakers of Nashville to something that had been made in little Monticello, population 2,000.
Food was how we showed our love. Once I came down with a bad case of the flu in Oklahoma. I swear I wouldn’t have recovered if it hadn’t been for an emergency shipment of Mama’s chicken noodle soup, packed in dry ice (where did she find dry ice in Monticello?).
How was I going to do Thanksgiving on my own? Just the thought of it made me ache for home. “Remember, with the turkey,” Mama was telling me, “exactly one hour at five hundred degrees. Then turn off the oven and don’t open the door till the oven cools. It might be another five or six hours.”
“I got it,” I said, closing my notebook. No one’s ever going to believe this, I thought, least of all Garth.
Sure enough, he looked at me incredulously. “You do what with the turkey?”
I explained again. “It comes out perfect and you don’t even baste it. Mama’s been cooking it this way for years. It’s the most tender turkey I’ve ever tasted.”
But what if it didn’t work when I cooked it? Maybe Thanksgiving wasn’t a moveable feast. Even the place didn’t feel right. Garth was living in a bunkhouse while his new ranch house was being built. We’d have to eat at card tables—card tables!
And Daddy wouldn’t be here to lead us in grace and recognize God for the blessings he’d bestowed on us. Would I feel that deep sense of love and connection without holding hands with my family and giving thanks together?
“I’ll do the shopping,” Garth offered. Well, that was one thing I wouldn’t have to worry about.
A few days before Thanksgiving Garth set out with my list. Turkey, carrots, celery, onions, beans, greens, potatoes, saltines for the dressing, buttermilk, white bread, cornmeal, eggs, canned cranberry sauce, butter, flour, shortening, sweet potatoes and pecans for the pies—I’d bake those the night before.
Garth’s girls would help set the tables and serve the food. But I was going to do all the cooking.
I spent almost all Wednesday in the kitchen, chopping, prepping, baking, studying my notes. By the time I took the pies out of the oven, it was after midnight. I could put in the turkey now.
“Where’s the turkey?” I asked Garth.
“Wait till you see it,” he said. He opened the door to the freezer and proudly showed me the rock-hard bird.
“Garth, it takes days to thaw a turkey! We’ll never be able to eat this one tomorrow.” Even if I stood over it with a hairdryer all night. I sank down in a chair, trying not to burst into tears. “Where are we going to find a turkey at this hour?”
“Don’t worry, Miss Yearwood,” he said (he likes to call me that). “The grocery’s open twenty-four hours.”
I didn’t wait for Garth. I jumped up, grabbed my purse and ran to my car. I wasn’t about to let him get the turkey. Who knew what he’d come back with? I got to the store and dashed to the meat department, praying they wouldn’t be sold out.
There in the cooler was a beautiful fresh turkey, the very last one. Triumphantly I carried it to the checkout.
Back at the bunkhouse, I preheated the oven to 500 degrees. I prepped the turkey the way Mama told me and put it in the oven. The last thing I did was put duct tape across the door and write “Do Not Open.”
Thanksgiving morning I cooked the beans and greens, whipped up the mashed potatoes, and, yes, I took the turkey out of the oven. It looked as good as Mama’s. I couldn’t resist taking a sliver of white meat and popping it in my mouth. Mmm, tasted as good as Mama’s too!
Next, the pan juices went into the gravy and, of course, Grandma Lizzie’s famous dressing.
Soon everyone was gathered around the tables. “Shall we pray?” Garth said. He took my hand and, on the other side, I held his brother Jerry’s. We bowed our heads.
“We are so grateful today for all the blessings you’ve brought us,” Garth said. “For our family and friends, for the chance to get together...” The last thing I heard him give thanks for was “the food we eat and the hands that prepared it.”
My hands. And really, those of everyone who had taught me what good cooking was all about: Mama and Daddy, Grandma Lizzie and Beth. I felt connected to them as deeply as ever, connected by the love that makes you want to give the best of yourself.
I didn’t need to prove myself to Garth’s family. All I had to do was open my heart (and my kitchen) and share that love with them.
“Amen,” we said and dug in.
“This is the most delicious turkey,” said Jerry. “How did you cook it?”
I looked at Garth. “It’s a family secret,” I said. “I’d be glad to tell you…”
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