If we were having coffee I’d no doubt mention the upcoming holiday. I really like Thanksgiving, which is really surprising because it generally turns out to be an ordeal.
For one thing, I do all the cooking. Every bit of it. It gives me a chance to dig in my heels and let fly. That sounds better than it is. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the food is almost always awesome. But it isn’t that hard. We’ve gone with a fairly set menu for years. I sort of inherited this legacy when I got married.
When I was single, I usually went home for the holidays. I grew up in Texas — Houston, to be specific, and for a number of years lived in Austin. That’s less than three hours away. When I got married, it seemed logical enough to just start our own traditions with my new family. My darling bride’s family had a number of old favorites … a well-established tradition. Her mother died not too long before we got married so I just sort of fell into what she had started. She was a tiny woman but left some big shoes to fill. Man, I wish I had been able to spend some time in the kitchen with her.
Growing up, we always had a spread at home … but we didn’t have anything really specific as in “THIS IS WHAT WE ALWAYS HAVE.” Not that I remember, anyway. My mom always concentrated mostly on the dressing, but it seems to me that she just sort of threw it together and would even dry out french bread slices in the oven. I’ve done that but don’t see anything wrong with commercially prepared bread crumbs. My wife’s family was different in that respect. There were several dishes that had been on their holiday table for years and years. Kinda fun, actually. Any of them could be made at any time, sure, but they weren’t.
My wife’s family was different in that respect. There were several dishes that had been on their holiday table for years and years. Kinda fun, actually. Any of them could be made at any time, sure, but they weren’t.
Over the years I’ve added a couple including a couple I mined from an old collection of recipes I found at my mom’s house on a visit. These hadn’t seen the light of day for dozens of years … they had just been shoved in a closet and forgotten. I’ve incorporated them into my mix … figuring that they’d skipped a generation but now had come home to roost.
So here’s the menu, of sorts. Turkey and dressing, of course. I don’t have a special recipe … just sort of throw the dressing together with veg and giblets and broth made from the giblets. Shhhh, don’t tell the family. But for me that’s what gives it that special “stuffing/dressing” texture and taste. I don’t stuff the turkey, but do drape six or seven slices of bacon over it. That sort of bastes it … then the bacon gets really crispy and has a turkey-flavored kick. I always think I should find some “t-day” use for it but it’s so good my daughter and I end up eating it. One last word … the gravy made from the drippings is sublime. You need a gravy separator because there is so much bacon grease but there is nothing like it in this world.
Then we have Mamah Salad. It’s an aspic. Sounds horrid, tomato soup, cream cheese, veggies, and of all things, peas. It was a depression “holiday” dish from my late father-in-law’s family. The matriarch, “Mamah” cobbled it together out of what they had available. It comes out a sort of pastel peachy color … so it makes an interesting addition to the table. It really grows on you until it becomes something I almost crave during the holidays.
Swiss Green Beans is another holiday dish that has been made in my wife’s family so long no one remembers where it came from. I collect cookbooks and actually found a really close variation of it … from a Gladys Tabor cookbook. Don’t know Gladys? She was one of the premier food writers in the thirties and forties. When you taste these green beans you are forever spoiled … what people have come to consider “traditional” green bean casserole pales in comparison and just doesn’t sit right on your palate anymore. And it is just as simple … and has a lot of similarities. The binder is a sour cream bechamel and it is topped with Swiss cheese and a coating of … no, not fried onions or bread crumbs but crushed and buttered corn flakes. Trust me. It’s good.
I’ve added a corn/cornbread casserole … another simple dish mixing butter, sour cream, creamed corn, and whole kernel corn … binding together with jiffy cornbread baking mix. Also a sweet potato pudding recipe … swimming in butter and brown sugar and marshmallows. Two recipes I rescued from my family’s closet were other gelatin salads … a cranberry-orange-pecan salad that ranks right up there with Mama Salad in “THIS IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT.”
Another one is another orange salad that combines cheese and orange jello and whipped cream. Not just any cheese. It calls for good old-fashioned American Cheese. I’ve tried it with other cheeses … just doesn’t cut it. Also not processed cheese food product (someone should document the descent of civilization that took us from American Cheese to Cheese Food to Cheese Food Product). You have to go to the deli and order a big hunk of real American Cheese. It’s awesome. Sometimes I opt the orange salad to Christmas. There’s another recipe for a Strawberry-banana-pineapple gelatin salad we used to always make but it’s huge and never keeps very well and although we really like it we end up with a lot left over so I sometimes let that one slide. Or make it at Christmas.
If I have time and room in the kitchen, I’ll make rolls … another hand-me-down recipe from Mamah. Also, depending on space issues and the number of guests, I’ll make another dish or two for the grandkids …
Desserts? Who the heck has room for dessert? Pumpkin Pie, naturally. I love pumpkin pie. But everybody likes my Buttermilk Pie. Gotta make Buttermilk Pie. It was a recipe my wife saw on TV on some show she doesn’t remember, probably on PBS because this predates the food network. All she managed to scratch down was the ingredient list. Funny, I lost that once. I was helping manage a recipe site on the early internet and asked for other recipes. I bet I gained ten pounds testing recipes … some were close but none were exactly right. Then one day I found the tattered envelope that had the recipe list … tucked away into a cookbook. You can find that one on food.com … it’s recipe #56. If you search buttermilk pie it is one of the first things that pops up. Note: that’s recipe #56 out of hundreds of thousands. The guy who originally started the database that ended up on food.com polled us on the recipe newsgroup for additions to help get started. Pretty cool, really.
So my guiding forces are similarities and convenience. Most of the dishes can be made the day before, including the green beans. I first realized that when I was making the gelatine salads … they HAVE to be made the day before. But everything can go in the oven, in stages, based upon cooking time. I do the turky first, then as THE TIME approaches I schedule everything else into the oven. Rolls last … right before serving time.
Man, I’m hungry now. Everyone, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving this Thursday! I better start cleaning the house now.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. His latest novel, A CURSE THAT BITES DEEP was just published. More info at http://thefensk.com