Despite its utter simplicity, I’d forgotten how to make the potato stuffing that was featured in the Thanksgivings of my childhood, so I emailed my more orderly brother for help. He kindly replied with the recipe our mother long ago recorded as “Haley Potato Stuffing.”
The very name was evocative. The recipe is a legacy of my mother’s grandfather, John Haley, an adored and doting avuncular presence in her childhood, whom she always addressed as “Bompoo.”
In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, 21-year-old John Haley was a corporal in Company E of the 157th New York Regiment. With his 23-year-old brother, Thomas, he had enlisted less than a year before, and both young men had been through quite a bit during their short military careers, leaving the sentinel camps around Washington for a particularly ugly tour:
First to Fredricksburg to help stack frozen corpses on a hillside, and then, after a long trek through cold rain and knee-deep mud, to Chancellorsville, where the army in which they marched was cut to pieces and nearly annihilated, and finally to the stifling fields around the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Thomas was mauled in one of the initial fusillades of that battle and carried down into the town where Union surgeons sawed off one of his legs.
When Thomas died 10 days later, Bompoo was with the rest of the regiment in pursuit of the retreating Confederate army. He and the other Haleys had only recently learned of their loss and were doubtless still absorbing the shock and heartbreak when they heard a presidential proclamation that the last Thursday of November would henceforth be set apart “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
The proclamation — written in atrociously purple prose by William Seward, Lincoln’s excitable Secretary of State — made appreciative reference to the “fruitful fields and healthful skies” in which America was luxuriating that autumn. Seward pluckily noted that even “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.”
Americans were to give thanks that, although we were busy disemboweling our own nation, foreign states were obligingly distracted by their own affairs. And that “everywhere except” most of our country, our country was at peace. And that despite, “needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence,” crops were plentiful, mines were disgorging coal and iron, babies were being born and good times were coming.
In other words, despite the ongoing slaughter and rapine which were the most conspicuous and inescapable features of American life, despite the fact that teenagers from Alabama and Louisiana were killing and maiming and being killed and maimed by teenagers from Wisconsin and New York, despite the fact that our sons and brothers and fathers were dying, enslaved, imprisoned, starving, or languishing in befouled medical tents, we really had a lot to be thankful for. Those fruitful fields and healthful skies.
Whether the Haleys had their potato stuffing recipe worked out by 1863 or it came with them from Ireland, where potatoes were more staple than side dish, I wonder if they observed that first “official” Thanksgiving with two boys were gone from the table, one forever and the other decidedly in harm’s way. The sorts of things going on today in Gaza were intimate to them.
They could be forgiven for overlooking what Seward’s fatuous proclamation called “these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come [and] which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
But I hope they didn’t, as I hope those of us who enjoy Haley Potato Stuffing this Thanksgiving won’t.
I hope they remembered what I hope we will remember. That Jesus didn’t even bother to include thanks in the words He gave us to pray. That perhaps it didn’t seem necessary for the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, to include specific reference to gratitude. That perhaps He assumes gratitude to be constitutional with us, buried, smoldering and invisible as coals in an untended hearth.
That perhaps He will breathe his generous Spirit on them once again this Thanksgiving, and smile into the roar of our answering warmth.
Haley Potato Stuffing
Yield: 3 cups
2 cups mashed potatoes (no milk)
¼ cup dry bread crumbs
1 finely ground onion
1/3 cup melted butter
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sage (or less)
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Boil and mash potatoes. Melt butter. Add egg. Mix dry ingredients. Combine all and add onion.
For a 10 lb. turkey multiply recipe X 4. So use 5 lbs. potatoes.
For a 20 lb. turkey multiply recipe X 8. Use 10 lbs. potatoes.
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public relations. Email him at email@example.com.