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Published: Sunday, 12/6/2009

Thanksgiving with horses, hounds, and lots of volunteers

It takes Richard Enk, left, and Gene Roach 15 hours to drive from Toledo to Aiken, S.C. It takes Richard Enk, left, and Gene Roach 15 hours to drive from Toledo to Aiken, S.C.
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AIKEN, S.C. - We made it here, so far and so very good. This picturesque city has been the perfect layover choice for a few days.

Digby and I like layovers. Whether it's two days or a week, it's a chance to rest from the highway and to see and learn something about the area. Some folks heading for Florida boast about how few hours it takes them to make the trip. My friends Gene Roach and Richard Enk drive from Toledo back to their home in Aiken in 15 hours nonstop.

Then why does it take the old dog and me five days? It's because we are not in a hurry or trying to set any records, though it would be easy with the new tires. It's like getting a new mattress: You don't realize how lumpy the old one was until you sleep on the new one. It's the same with investing in high-end tires. There is not only an added comfort cushion but a tendency for excessive speed if you don't watch it. More than once I was up to 80 before I realized it.

Thanksgiving, 2009, is surely one to remember in a city that is community minded and is bound to equestrian tradition and pride.

As a first timer at One Table and the Blessing of the Hounds, I thought the number of people who turned out for both was overwhelming.

At One Table, the free three-hour community Thanksgiving dinner, an estimated 2,500 people lined up, filled plates with traditional foods, and sat down at tables covered with appropriate tablecloths and centerpieces to enjoy the meal set to a background of gospel music. One thousand volunteers made it happen. Could we do the same in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan? Of course we could.

At the Blessing of the Hounds, a traditional hunting ceremony, more than 500 people walked a mile or more down the path through Hitchcock Woods to hear and to participate in the blessing directed by a local priest and to see horses, riders, and hounds ready for the first meet of the season.

My first clue of the big public Thanksgiving feast on the horizon was Wednesday night when Digby and I were taking our walk near our downtown motel. The men manning five massive cookers explained that by morning 156 turkeys would be roasted, smoked, or grilled and cooled for the boning committee members who, wearing white sanitation gloves, would tear up the birds, leaving only boneless, skinless meat for the dinner.

Meanwhile, in church kitchens throughout the city and beyond, more volunteers were preparing the rest of the dinner: dressing, gravy, corn on the cob, rolls, slaw, and macaroni and cheese. Add to that hundreds of pies and cakes and a choice of beverages.

It's amazing what volunteers can accomplish. Miraculously, Aiken's community organization, based on five years of experience, brought it all together. When we took our evening walk on Thanksgiving there was no sign of the event three hours before.

There was one thing the cleanup committee failed to do. It couldn't erase the incomparable aroma of roasted turkey. That was a good thing.

No, Gene, Richard, and I did not eat outdoors Pilgrim style at the community dinner. Rather, we dressed up in our best to keep reservations at the elite Green Boundary Club. The club chef chose not to cook whole turkeys but to rely on processed turkey rolls. How much easier that convenience would have been for the One Table volunteers than the many hours they hovered over the whole birds.

Aiken is notably horse country that is marked by stables, tracks, and painted horse statues in whimsical designs. Jimmy Aiken, a highly respected employee at Carranor Hunt and Polo Club in Perrysburg, came there as a young groom from Aiken.

Hitchcock Woods is an important part of Aiken's history as a winter resort and figures prominently in horse sporting activities. The 2,000 acres are in the center of the urban area and folks here like to compare it to New York's Central Park in size and location.

But there is one major difference in maintaining the woods. Here there are trails, jumps, and bridges for the equestrians. Whether horse and rider are just out for a jolly jaunt or engaged in a competitive meet, the forest is friendly.

The prayer that preceded the first meet, or hunt, included "foxes that partake in the chase." But, the good news for wildlife crusaders like myself is that the foxes are safe in their dens during hunts. Drags impregnated with a fox scent are dragged over the trails in the woods. The hounds, apparently easily fooled, are just as happy as they would be chasing a live fox. The eager dogs let out some joyful howling during the ceremony.

The blessing softened the hunt by defining it as a "sport of fellowship which harms no being."

That line certainly made my Thanksgiving.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com



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