Nostalgia Post: Heirloom Dishes

(This essay was originally written more than ten years ago, and is included in the ebook Happy Families; a reminiscence even then of what Thanksgiving was before I left home to join the Air Force. I think I was home with my family for that holiday perhaps four or five years since then. Dad passed away in 2010, Mom is a semi-invalid living with my sister and her family. I don’t know if my sister ever fixes the onions in cheese sauce – I certainly don’t.)

Fairly early on, Mom and Dad reached a compromise on the question of where the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas would be celebrated: Christmas at our house, and Thanksgiving alternating between the grandparents’ houses: One year at Grannie Jessie and Grandpa Jim’s little white house on South Lotus, the next at Grannie Dodie and Grandpa Al’s in Camarillo. Since Dad was an only child, and Mom an only surviving child, all the hopes of constellation of childless or unmarried great-aunts and uncles were centered on JP, Pippy, Sander and I. We rather basked in the undivided attention, even as we regretted the lack of first cousins; there was Great-Aunt Nan, who was Grandpa Al’s younger sister, and Grannie Dodie’s two brothers, Fred and Bob. Fred had been a sailor on a real sailing ship in his youth and had lady in a frilly skirt tattooed on each forearm, who did the shimmy when he flexed his muscles: he also had children, so he was not invariably with us every Thanksgiving. Great-Uncle Bob was married to Great-Aunt Rose, and her sister Nita lived with them. Rose was frail and genteel, and her sister Nita plump and bossy, but they both had neatly marcelled short hair, in the fashion of the 1920ies, and both smelt deliciously of flower-scented dusting powder when hugged.

The menu was unvaryingly traditional, no matter if the table was laid out in the screened porch at Grannie Jessie’s, or set up in Grannie Dodie’s dining room and living room. Both of our grandmothers followed pretty much the same recipes for the turkey and bread stuffing, the giblet gravy and mashed potatoes with plenty of milk and butter whipped in. Both of them preferred opening a can of jellied cranberry sauce and letting it schlorp out onto a cut-glass plate, the ripples from the can unashamedly displayed to the world; at Christmas, Mom went as far as making cranberry sauce from a bag of sour fresh cranberries boiled together with sugar, but as far as the grandmothers were concerned, there was a reason that God had invented canned cranberry sauce technology.

Grandpa Al invariably carved the bird, expertly transforming it into neat slices of white and dark, to the tune of Great-Aunt Nan reminiscing about how he had inherited this marvelous skill from their father, Great-Grandpa George, the maestro of the carving knife and fork. Butler and valet to a wealthy manufacturing magnate, Great Grandpa George parlayed an inheritance into a thriving society catering business. To hear Great-Aunt Nan tell it, he could toss a roast into the air, make lighting-fast passes with a knife and have it fall onto the platter in neatly fanned slices. It was Grandpa Al and Great-Aunt Nan’s mother, though, who had the wonderful, unattainable recipe for the most perfect candied yams, or at least that’s how Dad remembered it.

Every Thanksgiving for a number of years became a running contest for Mom and the grandmothers to try and replicate this marvelous confection. They experimented yearly with yams or sweet potatoes, brown sugar and butter and additions of pineapple, or orange juice, or ginger, a bit of this and a pinch of that, to no avail. Every year, Dad tasted it and said judiciously
“It’s close, but…”
Finally Great-Aunt Nan unearthed a hand-written recipe for this Holy Grail of baked yams, written in Great-Grannie Alices’ very own hand. Mom and Grannie Jessie followed it to the letter, and presented the results to Dad. He tasted it, while we hung on his reaction, confident that we had finally achieved Great-Grannie Alices’ sublime, yammy perfection.
“Not quite…’ Dad said at last, while Mom and Grannie Jessie’s faces fell, and JP and I chorused “To dream the impossible dream…” Later in the kitchen, Mom and I concluded that since it had been by that time about twenty-five years since Dad had tasted those unattainable yams, it was entirely possible that he really didn’t remember exactly what they had tasted like.

There was never any question about the other holiday side dish, the marble-sized baby onions baked in cheese sauce: we all hated it, but Mom fixed it every year for Grandpa Jim, and whichever non-family guests felt adventurous. Grandpa Jim died when I was eleven, and that next Thanksgiving, Mom fixed them again.
“Why?” I asked, as she whisked the sauce one last whisk, and poured it over a casserole filled halfway up with onions. “No one ever ate it but Grandpa.”
“It’s traditional,” Mom said sternly. She scattered toasted breadcrumbs over the top, and put the casserole in the oven.

Grandpa Jim has been gone for forty-some years. Mom has to practically specially order the onions now, for the memorial cheese sauce and onion casserole, of which only Mom and the occasional daring non-family guest ever has more than a spoonful. The elders fell away, one by one: Grandpa Al, and Great Aunt Rose, then Great-Uncle Bob, the grandmothers, and finally Great-Aunt Nan, and the holiday table is now filled with my sisters’ husband and children, with my daughter and my brothers’ wives. The feasting and thanksgiving remain, though… and so do the onions.

6 thoughts on “Nostalgia Post: Heirloom Dishes”

  1. The onion-cheese casserole sounds delicious to me.

    When I was a kid we’d have relatives over and the Arkansas German transplant wife of my Argonne Labs worker great-uncle would knock herself out making a desert. It was invariably fantastic. The Chicago East-Side mother-daughter Swedes would compliment her on the desert but then, almost inaudibly, one would tell the other “We should have brought a walnut roll.”

  2. I’m sympathetic about the onions in cheese sauce, and I say this as one who likes onions, likes cheese sauces, and makes his own cheese sauces. Tomorrow I will participate in the preparation of a Thanksgiving dinner with a new family that hasn’t quite solidified into such just yet. Long story, and mightily bored you would be by the end of it, but that may be for another time. One of the traditions with the “new crew” is the green bean casserole–that creation which repels and mystifies as much as the lime jello mold with marshmallows that appears to be a pot-luck sacrament for Lutherans.

    One wonders how many variations there can be on green beans, cream of mushroom soup and French-fried onions, but few families appear to have escaped it’s all-encompassing grasp. What’s equally universal is no one admits to liking it but everyone insists it’s a traditional must-have. Meh….

    Now broccoli in bacon-cheddar sauce? Or Asiago/Fontina sauce with garlic? We’ll see if I can work some magic on the benighted and long misled. Cross your fingers while I attempt to drag them across a culinary Rubicon….

  3. I’d rather have the onion-cheese casserole than the green-bean/cream-of-gack-soup. Mom never served up that; we had green peas and carrots. I have a recipe for oven-roasted Brussels sprouts with red onion and little slivers of kielbasa sausage, which is much, much better.
    In an hour, we’re heading over to our neighbors for our supper. The usual menu, I suppose. We’re bringing desserts; pumpkin pie, and pumpkin cheesecake. All homemade.
    Catalan red sounds fantastic…

  4. Ok Sgt Mom, my very cherished Grandma Katy used to make a dessert for special occasions that I think was of German origins. She called it “Tort”. She would make a graham cracker crust in a casserole dish, fill the bottom with a firm custard and top it with a meringue and cocoa powder. My sister has tried endlessly to replicate the recipe to no avail. Grandma didn’t have a written recipe, she would just make it from memory. Have you ever heard of it?

    She also made the most delicious caramel cake icing that she would put on chocolate cake. She would stand at the stove stirring it forever. This is another one we can’t seem to get right.

  5. Hi, Jeff – never heard of your granny’s ‘tort’ – some kind of custard pie with a meringue topping. The caramel icing, though – must have been some kind of cream and sugar combination that had to be simmered over low heat for hours, sounds like…

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