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Janine Talley’s journal: Bruce never went home hungry on Turkey Day

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since Tim Graham’s feature article about Darryl and me, “Broke and Broken,” ran in The Buffalo News. His words changed our lives. We have so much to be thankful for. Our gratitude extends to so many for initiating our lives to take a reversal of direction for the better.

I’m eternally thankful for the peace of mind that this past year has brought our family: from the superior medical care Darryl is receiving from the fine staff at Massachusetts General Hospital, to the outpouring of comfort, encouragement and aid from friends, fans and strangers who connected with our story, to the Buffalo Bills who reached out to Darryl when he needed their support.

For Darryl, me and our daughters, this year’s Thanksgiving represents 365 days of forging ahead, a milestone that we didn’t think possible 366 days ago.

This time of year also calls to mind the dozen Thanksgivings that Darryl and I spent in Buffalo, 10 of which were celebrated with Bruce and Carmen Smith. Cooking for Bruce was quite an event. As one might imagine, Bruce ate Thanksgiving dinner much in the same way as he ate quarterbacks and he anticipated the meal as much as he did the snap of the football.

As Darryl headed out the door to practice on Thanksgiving morning, Carmen was coming in the door to cook a feast with me, pots and pans and ingredients in tow. We were habitual with our menu, sticking to the same turkey and cornbread dressing (Darryl’s mother’s recipe), spiral-sliced ham and sides of green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, potato salad, candied sweet potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce and gravy for a decade. With the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade echoing in the background, we’d set out peeling and chopping vegetables for dressing and potato salad, mix and roll pie crusts for apple and pumpkin pies and wrestle in the sink with an 18 pound turkey to cooperate long enough to get it seasoned, stuffed and into the oven. All this while answering the phone numerous times, on the other end Bruce calling to see where we were in the cooking process.

He’d ask what time dinner was then set us back an hour interrupting with countless calls to see what we were now making. Every time I’d stop what I was doing to answer the phone and hand it to Carmen, the receiver would build a little more of a crust of Thanksgiving dinner ingredients on its shell. He used his breaks between his meetings, calling from the phone in the locker room (there were no cell phones 30 years ago), asking Carmen to tell him in great detail what was in the oven and what we were currently preparing. He’d then find Darryl and update him. Newsflash: Darryl couldn’t have cared less. As far as he knew, we had a magic wand and the food appeared on the table when he walked through the door.

An 18-pound turkey for four adults gives you an idea of how much Bruce ate in one evening. He’d skip breakfast and lunch and build himself up to a Thanksgiving dinner crescendo. Darryl didn’t even attempt an eating contest with Bruce. It was one of the few times in life when competition didn’t grip him.

For those of you who remember Bruce’s adrenalized grin after winning the first AFC Championship, transplant that grin to my kitchen as he watched Darryl carve the whopping bird. He just about shook as Carmen and I carried the food to the dining room. Once Bruce blessed the food, the death match between him and the turkey was on. He piled his plate with everything on the table so that the food arrangement resembled a gloppy dome. A keen eyeball calculation would estimate the serving on his platter to be a few pounds. Slices of turkey and ham hung over the sides of his plate as gravy dribbled onto the placemat.

No rich, spicy Pinot Noir for Bruce. His beverage of choice to wash down turkey and trimmings was a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke, which he kept on the floor next to his right ankle. It was the easiest access after scolding him for putting the bottle on the dining table.

Through with eating two or three plates full of food that could be considered an Olympic event, Bruce would relocate himself to the sofa where he’d nap while Carmen, Darryl and I cleaned the mess. One year Darryl ribbed Bruce for not helping clean, his comeback to Darryl was, “Some men run their houses, some men run around them.” We all had a good laugh at Darryl’s expense.

When the last dish was put away, Bruce would rise a little from the sofa and request a wedge of apple pie and vanilla ice cream. How he found a hollow for desert is beyond comprehension.

While our Thanksgivings with Bruce and Carmen are the happiest of memories, they weren’t without their setbacks.

It’s not uncommon to have snow on Thanksgiving in Buffalo, and one particular Thanksgiving Eve a blizzard began before I realized I didn’t have the makings for cornbread. With grocery stores long closed for the holiday, I had no choice but to send Darryl bobsledding through the Southtowns to pick up the missing ingredient from Carmen. They met in a desolate parking lot in Hamburg, the exchange of cornmeal looking something like a scene from Law and Order. What would under normal weather conditions have been a half hour round trip, became a two hour ordeal from Orchard Park to Hamburg. It was midnight before the cornbread that was going to be used to make the dressing for the turkey went into the oven. To this day I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me or to Carmen to have her bake the cornbread at their house.

Another year Carmen boiled the potatoes at home and brought them to our house to mash. They sat hot, steaming in a sealed container like a sauna and released so much starch that the only purpose they could’ve served was to hang wallpaper.

We were kids attempting to execute family recipes without family there to guide us.

As much as Bruce’s calls irritated me all those years ago, I’d relive the experience and privilege of our Thanksgiving tradition with The Smiths without hesitation.

It wasn’t a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s my fondest memory of a holiday outside of my grandmother’s dining room I’ve ever had.

Janine Talley, wife of Buffalo Bills great Darryl Talley, is a guest columnist for The Buffalo News.