A framed print on the counter explains why Emily Chatham’s kitchen plays so big a part in her life. Surrounding a couple of whimsically painted human figures, it has a few phrases of text.
There are things we do that may not make sense and may not make us money, it says. But we do them because they feel right, and they “may be the real reason we’re here: to love each other and to eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.”
“That resonates with me deeply,” Chatham says.
She’s busy putting the sentiment to work. As she has for the past 20 or so Thanksgivings, she’s preparing a dinner for her very extended family: her husband, their children and her fellow musicians in the Charlotte Symphony.
Chatham’s violin is resting in its case. This week, rather than re-creating Mozart or Tchaikovsky, she’s making music in the kitchen.
On Wednesday morning, the turkey, a 20-pounder, has finished thawing. Brownies are in the oven. Favorite recipes from her native Kentucky are at hand – such as her perennial crowd-pleaser, corn pudding.
The Thanksgiving feast will take over the living room in Chatham’s south Charlotte home. With a little help from plywood, ordinary-sized dining tables will combine for a mega-table that seats 18. It will be full Thursday.
“There’s something special to me about breaking bread with people,” Chatham, 52, says. “That’s just how I love on people – by feeding them.”
‘First big mistake’
The sentiment goes back to her childhood in Shelbyville, Ky., about 30 miles east of Louisville. Both of Chatham’s grandmothers were good cooks, she recalls. Her father, a physician, was a casual chef with a knack for taking whatever was in the refrigerator and making a tasty meal. While she didn’t learn the skills at anyone’s knee – she points instead to one-day cooking courses – she soaked up the atmosphere.
During college at the UNC School of the Arts, Chatham already was inviting schoolmates to get together for meals when they couldn’t go home for holidays. A dinner when she was 19 or 20 – maybe at Thanksgiving – included her “first big mistake.”
“You know that little plastic bag of giblets? I somehow just skipped over that,” she says. “As it was cooking, I thought, ‘Why does this thing smell so weird?’ It looked good on the outside. When I figured it out, I was completely appalled.”
Nevertheless, once that was cleared up, the dinner was a success.
“It went over so well and it was so much fun, I just got hooked,” Chatham says. “There are always people around who are happy to have a place to go, whether it’s a holiday or not.”
Dinner for orchestra
That came into play after Chatham joined the Charlotte Symphony’s violin section in 1986.
Orchestral musicians are big on camaraderie and after-hours relaxation, from a few beers after a concert to a fishing trip on a day off. That may be the natural response to a job that’s built on having people watching and listening to everything you do.
“A lot of people don’t understand ... how mentally intense this can be,” Chatham says. “You have to have an enormous amount of focus and concentration. ... You have to be on your game. And if you’re not, it can really show.”
Most years, she says, the orchestra works during Thanksgiving week. That means the players only have Thursday off, making trips to visit family impossible. So Chatham moves into the gap, and 15 to 20 people usually come to her table.
The planning starts weeks in advance, Chatham says. She uses a notebook to keep track of the guest list, menu and other details in a single place. She does her shopping at the Morrocroft Harris Teeter on the Monday of Thanksgiving week: If you wait much later, she says, “you’re taking your life in your hands.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Chatham is up by 6 a.m. to put the turkey in the oven. Meanwhile, her family takes care of another ritual in their front yard: setting up the inflatable, 8-foot-tall Thanksgiving mascot they call Mr. Turkey. All the guests have their photo taken with him.
‘A sacred mission’
While Chatham doesn’t necessarily draw the parallel herself, she obviously believes music has the same power as food to draw us together.
She and a few other symphony members have a side group called the Carolina Chamber Players. Weddings are their bread and butter, and Chatham says they’ve played at more than 1,000 over the past 20 years or so.
But they take part in more somber occasions, too. In July, the group played for the funeral of Robbie Cannon, one of the four N.C. Air National Guard members killed in a plane crash while fighting a wildfire.
“I felt honored to be able to do that,” Chatham says.
Cannon lived in Chatham’s neighborhood, and “I had seem him just the week before. Talk about a vibrant, amazing guy.”
“If we can use our music to help people – whether it’s help them celebrate in a time of joy, or give them some comfort in a time of grief – I feel like that’s why I’m here,” Chatham says.
“It’s almost a sacred mission, in a way. It’s not just a gig.”