Every family has its very own weird Thanksgiving food. A strange dish that sits, undignified but delicious, amid the respectable standards of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pie.

In my family, this was Grandma E.’s whiskey slush.

Whiskey slush is a concoction akin to an icy cocktail sour. It is made with black tea, orange juice concentrate, sugar, water and Canadian whiskey. It is sweet and smooth and crunchy-cold, almost an amaretto taste, and it’s topped with a splash of grapefruit soda. It’s an odd choice for a Thanksgiving tradition. But it is woven tightly into my family memories.

Thanksgiving time seemed colder then, even bitter, and the slush was mixed in old ice cream buckets and set on Grandma’s back step to freeze overnight. On Thanksgiving Day, my father’s huge, loud family would trample into the tiny old farmhouse, arguing and shouting and squabbling and hugging. Dozens and dozens and yet more dozens of us lined up for our turn at a row of roasters filled with turkey and beef. Pots of mashed potatoes so large they could serve a restaurant. Side dishes for every taste stacked in every kitchen corner. Pies and cookies piled double just so there was enough room for every treat. 

No table short of a king’s could hope to accommodate us, so we sat on barstools and at a dining room table meant for eight. And on the couch. And the rocking chairs. And the nubby carpet of the living room floor. We jockeyed and elbowed for the best spots in front of the TV — unless you were at the bottom of the age-defined pecking order, in which case you must simply shut up and be grateful for your pie.

After dinner, we divided. The washers, chatting and doing dishes. The watchers, giggling over a movie or yelling at football. The planners, with pens and sale ads spread out over the dining room table. The little ones, running and squealing and leaping over the nappers, who sprawled on the floor. Grandma was like a queen in our midst, kissing babies, admonishing her sons, all of us at her knee or her right hand, pleading with her to recline and relax. And all the while, the grownups dipped ladlefuls of sweet whiskey slush. It was our dearest wish as kids to be big enough to have some, and we stole close to sniff the sharp, heavy smell of whiskey and stare and dare each other to take a nip.

Then, one year, it was all gone.

Both my grandmother and her home perished in a fire in January 2011, and there were no more Thanksgivings at the little old farmhouse.

On Thanksgiving 2011, my husband and I were young adults living in Billings, Montana, far away from home. I was thousands of miles away from the grief of my family, but very close to loneliness and loss of my own. I missed home. I missed Grandma. I missed my folks, my sisters, my seven uncles, my nine aunts, my dozens and dozens of cousins. I craved some small thing that would bring me close to them in our shared love and pain, closer than just a card or a text or a phone call during dinner. I wanted whiskey slush. But how to find it? Could I make it? Grandma’s recipes had lived only in her own memory. She never wrote anything down. I sat at my laptop and tentatively typed “whiskey slush” into the search bar. I was not expecting much.

But there, amid only a few other results, was the recipe. It was unadorned, no photo, no fanfare. But it was titled “Grandma’s Whiskey Slush.”

There is a feeling that’s not quite a blood-running-cold feeling. It’s not quite a creepy-crawly feeling. It’s a bit like these, but it’s much better. It’s a feeling that the universe has suddenly gotten very small and very close and very thin. That those who are far are near, that anything is possible, and that someone who was supposed to be gone is standing right beside you, pulling the tiniest of strings for no other reason than to make you happy. Serendipity doesn’t really even describe it. Synchronicity doesn’t either. It’s a family feeling made wide and tall and perfect. A “kingdom of heaven” feeling. It’s absolute comfort and surprise and joy, even for the tiniest of moments.

I made slush on my own back porch that Northern winter and several years since. I don’t know whose Grandma my slush recipe actually belongs to. Some other sweet, beloved woman, I guess. It’s still on AllRecipes.com and you can go see it. But for just a homesick Montana moment, it was Grandma Edna Eberlin’s Thanksgiving whiskey slush, and I was completely at peace.

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