By Kathy K. Martin
This article first appeared in the October/November 2023 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI.
My family celebrates Thanksgiving in Natchez at Nana’s house. This has been our tradition since I married my husband, Chuck, over 30 years ago. “Nana” is Betty Jennings, my mother-in-law, but everyone calls her Nana, especially all her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She has always said that Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday because the focus is on family, food, and thankfulness to God. She’s now 89 years old and when you ask her how she’s doing she usually replies with, “I’m blessed beyond measure,” or “I’m better than I deserve,” or with a little chuckle, “I can still walk and talk.”
Thanksgiving at Nana's House
Her residence has changed locations around Natchez several times. However, the atmosphere of her home, which she shares with her husband, Charles, remains the same. It’s peaceful, comfortable, and the epitome of motherly love. The busyness of life seems to completely stop when you walk inside and she greets you with a warm hug and a reminder to make yourself at home. She decorates the house with many framed pictures of family and overflowing candy dishes. Needlepoint pillows, many of which she made herself, adorn chairs and couches in the living room and sun room. Quilts are usually stacked nearby for napping after the Thanksgiving feast. The back patio is where we all gather before a meal to visit as we look out at the trees and watch birds come to the feeders hanging in the yard.
Comfort Food Is On the Menu
The Thanksgiving menu remains the same through the years and echoes her feeling of tradition and comfort. Her cornbread dressing continues to be the star of the meal. Now that she’s older, instead of standing in the kitchen chopping vegetables, we take over that task and she comes in at the end to complete the final seasoning and the first taste with Chuck. Another one of her signature dishes is broccoli cheese casserole. It was made for many years with garlic cheese rolls that we can no longer find in the grocery stores. Today we just make our own with shredded Cheddar, Velveeta, cream cheese, garlic, and other seasonings, finished with a drop or two of liquid smoke. This is melted with cream of mushroom soup, cooked broccoli and chopped, sauteed onion and baked in a casserole dish.
Of course, we also roast a large turkey to go with the dressing and broccoli casserole. My sisters-in-law, Catherine Fisher and Elizabeth Lestelle, and their husbands bring appetizers, bread, and other accompaniments. The usual dishes include an English pea salad and sweet potato casserole. I make a few cheeseballs for our appetizer and then homemade cranberry sauce to round out our feast. Dessert follows with pecan pie and caramel cake.
After holding hands together in a circle to pray and thank God for all of our blessings, we gather around the large dining room table to eat, followed by naps on Nana’s couches, and then later we watch the Egg Bowl on TV.
Black Friday Family Outing
The next day it’s all about leftovers and shopping in Natchez. Darby’s on Main Street in downtown is always on our list. The original store sells decadent homemade fudge that is hard to pass up, especially when we’re offered a free sample. The store also has everything from clothes to candles and furniture and more home décor upstairs, in addition to two other furniture and interior stores nearby. Sometimes we have lunch at Magnolia Grill in Natchez Under-the-Hill along the Mississippi River or we grab some tamales and a Knock-You-Naked margarita at Fat Mama’s Tamales, another Natchez original on Canal Street. If we’re able to extend our stay through Sunday, sometimes we go to Nana’s church, followed by lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant, known for its biscuits and fried chicken.
Time with family is the main focus of the Natchez holiday. We save the antebellum home tours and other activities for another time. Nana says she’s just glad we’re all together for another Thanksgiving.
English Pea Salad
By Betty "Nana" Jennings
½ cup sugar
½ cup white wine vineagar
½ cup oil
1 Tablespoon salt
1 Tablespoon black pepper
1 Tablespoon water
1 can of shoe peg corn, drained
2 cans of English peas, drained
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 cup of celery, finely chopped
2 bunches of green onions, finely chopped
1 medium-sized jar of chopped pimentos
Mix together the sugar, vinegar, oil, salt, black pepper, and water.
Combine the corn and peas. Add the chopped vegetables, pour mixture over the vegetables, and mix well with a spoon. Let it sit overnight in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.
The Natchez Garden Club’s Christmas Pilgrimage Tour of Historic Homes begins November 24 (the day after Thanksgiving). Many of the antebellum homes serve a Thanksgiving feast and provide lodging:
Carriage House Restaurant at Stanton Hall
Magnolia Grill at Natchez Under-the-Hill
Restaurant 1818 at Monmouth Historic Inn
The Castle Restaurant at Dunleith Historic Inn
Here are some more great options for a Thanksgiving feast out: