The New England Butt’ry Shelf Cookbook, written in 1969 by Mary Mason Campbell, is one of the most perfect works of nostalgia ever published. Ms. Campbell runs through the year’s calendar, remembering her New Hampshire family’s idyllic holiday celebrations: Fourth of July picnics on the river, Valentine’s Day children’s parties, Hallowe’en revels, all accompanied by lots of homemade food and liberally supplemented with stores from the eponymous buttery, or pantry.
As a child, I was understandably obsessed with this book. From the vantage point of my own chaotic household, the order and tradition of the year Campbell described seemed indescribably appealing. For some reason, one vignette made a particular impression on me. The author describes how, every Thanksgiving, her grandfather (who had a good baritone) would summon all the guests to table by booming out “The Doxology.”
At the time, I didn’t know what “The Doxology” was. Lacking Internet, I asked my mom, who explained it was an alternate name for “Old Hundredth,” one of the most canonical of traditional hymns. And then I realized that I sort of knew it—we sang a version of it, with Pete Seeger’s ecumenical lyrics, at my progressive elementary school. (Although we omitted the lyrics “Between the white, black, red, and brown,” because by the mideighties that was considered racist.)
One Thanksgiving—I was probably about ten—I decided to conjure a little of the magic of Campbell’s book. We might not have had the pineapple-pattern damask, the incomparable flavor of the tin-roaster turkey (which everyone would turn as they passed), or the cornucopian relish tray. But damned if I couldn’t play “The Doxology” when it was time to eat.
I sat down at the piano, opened the hymnal, and, with great gravitas, played a halting and terrible version of #134. No one seemed very impressed. Certainly no one took this as a signal to file reverently into the dining room. In point of fact, no one noticed.
“DINNER!” my mother yelled. Everyone charged out.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.