A Thanksgiving tradition like none other

11/28/2013 7:00 AM |

LEONARD VAN VLIET COURTESY PHOTO | Leonard Van Vliet and his sister Mary Gibson looking over old family photos during a recent Thanksgiving celebration. Each year Ms. Gibson creates a family tree and updates it with photos so family members can trace their history.

If there’s one family that exemplifies the meaning of tradition, it’s the Dougherty family, a 165-plus bunch that makes it a point to ensure that each Thanksgiving Day celebration is memorable.

Next Thursday, Dougherty family members from near and far will gather at the Moose Lodge in Riverhead to prepare and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner — for about the 50th year in a row.

Five generations have taken part in the custom, initiated by six Dougherty siblings — Claire, Catherine, Margaret, David, John and Madeline — to honor their late grandfather, David, known to them as “Pappy.”

LENNY VAN VLIET COURTESY PHOTO | Each year staples like stuffing and mashed potatoes need to be prepared the same way — cooked according to old family recipes.

“He had tons of coins on a dresser and all around the house. They took all the change and said let’s go to dinner,” said Leonard Van Vliet, Madeline Dougherty’s son.

That first Thanksgiving dinner, held in 1960 at the Crossroads Restaurant in Rocky Point, was attended by about 40 family members “as a celebration of Pappy.”

With the dinner a success, the family wanted to make it an annual event but needed to find a larger, more welcoming location where they could prepare a meal to feed the masses.

A year or so later, Mr. Van Vliet said, his uncle David Dougherty Jr., who was suffering from polio at the time, was honored by Moose International for saving two children who had fallen into Merritts Pond in Riverhead, which had frozen over. He was 12 when it happened.

The awards dinner was held at the Moose Lodge in Riverhead “and that’s how we got to the Moose,” where the tradition has been rooted since 1962, he said.

With more than five decades of practice, the family has gotten preparation for the event down to a science, with each person contributing to the effort.

“Everyone’s jobs are posted and color coordinated on three big poster boards as you enter the lodge,” said Mr. Van Vliet’s daughter, Kayleigh Baig. “No one can say they didn’t know their job.”

Ms. Baig happens to be a chef and is assigned to the kitchen with eight to 10 others — including her dad. Those Thursday mornings, the two can be found opening up the Moose Lodge and donning white chef’s jackets, with their individual sets of chef’s knives in tow.

As family members begin to arrive, the meal starts to take shape, including at least four 25-pound (or larger) birds, 50 pounds of potatoes, 17 pounds of turnips, six heads of cauliflower and numerous pounds of canned beans among a variety of other sides and desserts.

In keeping with tradition, the potatoes must always be kept plain and the stuffing must always be prepared the same way.

“For some reason the stuffing is a big deal,” Mr. Van Vliet said. Fifteen loaves of stuffing bread are broken up and cooked according to his late Aunt Edith’s recipe.

“It is a glutinous mash that everyone wants from their childhood,” he said.

PHOTO COURTESY LENNY VAN VLIET | David ‘Pappy’ Dougherty (from left) with sons David Jr. and John. The annual Thanksgiving dinner is used as a way to honor Pappy.

A few other customs include a fruit salad prepared with cherries and bananas and about 12 pounds of shrimp to start — served annually in a three-tier crystal tower that Ms. Baig said has been in use since the first family Thanksgiving at the lodge.

Numerous eight-foot-long tables are set up in a U-shape and dressed with name cards assigning everyone a seat.

The oldest living child from each of the six original Dougherty siblings sits at what is deemed the “head table,” which looks out over two rows of family members.

Speeches are given by a few select members of the head table, observing family accomplishments and births — as well as a reminder of Pappy, the reason why the family started such a tradition.

Mr. Van Vliet said he, his sister Mary Gibson and cousin David Dougherty III are the force keeping the tradition alive — thanks to all the work put in by family members, who travel from Mississippi and beyond to make each year’s celebration.

The Dougherty family Thanksgiving even has its own Facebook page, he said.

“The locals do a lot, but it takes the whole family working to keep the whole family together,” Mr. Van Vliet said. “No matter how far away we are, we still communicate with each other, even if it’s one cousin to another, who then passes it on to their respective siblings — and thank God for Facebook.”

To give back to the Moose Lodge, the family awards a high school senior whose parent or grandparent is an active member of the Riverhead lodge a $500 scholarship, to be used toward the college or university of their choice.

To win the scholarship, applicants must each write an essay on the appropriate topic “what Thanksgiving means to me.”

The Doughertys have also started contributing to the organization’s building revitalization fund, in part to help ensure that the Moose Lodge can house their family’s tradition for years to come.

cmiller@timesreview.com

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