Picture Above: Grandpa Jack, me, and Grandma Ruthie back in the day when I rocked bangs.

I wrote this piece a few years back for our church’s cookbook. I hope you like it and the recipe that accompanies it. The event described in the piece took place sometime around 1992 or 1993, I believe.

Indoor Smoke Signals

By Chad Thomas Johnston

When my sister Alyssa and I first felt our eyes sting from the smoke, we were engaged in a feisty bout of fisticuffs. Our parents were in another room, and we were only one folding chair away from engaging in a full-blown wrestling match without any risk of reprimand.

What were we fighting about? I have no idea. Sibling stuff, probably. Fourteen-year-old boys don’t keep logbooks detailing their fights with their nine-year-old sisters. I only remember the smoke with any real clarity.

Our Grandma Ruthie’s kitchen had become a domestic dragon that belched black smoke, making our eyes squint and tear up. Alyssa and I ceased to scrap and began to cough instead.

What on Earth is happening? I wondered. Is Grandma trying to communicate that Thanksgiving dinner’s ready using indoor smoke signals?

Our family had traveled from Missouri to Indiana a few days prior for our annual Turkey Day trek to visit Grandma Ruthie and Grandpa Jack—my mother’s parents. “Over the cornfields and through the cornfields / to grandmother’s house we go,” the Indiana adaptation of the song goes. “The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through cornfields and also more corn-f-i-i-i-elds!

Grandma had a poodle—one that is integral to this smoky story, in fact—named Libby. She was neither the first poodle Grandma owned, nor the first named Libby. In fact, immediately after the first canine named Libby croaked, Grandma adopted an identical poodle as if she were simply changing out a lightbulb, and named her Libby, too.

The reader who’s thinking, “Gee, that’s . . . well, weird,” is one step ahead of my fourteen-year-old self. I remember rejoicing when I learned of Libby II because her existence meant I would be able to see Libby “again” when next we visited Indiana. I mean, I knew it wasn’t the same dog, of course—but it was basically the same dog, right?

Grandma fed Libby hot dogs, positioning that poor poodle as something of a cannibal—a dog that ate hot dogs. We should not have been surprised then, when Grandma took it upon herself to prepare the parts of the turkey that no one else wanted—the neck, the gizzard, the heart, etc.—for Libby that Thanksgiving.

She placed all of these parts in a dish with the intent of microwaving them for thirty seconds. All would have been well had she not selected minutes instead of seconds on the keypad.

Alyssa and I stumbled through the billowing smoke—feeling for the walls with our hands and tripping over bric-a-brac—and into Grandma’s kitchen, where she stood, staring at the burnt remains of bird innards. They were blacker than Rasputin’s soul.

That year, as with every Thanksgiving, Grandma made a special dish just for Alyssa and me. “Mother’s Special Sweet and Sour Sausage” had always satiated us, but that year it was more of a sin offering than anything else—a pleasing aroma in our nostrils after the smell of something both foul and fowl. We forgave grandma, and we feasted. I only regret that we did not smear her forehead with turkey ashes to formally absolve her.


By Ruthie Cummins

1 lb. smoked sausage

1 can of pineapple, diced, with juice

½ green bell pepper, diced

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup vinegar

3 Tbsp. soy sauce

Heat to boiling for five minutes. Serve and enjoy. Serves four.