Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksgiving Gothic

Most American children grow up celebrating Thanksgiving in the traditional way: football game on in the background, mothers and grandmothers arguing about how long it takes to cook the Butterball, the kitchen smelling of Crisco. You know, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go…”

But my Thanksgiving as a kid was more along the lines of “Over the river and through the woods to a strange gothic-themed restaurant with surly serving wenches we go…”

This restaurant, the now-defunct Stokesay Castle in Reading, Pennsylvania, was more about celebrating the reign of Henry VIII than commemorating the first time the Pilgrims and Indians broke bread, but until recently, Tudor-inspired tapestries and parchment menus were my only associations with the great American holiday.

As the story goes, my parents got married on Thanksgiving in 1969 and had their first newlywed dinner at Stokesay, thus beginning a multiple-decades-long tradition of traveling several hours by car to eat pre-sliced turkey at a restaurant complete with its very own dungeon. (If you were restless during dinner, you could go downstairs and play in the dungeon, which had a very realistic looking mannequin stuck in some kind of authentic torturing device straight out of the days of Bloody Mary’s reign. It really was fun.)

Initially we were there to celebrate both Thanksgiving and my parents’ wedding anniversary. But after they divorced 19 years after their first turkey day together—which, if you’d been stuck in the car with them for hours during our increasingly angst-filled yearly treks to Reading from the Philly suburbs, you’d have seen coming—my stepmother and eventually my half-siblings began coming along.

And by that point I am not sure if the travels to Stokesay were even about Thanksgiving anymore…I think it was just the kind of thing that if you do the same thing 19 years in a row, do you really give up on the twentieth year? And if you can do it for 20 years, why stop after 21? The Green family name was quilled into Stokesay’s reservation book until the grand palace closed its heavy doors for the last time in 2006.

Our tradition certainly wasn’t about the food. I’m sure the dining experience was decent enough in the late 60s and early 70s for my parents to decide to make going gothic an annual event, but by the time I was old enough to distinguish good food from bad food, Stokesay’s cuisine registered right up there with Ikea meatballs and my mom’s occasional experiments with cabbage. (The last year I went there, I ordered the lobster instead of the Thanksgiving special because I had come to think of a turkey dinner as a barely palatable entrĂ©e—since then, I’ve discovered the real deal is definitely worth replicating November after November.)

Like I do every year since I moved away from Pennsylvania, I will miss my Green roots this Thanksgiving when I break bread in South Florida surrounded by my husband, children and in-laws. Sitting at my dinner table and enjoying my own made-from-scratch cranberry-walnut-mandarin orange sauce, Grandma Betty’s matzoh stuffing and my mother-in-law’s turkey, cooked not a minute too long, I will not be missing Stokesay itself, however.

Although, if the kids fidget halfway through the meal, it sure would be nice to send them to the dungeon to play, at least until the dessert arrives.


casey said...

nice blog, jorie!

i will miss the sign-in book at Stokesay. so few people bothered with it, it was almost like a personal diary. i could write a message in 1993, come back 4 years later, and only have to turn back a few pages to find it. i also got some pleasure out of writing "philly!" in the location section. as if to say - we just come to this crappy town on special occasions...

Sarah said...


Stokesay sounds like quite the place.