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C. Fraser Smith: Turkey served with all the stories

MANDEVILLE, La. — Turkeys get the ink at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but stories are the real centerpiece.

Starting with family updates, story time offers a feast of its own. We hear about the cheerleader who married the football star, about the truck with the too-strong engine, about the really big tree that fell on Vessie J, about recipes, about home-building regulations in flood zones and about public works history. There’s no app for any of that.

We convened this year in sight of Lake Pontchartrain and the 24-mile causeway that brought these North Shore suburbs 50 minutes closer to New Orleans. Ferries and other bridges took a lot longer.

So, which governor built the causeway and when?

Vesey J will know. He’s sitting — quietly holding court, actually — at a large, picnic-style table in the expansive kitchen.

“1954,” he says. (He’s close.)

Who was the governor then, I ask? I’m wondering if it was Jimmie Davis, the former country singer and author of “You Are My Sunshine.” Vesey J’s not sure. He calls his wife, Sue, over to the table. She’s not sure either. Google is not handy. We are left to find out the old-fashioned way. The question makes the rounds of the gathered family, 20 or 30 or so.

“It was Davis,” someone whispers to me a few minutes later.

But, come on, you may be thinking, what about the turkey? It’s been well taken care of. My son Jake’s brined, Louisiana-style bird can be found along the crowded mid-kitchen island. It shares space with local specialties like sweet corn grits (a creamy delight made this year by Reagan, the host’s 14-year-old daughter), broccoli, various salads, a sweet potato soufflé, a casserole featuring mirliton (defined as a vegetable pear) and chicken and dumplins. (No, there is no “g” in dumplins.)

The verdict on Jake’s turkey?

“The man can cook,” someone says.

“It’s a gift,” says another solemnly. “A gift.”

But back to the stories.

History source Vesey J and Sue Richardson are part of an extended family, gathered in by Jake’s sister-in-law Laura, a nurse at nearby St. Tammany Hospital. We are blessed by Laura’s outsized mothering instinct. Years ago, she heard Vessie J and Sue were going to be alone on Thanksgiving.

“We’re not having that,” she said (or words to that effect). And so the family grew. Vesey J and Sue are honorary uncle and aunt now.

The freeform story hour goes on from room to room without segue.

The host, Rick Fogarty, is in the market for a new truck. Proceed with caution, he’s advised. One attractive model has a fabulous engine — but a weak transmission. The one can overpower the other.

One of Laura’s three sons, 14, has had his gall bladder removed.

“You don’t need a gall bladder,” someone observed.

Football’s on the wide screen.

“I hate reading about the horrendous injuries,” I say.

“No more dangerous than fishing in Alaska,” my son says. Football and fishing, he suggests, just ways to make a living. Everybody involved knows what they’re in for.

Speaking of what you’re in for, it’s party season. Kids come home from college. A young people’s bash the night before — 10 boys and 10 girls — demanded attention — and measured words. And still, suspicious wheel marks turn up on a neighbor’s lawn.

While oysters are shucked at the foot of the outside stairs, our host says FEMA requires 10-foot space between the ground and first floor for new houses near the big lake. No complaint about government regulations here. He’s pushed his house even higher.

Back in Baltimore, I learn that Earl Long of the famous Long family was governor when the causeway opened in 1956. Gov. John J. McKeithen presided in 1969 when the second span was inaugurated.

Another bridge over Shreveport way was named for Jimmie Davis. He and the late Victor Frenkil became friends when Frenkil’s company did some work on in Louisiana.

But that’s another story entirely.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.