For Thanksgiving – Heirloom Dishes

(This essay was originally written more than ten years ago, and is included in the ebook Happy Families; a reminiscence  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.

14 thoughts on “For Thanksgiving – Heirloom Dishes”

  1. We spent most Thanksgivings at my father’s parent’s apartment. My mother’s parents had long since died. Since my grandparents had had 10 children, there were aunts and uncles at dinner. They had an ancient dining room set that now sits in my dining room. It is vaguely Mediterranean and I have refinished the wood several times. Family was very important then and now. We will spend Christmas with my younger son and about 40 friends and relatives. We defied the rules last year and no one got sick. His daughter is home from college (in Alabama) for the holiday but we just got back from a wedding in California and will sit this one out. The mandatory food item is always rutabaga and I peeled them earlier today. The turkey has shrunk to a frozen breast but it is still good and there will be enough for sandwiches and football this weekend.

  2. Hi, Mike – We dressed Wee Jamie in a turkey-themed onsie (and the pictures of him in it will be splendid blackmail materiel when he is an obnoxious teenager…) and we did take him next door, to pay a courtesy call on Miss Irene and her extended family – all of whom adore Wee Jamie. They had finished their T-day supper and were mostly watching a football game. We had our own selection of T-day supper already on the stove, so to speak, so we had a good visit and returned home to relish our own.
    (The Daughter and I don’t really LIKE the usual T-Day menu. We have a roast turkey breast, but side dishes of things we actually like, and not so much of them that we are eating leftovers for a month afterwards…)

  3. I love the onion story and the yam underachieving.

    My grandmother used to make baked pork chops and one day my wife insisted she share the recipe. She did, and we are convinced she left something out, or intentionally messed up the amounts of ingredients. Don’t be so sure that the recipe card is actually the correct recipe.

    For Christmas we always haul out the cannibal sandwiches and my wife and I are the only ones who partake. We are fairly certain that the dish will go away as soon as we aren’t there to insist on it anymore. Probably like the onions.

  4. Happy Thanksgiving!

    My recipe story is limited to a desert that I tasted for the first time yesterday:

    In an open serving dish, mix fresh blueberries into labneh, then drizzle honey over everything. It is really good.

  5. These all sound wonderful – our Thanksgiving was at my husband’s last remaining uncle’s on his father’s side.

    The group did not meet so regularly in the past, but our lives have slowed down and the crowd been pruned. Nonetheless there were 3 stuffings – traditions in 3 families, each family used to its own and that one a beloved tradition..

    Yes, I, too, remember the long tables filled with so many kinds of sides and the tables nearby filled with so many kinds of pies. The lack of chlidren close (or in fact, children at all) narrowed the table, quieted it all. (My husband’s father’s family (of 8 siblings) is down to our 3 in terms of any hoping to become parents.) Sometimes it does seem like we are in P.D. James The Children of Men, but then you mention Jamie and I think of the phone calls from ours and realize it isn’t really that bad.

  6. Having grown up in the Air Force, we never got to spend thanksgiving with family. They were all in North Carolina and we were never stationed there. Being a SAC family meant we were as far flung across the globe as you can imagine. Some bases awesome, others not so much. Thanksgiving dinner usually was spent at the NCO club with other families far from their homes. We dressed for dinner and even were allowed a sip of wine. These are wonderful memories with people I can’t remember at places I’ll never forget.

  7. My mother made the onion casserole for T-Day. And while I do like it and always had some, it was the first dish I cut when having to put the dinner on myself. The dish is a calorie bomb and not many people like it. I went on to cut the mashed potatoes. My thinking being if you want to dump gravy on something, put it on the turkey and stuffing.
    My mother was a staunch turnip person and was quite dismayed to discover her first daughter-in-law was brussels sprouts! This actually was a problem if you can believe it. I love turnips and have remained loyal to them.
    When I think about the effort my mother put into preparing that meal it seems amazing. Of course, she did have a sous chef and dish washer in the form of her only daughter, me…

  8. Dianne, I remember the Thanksgiving dinner at my aircraft commander’s house in northern Maine quite clearly. All but one of our crew single and far from family. But we had one of the best meals I can remember for Thanksgiving. (Heck, I learned to like mashed potatoes again.)

    Christmases were split on my mom’s side (when we were up there) between 2 of her three brothers’ families. Christmas Eve at Uncle Gene’s and Christmas morning at Uncle Allman’s. The only absolute tradition I remember is the green icing rolls in the shape of a Christmas tree at Uncle Allman’s. But everything was always solidly the same at both. And always overdone (not over-cooked, but so much food we could feed a dozen more people). And never room at the table for everyone. (Eventually, at Uncle Allman’s there wasn’t even room in the main rooms for everyone and children had to be sent to the basement.)

    Wonderful memories based on the love and family at every event with every relative, ever.

  9. You were making the wrong onion dish. Never heard of cheese onion casserole, but my gramma and mom made creamed onions, pearl onions in white sauce, Yummy!

  10. We had a pot luck at my work Tuesday. Even taking small portions, I ate more than I should have. As a former potato grower and someone that actually likes potatoes, I observed that this was the first such I can remember with none. I soldiered on manfully regardless.

    My contribution is always a couple chocolate pecan pies from a recipe of Derek Lowe’s “In the Pipeline”. Probably the MOAB of calorie bombs.

  11. Had a few Thanksgivings while in the Navy where the young families would gather and combine traditions. Always 2-3 different styles of turkey (roasted, smoked, deep fried) every side you can imagine in as many different forms, the year in Guam when we added bbq steak and roasted prawns is a fond memory.

    Being stuck so far from “home” was always a challenge, but sharing the feast with other families always made it seem more alive.

  12. Gringo, that should absolutely work – I think that it is the quantity of ground and steeped fruit that make it all work. Let us know how it all comes out, OK?

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