Today’s show-off TV chefs would never have survived the Thanksgiving kitchens of my youth. The roasting turkey, oyster dressing, scalloped potatoes, tender rolls and sweet potato pie were all in well-practiced hands, so my Southern matriarch predecessors would have sent Bobby Flay packing – gracefully, I’ll add. At a minimum they would would have dispatched him to water glass duty without his ever realizing he’d been dismissed.
Whether we were Country Mouse-ing with my mother’s family or City Mouse-ing with my father’s, the kitchen was the heart of the house and Thanksgiving was its Valentine’s Day. On this special day the coven of family women ran a well-rehearsed but unscripted program, a show in which everyone played a part, and no one dared upstage the collective.
There was no room for upstaging, anyway. The kitchen in any of my extended family homes couldn’t have been more than 200 square feet, probably less. There were no fancy ranges, no farmhouse sinks, no double Subzero refrigerators. Instead picture tin foil and Pyrex, aprons and sweating windows, every icon of a “before” picture in a kitchen renovation article. And good cooks. Really, really good cooks.
Now fix that image in your mind; we’ll return in a minute.
My father was an only child, but his aunt and uncle and their four children lived only 100 yards away in the house next door. All the children ran around together and were more like siblings than cousins. Daddy was older and taller than the others, but they called him “Little Kenny” because his father was Big Kenny, and that’s just how things work in the South.
Big Kenny, Papa to me, was a lawyer who grew up with his brother and two sisters in the bootheel of Missouri and eventually relocated to Memphis. In the mid 1920s Papa was saving money to go to law school. He invested the whole wad in the stock market in the summer of 1929 and then, as you might guess, had to work as a night janitor to pay for the remainder of his schooling.
In those early years of the Depression, Papa and his siblings lived with their parents, Nana and Grandad, in a clapboard house on Echles in the Normal Station neighborhood. When they were finally able to afford houses of their own in the mid-1930s, Papa and his sister Julia built next door to one another, their houses connected by a garden path. Since Papa and Julia were closest in proximity, holiday gatherings – meals for 20 or more people – flip-flopped between their two homes for decades until my grandmother had a stroke and Julia took the helm.
Now back to that tiny kitchen, hopefully still fixed in your mind.
Every fourth Thursday in November, the women in my father’s family (and it was identical in my mother’s) pulled off something just short of a Thanksgiving miracle, delivering from confined kitchen chaos an opulent buffet of delicious food that was magically all the right temperature for serving. Somehow or another we assembled around the circular dining room table at the precise moment the final dish was placed, one of the men offered a blessing, another man carved the bird, and we were off to fill our plates and head to our tables.
We weren’t a gimmicky family; there were no party favors or games, only food and family fellowship. After eating the men retired to the bar, the children went outside (or to a play room), and the women held an invitation-only group therapy dish washing session. It was an all-day affair, and it was like this every year of my life, into my college years.
I used to think all Thanksgiving gatherings were forever like this, the same way I naïvely thought all mothers were Junior League committee chairs and all fathers were kind. But my family scattered, in both spirit and geography, and our big Thanksgiving dwindled to a table for four, often my mother, me, and a couple of orphaned friends.
My plan, once Bernard, our children and I settled in at the Money Pit, was to reclaim the Great Thanksgiving of yore. I was a cook, and I knew how to throw a party, having been well-schooled by family experts. I knew how to set a table, how to arrange a buffet, how to set a bar in the corner – accessible but out of the way. I had Big Julia’s dressing recipe, and Peggy’s roll recipe and my grandmother’s chess pie recipe. And I’d been reading Martha Stewart Living for an eternity. I had everything I needed, but I learned very quickly, nine years ago in front of a table full of guests, that I didn’t know a damn thing about hosting Thanksgiving.
For starters, I was being such a prima donna with my sautéed Brussels sprouts dish that I neglected to proof the yeast for the rolls (yeast that was easily three years out of date), and the rolls came out like hockey pucks (ask Bernard; it’s one of his favorite tales to tell on me).
Then family guests arrived, early of course, with food; but I wasn’t prepared to keep any of it warm because it never occurred to me that warming other people’s food was part of the program. So I lined the buffet with cold scalloped potatoes and cold butternut squash casserole and cold stuffing, none of which I recommend.
Oh, and I shrieked at my young son, the child so excited to be having a party and wanting to be like everyone else he loved, when he reached for a real china plate. He looked at me in horror, took his outsider’s melamine and sat alone on the sofa sulking while I crumbled inside and tried to soldier on. I was an idiot. It was a horrible Thanksgiving.
In a flash all that carefully reconstituted family vanished and the next year we were alone, just the four of us, in our kitchen. The idea of grand celebration was a fading and distant memory, until a neighbor saved us.
If you follow along here regularly, then you know that we live on a block with other families marked by kind fathers and working mothers (even the ones who don’t collect actual paychecks). None of us has much extended family close by, so over the years we’ve become a kind of family for each other, especially at holiday times. It started with a spontaneous Easter potluck and grew organically from there. Over the years, thanks to life’s never-ending ups and downs, we (I) have had to shake our Martha Stewart tendencies, roll up our sleeves and help each other pull off something just short of a miracle, house to house, kitchen to kitchen.
It isn’t always the same group, and it’s definitely never the exact same menu. Sometimes there’s a picture-perfect moment when we’re all gathered around a table precisely when the last dish is placed. Sometimes there isn’t. But there are always many hands to make the work light, the lesson that was there for me the whole time.
Happy week, and a very happy Thanksgiving.
Food | Week of November 24, 2014
I love summer produce and the vibrant summer market displays, but in some ways I love fall harvest even more. I have a particular affection for Brussels sprouts (one of Bernard’s favorite vegetables), beets, parsnips, and all types of winter squash. Whatever your Thanksgiving gathering (or hosting) plans, this week’s menu should give you some ideas for enjoying what’s in season while keeping your people well fed and happy the other six days of this week.
Warm Brussels Sprout Salad | Chicken
I may have shaken many of my Martha Stewart tendencies, but she still has, IMHO, the best array of recipes for Brussels sprouts if Brussels sprouts are your thing. Two particular favorites are the Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad, topped with roast chicken, and the Crisp Brussels Sprouts Leaves, served with plain grilled chicken (or pork tenderloin).
This recipe for roasting winter vegetables is one of my all time favorites. If you hear the word “parsnip” and think “ewww,” then give this a try – might change your thinking forever. (And yes, I let my children put ranch dressing on the plate for dipping. One day they’ll learn… I hope.) Serve with this seasonal spinach salad (which would also be good for your Thanksgiving buffet), and you’ve offset at least one piece of carrot cake or bourbon cocktail.
Waffles with Turkey Hash
Ok, there is no recipe for turkey hash that I can share, but you should give it a try anyway. It’s one of those Southern Thanksgiving leftover traditions that you just have to figure out as you go, as this article in Gourmet explains so well (and it has tips for cooking). For waffles I use the Joy of Cooking basic recipe, but this one from Martha Stewart is also good and reliable.
Baked Eggs | Winter Fruit Salad
I know, I know. Last year I made a big fuss over the icky-ness of kale. But a local restaurant (Local) serves the most delicious salad, and its main ingredient is that dreaded kale. Think of it as balance for that extra piece of pie. Or think of it as a continued food fest, and top with grilled chorizo or andouille sausage. I’ve been looking for a recipe that is close to the restaurant’s creation, and this one from Williams Sonoma is the closest I’ve gotten, although the restaurant version does not have bread or tomatoes. If you’ve got a better one, please share.