A Memoir of Thanksgiving

(I ran this early piece of mine about our family Thanksgiving traditions to earth in the text of my first book, intending to post it for today.)

The menu was unvaryingly traditional, no matter if the table was laid out in the screened porch at Granny Jessie’s, or set up in Granny 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. 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-Granny Alices’ very own hand. Mom and Granny 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-Granny Alices’ sublime, yammy perfection.
“Not quite…’ Dad said at last, while Mom and Granny 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 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. The next Thanksgiving after Grandpa Jim died, 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. Looking back, a lot of our childhood was governed by tradition— traditions from Granny Jessie’s family of books, education and sturdy independence, from Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie’s of pride in your appearances, of care in things like the tidy house and correct speech, and competence in one’s handiwork.

15 thoughts on “A Memoir of Thanksgiving”

  1. Really great, Sgt Mom. Happy Thanksgiving to you and to all the Chicago Boyz and Girlz. This year let’s make sure we are extra thankful for the baby onions in cheese sauce in all our lives.

  2. Alcuin – well, there was an ancestral dish involving mashed rutababagas and carrots, with lots of melted butter and ground pepper, but it may not have featured in my own personal ancestral Thanksgiving feast.
    (But it is good – equal quantities of peeled carrots and rutabegas, with a pinch of sugar, cooked until soft in a bit of broth and butter, then mashed with more butter and ground pepper…)

  3. At dinner tonight we discussed the big dinner tomorrow. The talk turned to…cranberries. My wife recalled a friend who insisted that these show up as a shimmering tube on a plate, never in a whole berry sauce.

    Chuckled as I read your story, Mom.

  4. I recognize those onions! Though they were in white sauce, the favored vehicle of Scandinavians (and probably they English families who employeed my foremothers in Galesburg IL)

  5. We are in Chicago at my sister’s for the holiday. We arrived ahead of a storm front which I hope will be gone by Sunday when we return to Tucson,

  6. As to the mysterious yam recipe, I side with Dad. I have experience with this. My grandma Frances used to make baked pork chops and they were devine. Always a request when we made the trek to Birchwood, Wisconsin to visit. When my wife was introduced to the family I requested that she learn the recipe/technique for this dish. My grandma wrote it down and gave it to my wife. My wife also attempted to watch her make the dish but my grandmother would always shoo her out of the kitchen, under the guise of hospitality. We have the same exact equipment and have followed the recipe to a tee at least ten times, and they just aren’t right. It is my opinion that my grandmother intentionally withheld something so my wife’s pork chops would always be “not quite as good as grandmas”. I suspect the same with Great-Granny Alice.

  7. I like Onion Marmalade, which is made with chicken broth and whipping cream. I serve it with veal chop, not the Thanksgiving menu. It takes a long time to make.

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