A Big Sur Thanksgiving, 1939

In 1923 Lillian Bos Ross and her husband Harry Dick took a vacation from his job as a tile setter at Hearst Castle and hiked the 60 miles or so through the mountains up to Big Sur. Despite the uneven terrain, steep cliffs, poison oak, brambly blackberry bushes, snakes, coyotes – or more likely because of these things – they fell in love with the area and settled on a rugged piece of land miles removed from any road or town. Lillian Ros is one of my heroes; squeezed in between all the hiking and ranching and planting and darning and ironing and all her other housekeeping duties, she managed to write, sitting at a manual typewriter at a table in her kitchen, a pile of newspaper columns and a handful of novels.

One of these, 1942’s The Stranger in Big Sur, was made into the 1974 movie Zandy’s Bride starring Gene Hackman as a controlling, misogynistic Western rancher and Liv Ullman as his mail-order bride. It’s available instantly on Netflix if you’re looking for a way to spend a couple of hours this week.

I first heard of Lillian Bos Ross from my copy of the book Recipes for Living In Big Sur. It’s an excellent snapshot of life in this beautiful, rugged area; published in 1982 by the Big Sur Historical Society, it includes a hundred years’ worth of memories and recipes from the first (non-Native American) settlers. It’s got recipes for everything from scotch-laced grapefruit to growing wheatgrass, stories about everything from driving hogs to controlling pests. Lillian Bos is among the contributors who unfailingly inspires me.

Earlier this year I made a note to share her lovely description of their Thanksgiving meal that was published in a 1939 issue of the Carmel Pine Cone. I’m happy to have remembered, because we need to remember that knowing how to brine a perfect turkey is not as important as the ability to remember what, exactly, to give thanks for. Here it is, with credit and thanks to the Big Sur Historical Society:

. . . until about ten years ago, this little ranch was sixteen miles by trail to the nearest wagon road, and then, having gained the road, there were forty of the stiffest mountain miles anyone can imagine still making a barricade between your hunger and the grocery store. As winter rains made both trail and road impassable by Thanksgiving, the 1890 folk gave thanks for what they had on the ranch.

Allowing for all these handicaps, I looked about and decided on a Thanksgiving menu without benefit of grocery or town. This is what we had:

  • Abalone chowder (much better than oyster soup)
  • Roast Quail with cornbread and mushroom dressing made savory with wild spices
  • Vegetables – mashed potatoes, beets with mock Hollandaise sauce, zucchini sauteed
  • Cornbread (homeground meal) with fresh butter and sage honey
  • Yerba buena tea or milk
  • Indian pudding (same homeground corn meal sweetened with wild honey)
  • Pioneer carrot pie

This carrot pie was made according to the Boston Cooking School cook-book, only substituting well-mashed carrots for the pumpkin. It was a pie to end all pumpkin pies.
Since the dinner followed a regular ranch work day of washing and ironing, baking and mending for the cook, with garage building and tree planting, lamp-filling and wood-getting for the man of the house, there were good appetites to greet the feast.

When the last course was finished, the last toast downed (might as well admit here that the Yerba Buena had a tiger’s tooth in it) and the last candle snuffed, it was nine o’clock and so we came back to modern times. We turned on the readio for the first time in the day and learned of the bombing of Finland.

In a world of one crashing horror after another we found we had saved something, gained something. We watched the driftwood fire in our grade burn down, more deeply conscious than ever before in our lives of the debt and the duty we owned to the brave seekers for personal liberty who stood with their backs to the wall of dark unknown wilderness on that Thursday in the winter of 1621 and gave thanks for what they had gained. We who have inherited liberty take it for granted, as we take the air we breathe, but this Thanksgiving day were as conscious of having it as though we held it in our hands.

I just got a chill typing out this last paragraph. My own radio is on, a story about the new TSA pat-downs, and I realize that the more things change the more they really do stay the same. I don’t usually reflect on how important it is to take our personal liberties for granted but that’s exactly what to give thanks for this week.

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