Thanksgiving horror stories: Asheville residents tell tales of holiday travails

Illustration by Norn Cutson

Sure, Thanksgiving is about gratitude. And it’s about community, bringing family and friends together around the table, eating traditional foods with people you care about — all that wonderful, heartwarming stuff. But, as many of us know, it can also be about less-lovely things. Turkeys can be notoriously tricky to thaw and cook properly, beautifully crafted pies sometimes end up upside down on the kitchen floor, crucial appliances and plumbing can quit working at the least opportune times and family members aren’t always on their best behavior.

This Thanksgiving, Xpress encouraged members of the community — including a few Xpress staffers — to share their tales of Thanksgiving travails past. Although certainly some of these folks weren’t laughing at the time, many of the stories offer a chuckle or even a guffaw and prove that it’s not always the most perfect meals that make for the best memories.

Shaneka Simmons

Several years ago my mom had a parakeet named Aaron. She loved him dearly but was afraid of him. This particular Thanksgiving my entire family was at the house. I, being the prankster that I am, took Aaron out of his cage and walked around the house with him.

I guess there was too much commotion going on for Aaron, because he bit me, and I let him go. He began flying around the house, and most of the family was terrified of this little bird. I’m not sure if my mom or my brother (who happens to be 6-feet 9-inches tall) was the more afraid. The only concern of my mom’s at that time was for everyone to cover the food so that Aaron wouldn’t “poop” in it, and for me to get him back in his cage immediately.

I finally caught Aaron, who at this point must have been scared out of his mind. I put him back in his cage safe and sound, and then had to calm the nerves of the others in the house.

We have told this story over and over to our children and other family members each year since it happened.

Shaneka Simmons is a health access coordinator for the Western Carolina Medical Society’s Project Access and the winner of the 2015 Mountain Xpress Give!Local Julian. The Julian Award recognizes a young person who is making a difference in Western North Carolina through nonprofit work.

Heather Foster

My favorite meal of the year is my mom’s Thanksgiving dinner — always has been and always will be. The past few years I’ve gradually been trying to learn more and more of her recipes but can’t quite seem to get the hang of the turkey; something always goes wrong. I had several turkey fails over the years, but the real clincher was the first year I tried to brine the turkey. My sister, a professional chef, advised me to brine it by storing it overnight in clean trash bags since they’re sterile and easily disposed of.

All was going along smoothly, until I got a whiff of something strange as I was wrestling the 25-pound turkey and five gallons of brine into the fridge. I sniffed again. And again. A nauseatingly floral scent was coming from somewhere … and it seemed to be the turkey.  Suddenly it hit me: The trash bags were Febreeze bags, and I had just placed my lovely, fresh bird to brine in Febreeze!

At this point I knew I couldn’t leave the bird as it was, but getting a turkey out of a brine-filled bag is harder than filling up the bag. My efforts were rewarded by five gallons of raw turkey brine cascading across the kitchen floor and a turkey that had to go in the sink and be scrubbed before I could even attempt to pass it off as edible.  Of course, I couldn’t bear to tell my mom about my late-night turkey escapades since I knew she’d never eat a bite if I did. The rest of the family managed to keep the secret until about five minutes after we’d finished dessert, and there was no turning back then.

Heather Foster is the vice president for Marketplace Policy at the Association for Community Affiliated Plans in Washington, D.C. She is pictured on the right with her mother, Susan Foster, who is the Xpress Wellness editor/writer.

Cecil Bothwell

An elderly friend gave me an excellent pie crust recipe in 1976, making me an expert. When Thanksgiving Day 1987 rolled around, I stepped up to perform the deed.

I was living in Broad River back then, a couple of miles off the pavement and off the grid in a house built of recycled material. Need I add that I was deep in the woods?

My habit on Thanksgiving Day is to do something I enjoy but don’t make time to do amidst workaday necessities. That morning found me splitting oak shakes with a homemade froe and mallet and then hiking to discover a frozen waterfall, which I named, for my personal pleasure, Shaky Heart Falls. I was late starting the pie, so while eight of us ate, I set it on the deck rail to cool in a brown paper bag to ward off falling leaves and dust.

Dinner complete, I went to fetch dessert, and when I picked up the bag, it moved! A young possum was seated in the middle of the pumpkin filling, enjoying a private Thanksgiving. Though he hadn’t finished much, my guests declined to share the spoils.

Cecil Bothwell is an Asheville writer and builder and a member of the Asheville City Council.

Lauren Vaught

Sept. 3, 2011, one day after my birthday. This was the day all processed foods, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese and other dairy items would never again cross my lips. Now what?

Armed with a plant-based program and recipes, I took a deep breath, rolled up my sleeves and went shopping. Rice, beans, potatoes, vegetables, fruit … you get the idea. What was I going to do with it all? “One day at a time, one recipe at a time” became my mantra in those first few months. I was determined to learn a healthier way to nourish my body. I read, I cooked, my husband was on board, and we ate like kings! We were feeling great eating veggie-stuffed baked potatoes, corn tortilla casseroles and homemade refried black beans.

Then Thanksgiving was staring at me from the calendar. The absence of turkey that year was a daunting thought. Panic began to set in. I opened my laptop and Googled “vegan Thanksgiving recipes.” I found one for a seitan roast. I also made my own stuffing, mushroom gravy and a traditional green-bean casserole made without butter, oil or cheese. Our first holiday as plant-based eaters was a success. The second year was much better, and this holiday … I got it!

Lauren Vaught is certified in plant-based nutrition and offers kitchen consultations, grocery shopping adventures, cooking class demos and tips for eating plant-based and whole foods. She blogs about vegan food at

Virginia Daffron

As the whitewater rafting season wound down in 1992, my boyfriend Eric and I decided to follow the example of some of our fellow Nantahala Outdoor Center raft guides by signing on to run a Christmas tree lot in suburban Atlanta for five weeks. The basics of the deal were: set up a tree-selling operation in a parking lot the week before Thanksgiving, live onsite in a rented travel trailer until Christmas and make $1,900 each for our efforts. Who could turn that down?

After days of labor, we learned that our setup alongside a parking lot in Buford, Georgia, was in the public right of way. Eric and I spent Thanksgiving Day rebuilding the operation on the asphalt parking lot in a pouring rain. We had hired three employees (one had recently been parolled), but we didn’t feel right about asking them to work on Thanksgiving.

Sometime after dark, we retreated to our trailer covered in mud. We had no water hookup, so a shower was out of the question. We had just put our special holiday meal — two Stouffer’s French bread pizzas — into the toaster oven when we heard a knock at the door. There stood our employee, Pat, holding two foil-wrapped paper plates heaped with his mother’s Thanksgiving meal. Best Thanksgiving dinner ever.

P.S. Eric and I have been together ever since. We married in 1998.

Virginia Daffron is a staff writer at Mountain Xpress.

Andrew Scotchie

Four brothers under one roof, three to four pets lurking, and despite the passing of my dad, Tom, my mom, Theresa, perseveres each year and gives our family and friends another Thanksgiving. I appreciate all the time I can get with my family but — and I say this in the most loving way possible — Thanksgiving in the Scotchie household can seem like a horror story and a very anti-Hallmark experience compared to others. I love it though.

One Thanksgiving in particular, a dog jumped on the table and ran off with a fair share of the ham and one of my brothers in tow. I believe it was that same Thanksgiving that when it was time for each family member at the table to declare what they were thankful for, someone said he was thankful for Waffle House, earning him a not-so-playful glare from Mom.

And quite naturally, at my mom’s country home there are plenty of outside activities to keep you entertained while the food is being prepared. Those activities have consisted of one brother chasing another brother down on a dirt bike, at least one skateboard-induced injury, the occasional fireworks explosion and plenty of loud music. Our neighbors love us.

Andrew Scotchie is the frontman for the band Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats and founder of Asheville Barnaroo festival.

Tracy Rose

Confessions are good for the soul, and I confess that it’s been hard to pick just one Thanksgiving horror story to tell. There was the year of the flaming oven mitt, the year the meal got cold while I tried to boil down homemade gravy to an acceptable thickness, the year it slowly dawned on my husband and me that the oven was never going to get any hotter than 200 degrees.

But Thanksgiving 2006 stands out. That was the year we decided to roast a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, thinking that was the ticket to Easy Street. As it turns out, that 4-pound breast must have come from a truly massive bird and required way more cooking time that I had calculated. The result? Thanksgiving dinner was ready and on the table at 10:15 p.m., complete with green beans that had been boiled down to mush and stuffing that, in an unrelated incident, was missing three main ingredients.

That year marked a turning point of holiday meal preparation at our home. Since then, we have enjoyed a streak of perfectly timed turkeys, properly mashed potatoes and green beans that still favor their original shape. The difference? With only the faintest twinge of regret, I handed over almost all holiday kitchen duties to my spouse. And that is something for which our whole family can be thankful.

Tracy Rose is a budding visual artist and the Opinion editor at Mountain Xpress.

Jane Anderson

I was born and raised in the little town of Titusville in northwestern Pennsylvania, known as the birthplace of the American oil industry. My small family — Mom, Dad and one brother — became smaller when my Dad died suddenly when I was 16. It was important — very important — for us to keep all of the Swedish and German traditions he valued alive for my mother.

On one particular Thanksgiving, we had a small but very traditional family Thanksgiving at my mother’s modern ranch-style home. My brother and his wife did most of the preparation — including Brussels sprouts, which I tried hard to like and at least consume politely. Unfortunately, the first one in my mouth forced me to run from the dining room table to the closest bathroom, where it was promptly regurgitated. I was embarrassed, to say the least, but the best was yet to come.

In preparation to do the dishes — crusty turkey pan, mashed sweet potatoes and all — the faucet on the kitchen sink broke. There was no water and a pile of dirty dishes, pots and pans. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that night it was. We proceeded to wash and dry the entire mess in the bathtub on our knees. We created a production line and had them done in no time. The plumber arrived the following day, and all was right with the world. I still detest Brussels sprouts and am amazed to see their incredible popularity with Asheville’s finest restaurants.

Jane Anderson is the executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurants.

Max Hunt

On the day before Thanksgiving my sophomore year at Warren Wilson, I was involved in a pretty nasty car accident that forced me to stay on campus for the holiday break.

After gathering the entire $25 I had on hand, I made a harrowing trip on foot down Tunnel Road to Ingles on Thanksgiving Day. I returned that evening to cook up a lavish Thanksgiving feast consisting of a grilled PB&J sandwich, a can of vegetable alphabet soup and a Pabst Blue Ribbon, which I enjoyed alone in the common room of my deserted dorm. I found out later that Warren Wilson had a Thanksgiving dinner for students on campus, but I didn’t learn about it until after it was over.

Later that night, I managed to lock myself out of my dorm room when I went to use the restroom. I proceeded to traipse around campus in 30-degree weather with nothing on but a pair of pajama pants and a T-shirt — stepping on a piece of glass in my bare feet in the process — looking for someone to unlock my door for me. After an hour spent trying to find the RA on duty, I finally found one from another dorm.

Unfortunately, he did not have the key to my room either. So after warming myself up with some wine he had on hand, we led a Black Ops mission to break into the facilities building, hijacked the master key and finally got me into my room. We spent the rest of the evening hanging out, finishing his wine and generally having a good ol’ time.

Max Hunt is a staff writer at Mountain Xpress.

Toni Sherwood

Mom’s place, Asheville, circa 1997: My brother and I are in town for Thanksgiving. We watch as Mom’s born-again Christian boyfriend “Doug” exits his car with two flamboyant characters in tow.

“Looks like Doug found a couple of victims,” I say. “Oh stop it,” Mom says. “You kids are terrible.”

Doug proudly introduces us to “Terry” and “Sam,” explaining that God told him to stop and ask them to dinner. God’s selection was an interesting one, since they both looked well-fed and not in need of charity. Fortunately, they were funny and nice.

We sit at the table as Doug begins an excruciatingly long prayer. Like, “Are you kidding?” long. As he drones on, my brother and I sneak glances at each other, making faces, trying not to explode with laughter. Finally, we start eating in awkward silence.

“Terry’s an actress,” Doug says suddenly. “She’s in a play in Flat Rock. Isn’t that something?”

We exchange glances: She? Terry was obviously a gay man, as was Sam. But Doug had mistaken Terry’s effeminate features and pegged them for a straight couple! Turns out God had a damned good sense of humor. And I finally understood why Doug had to be born so many times.

Toni Sherwood is an Asheville writer, director, comedian and puppeteer.

Sarah Fielding

When I was about 8 or 9 years old I was a hardcore vegetarian. On Thanksgiving I decided I was going to sneak into the kitchen, steal the Thanksgiving turkey, take it out to the backyard and give it a proper burial. I almost made it! My mom caught me just in time. I wore all black (and sunglasses) the entire rest of Thanksgiving so that everyone in my family would know I was in mourning. Needless to say, that story gets told every year at our family Thanksgiving.

Sarah Fielding is the brand ambassador at Roots Hummus.

Esther Manheimer

A couple of years ago I was running the Turkey Trot in Asheville with family and friends. I started running only in the last several years, but I was pretty proud of my progress. Running the Trot was a great way to spend time with family and mitigate the damage I was about to do later that day with our traditional double-Thanksgiving (dinner with the in-laws and supper with my extended family).

It was an especially cold day, but sunny. The costumes were fabulous: turkey legs flopping like ear flaps. The run was fun, but the family spread out across the course, and I ended up running the last section alone. As I made my way to finish line, I glanced up and saw the time clock — just over 30 minutes, a great run! And as I crossed the finish line, I looked around and saw that I was crossing the finish line with several firefighters who had just run the race IN FULL GEAR! Wow! While I was thankful for fun, fitness, family and friends, I was even more thankful for the hard work and dedication of the men and women of the Asheville Fire Department. Happy Thanksgiving!

Esther Manheimer is an attorney with the Van Winkle Law Firm and the mayor of Asheville.

Katie Button

I’m a Thanksgiving purist. We have a traditional meal that our family makes every year with our traditional sides, and as a little girl, I would scowl and grumble if my mother even tried to do something different. So, one year, when I was told that we would be having grilled lobster with potatoes and onions instead of turkey and brandied sweet potato soufflé, I was extremely skeptical. However, the fact that we would be having it on vacation in the Bahamas did soften the blow somewhat, and I reluctantly agreed.

But on Thanksgiving, after hours of fruitless diving, my Dad — who usually would fill a bag with lobster — came up empty-handed dive after dive. As the sun began to set, and with the market now closed, the only things in our pantry were those potatoes, onions and a couple of cans of smoked salmon that my mother had luckily stashed in her suitcase.

This was the only Thanksgiving where no one asked for seconds. It wasn’t the food that was memorable, but the laughter and joking about a meal most likely not to be replicated at any other Thanksgiving table. To this day we laugh and tell that story almost every Thanksgiving.

Chef Katie Button operates Asheville’s Cúrate bar de tapas and Nightbell restaurant along with her parents, Elizabeth and Ted Button, and her husband, Félix Meana.

Jeff Miller

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of the value it places on gratitude, and the setting for this is gathering around a feast with our dearest family and friends. Like many people, I was raised in a house where Thanksgiving was also synonymous with watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and later falling asleep watching the Dallas Cowboys play football on TV. But in the late fall of 2000, I traveled to northern Italy for white truffle season and spent Thanksgiving Day in Florence.

Of course, Thanksgiving is just another Thursday in Florence. Like any other day, the streets smelled of freshly brewed espresso blended with exhaust fumes from the hundreds of Vespa scooters. And although as a bright-eyed young chef questing for flavor and experiences, I was having the trip of a lifetime, I couldn’t help feeling homesick for Thanksgiving traditions.

Following the adage “When in Rome …” — or Florence in my case — I began to look for symbolic alternates throughout my day. My parade was the stream of Vespas that crossed paths with this American tourist wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Fior. My Thanksgiving dinner was a memorable meal eaten with two French travelers. We shared stories and gratitude over braised chicken stomachs (tripe) in a rich, earthy gravy with a side of soft polenta. As it turns out, I would take that meal over turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy any day.

Jeff Miller is the proprietor, chef and “pit boss” at Luella’s Bar-B-Que.

Terrilyn Chance

It was Thanksgiving Day 1967, and my mom had gone all out preparing a huge meal for our family and friends. As many Italian women of her generation, Mom took pride in her culinary skills. Up early preparing her famous cornbread-and-sausage stuffing for our 20-pound turkey, Mom and I worked in tandem getting the turkey stuffed and into the oven. The smell of the roasting bird wafted throughout the house, and the whole family eagerly awaited our holiday dinner.

When the turkey was done, Mom placed the bird on the sideboard alongside her freshly baked pumpkin pie. While the turkey was cooling, Mom — per holiday tradition — was “absent” having one of her regular afternoon cocktails. And when the cat’s away the mice — or dog, in this case — will play.

Unbeknownst to anyone, our dog, a German shepherd by the name of Foxy Lady, sneaked into the kitchen, quietly removed the turkey from the platter and proceeded to eat the whole thing, including the stuffing, stripping the bird down to the carcass. Being the feisty girl that she was, Foxy then ate most of the pumpkin pie too — you can’t have turkey and stuffing without pumpkin pie!

Needless to say, my mother was furious, cursing in Italian, condemning both of us to hell for the rest of eternity. My family ended up going to a local Chinese restaurant for Thanksgiving that year. It might not have been the turkey meal we were anticipating, but it was one of the best Thanksgiving stories we shared at our table in the years to come.

Terrilynn Chance is a graphic designer at Mountain Xpress.


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