We're a bunch of shameless eaters here at the Independent, and we love trading food stories. This year, six of our regular contributors offer their recollections of the indispensable dishes that simply must appear on their Thanksgiving tables. Some of these dishes earned the title of Thanksgiving Tradition because they are so yummy. Others owe more to sociolgical circumstance and the food fashions of the times than to culinary excellence.
Whatever your preference or your own family's tradition, eat hearty this Thanksgiving and be sure to give thanks for the memories.
It started with holiday meals at the farm where my father and uncles grew up and where one uncle and all my best cousins lived. Aunt Gloria, who would laugh as she exhaled her cigarette smoke and tell us how she had snuck the most God-awful shade of deep purple lipstick as a teenager, would concoct a red Jello fantasy. I don't have the recipe, but it involved strawberry gelatin, strawberries limp from being frozen, and little balls of cream cheese, which led us to call it mothball salad. I still haven't figured out how she found the time to form all those little walnut-encrusted balls of cream cheese.
Then my grandmother came into power as the reigning Jello Queen. No holiday was complete without one of her fabulous molded creations. We went through the noxious green phase where lime Jello was combined with cottage cheese and pineapple to ill effect. The Perfection Salad stage was tolerable, with all those crunchy, shredded veggies jiggily suspended in lemon Jello. But the best was the strawberry Jello with chopped celery and chopped cranberries. It just screams Thanksgiving. I don't know what it's called but I found Grandma's recipe in the back of a 1963 cookbook of hers, so the salad, and the legend, continues.
And when we sit around the table this Thanksgiving, I'll be telling my daughters about their great-aunt Gloria and their great-grandmother Hilda, and how lucky they are to have such cool women in their ancestry.
Mine was not a family laden with tradition. My mother, for starters, had the cooking skills of a six-year-old, but with less enthusiasm. Thanksgiving dinner, however, was a slam-dunk. Who cannot cook a turkey?
Side dishes on the other hand can be a bit problematic for the occasional cook. I blessedly have no memories of anything topped with marshmallows, though I think the creamed onions may have started out in a Birdseye box. One clear Proustian memory I will always have, however, is of my mother's stuffing. She made it in a wide cast iron frying pan and, taking to heart the warnings about putting warm stuffing into a turkey, always sat the pan on the window sill, cracking the window to speed the cooling. If I live to be 100 and all my senses fail, a draft of cold air wafting warm stuffing smells -- sage, butter, onion -- will always bring Thanksgiving home.
Roots and tubers, roots and tubers, that's what Thanksgiving is all about. Boiled potatoes, baked yams, kohlrabi just pulled from the frozen ground from Grandpa's Queens backyard -- there's the humble essence of Thanksgiving on my family's table.
Of all the round and rooty foods, my favorite by far is the yam. Not the sweet potato, mind you, but the outrageously sugary, bright orange yam.
Pick the perfect size when you go to the market -- too large and you risk not achieving fluffy perfection; too small and, well, there won't be enough to satisfy you, now will there?
I hope for baked yams when I'm a Thanksgiving visitor, then silently curse the American palate when, behold, there they are but alas! crowned with brown sugar or worse, sticky marshmallows. What more do you need than a pat of salty butter to melt when you've baked the yam at 425 degrees for an hour or more and the flesh falls away from the skin, a touch of a fork yields a soft orange bite, and the aromatic steam floats heavenward to appease native and pilgrim ancestors alike?
It wasn't until I faced my first Thanksgiving table without it, that I realized my mom's amazing cranberry-orange relish was a requisite dish for such occasions. At first, it was mainly the color I missed -- an unnatural fuchsia that, like a prized accessory, can enliven even the most drab mashed-potatoes-and-gravy outfit. But upon commencing the meal, I realized that its true role was as the ultimate palate-cleanser: tangy and tingly, making you forget every bite you've taken before.
I haven't made that mistake again. All you need is a package or two of real cranberries, three or four good oranges, some walnuts and some sugar. (My mom was never one for using traditional measurements, but she suggests the ratio of cranberries to oranges should be about 4 to 1.) So quarter the oranges, toss them -- rind and all -- in a food processor with the cranberries and walnuts and let 'er rip until you get a consistency you like. (I like it fairly chunky.) Then add sugar (not too much!) to taste. Hint: Make this a day or two in advance and you'll give it a chance to marinade in its delectable juices.
Poor Martha Stewart. She has enough to do at Thanksgiving, what with trussing the turkey with twine culled from her own hemp plant and creating that Sacajawea centerpiece entirely from packing peanuts. Still, she finds time to harangue us with recipes for fussy foods like Spiced Cranberry Chutney with Oranges, Mango and Cranberry Salsa, Cranberry Relish Flamb with Pinot Noir ...
Give me that homely queen of every canned food drive, the quivery wet smock! of tubular cranberry filling plopped fresh from a can. No one actually eats it, but it makes a great ritual offering to the ancestors and household gods who don't know any better. And it's a quivering reminder of how gelatinous one's thighs can become when seated at the feasting table for too long.
Which leads me to Velveeta ...
I love the smell of Velveeta in the morning. In my hometown of Akron, Ohio, where only sissy-boys know their cholesterol numbers, no repast is complete without a hearty orange cheese sauce garnished by a few bits of floating broccoli. As the big-armed mamas there say, a naked vegetable is a shameful thing.
If I want a taste of nostalgia, and am not unduly worried about blocked arteries, I make a glossy bowl of Broccoli in Cheese Sauce as a Thanksgiving side dish. There are only three steps: cook a 16 oz. bag of frozen chopped broccoli; in a separate saucepan, melt half a sticky brick of Velveeta cheese in 1 cup milk; combine the results.
This is food that will stick to your ribs. And your intestinal membranes. Leftovers may also be substituted for caulking when filling driveway or sidewalk cracks.
For a picky little kid, Thanksgiving isn't so much about the food as it is a guarantee that Christmas is right around the corner. The only dishes I was interested in were turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy -- certainly not the hideous green concoction that was my Mom's Green Bean Casserole.
Every year, it sat on the table in a clear Pyrex bowl, burnt Durkee onions spilling over the sides, Grinch-colored and scary. The grown-ups, who were, of course, insane, loved the stuff. They would have licked the bowl clean had my Granddaddy not been present.
One year I got wild and ate one of the French fried onions, and it wasn't so bad. Then, when I was about 12, I ventured so far as to try an actual green bean. It was palatable. The next year I took a spoonful and mixed it into my potatoes, and found I sort of... liked it. By the time I was 17, I was sitting at the big table talking about politics and eating the casserole like a trooper.
This year, I'm thinking about making a bowl of the stuff myself. I've got all of the ingredients, and if all goes well, I can gross out the kids as much as my dear mother could.