The holidays may come earlier every year in stores across the land, but it never truly feels like the season has begun until we’re sitting at a food-filled table on the last Thursday of November. For some, Thanksgiving is a strictly family affair, focused on longstanding traditions. For others, it’s about friends and chosen families, creating new traditions of their own.
Or, for many of us, it’s a little bit of both.
With the turkey set firmly in the center of the table, Metro Weekly‘s writers set forth some of their own Thanksgiving memories and traditions, and the food that goes with them.
By Will O’Bryan
Every family is dysfunctional at some level. There is no question that my family’s dysfunction was largely fueled by my shell-shocked father. Vietnam took a toll on him, and on our relationship. When he returned from points east, I was a 4-year-old innocently asking loaded questions like, ”Did you kill anybody?” I found out some 20 years later that he’d actually been responsible for some ”friendly fire” deaths. No wonder my questions rubbed him the wrong way.
While war did a pretty good job of robbing me of my father, there was a bit left for me to enjoy. Thanksgiving reminds me of two parts.
First is my father’s cooking. It didn’t happen often, but when he got into a kitchen, glorious things happened. Thanksgiving was one such occasion. I think I enjoyed his Thanksgiving cooking perhaps four times. War, divorce and death otherwise got in the way.
Then, indirectly, there is Paris in 1976. Thanks to my dad’s charm and impeccable grasp of French, Army brass favored posting him at embassies in the francophone world. For a little boy, child-adoring Paris was bliss. And Parisian culture soothed my father to the point of making him downright pleasant. Being thousands of miles from Hee Haw and Pabst Blue Ribbon didn’t hurt, either. It was a good year with Dad.
Dad and I didn’t have many so-called ”father and son” chats — my favorite was when I came out and he nonchalantly responded that, indeed, men give better hand-jobs — but he did impart some crucial wisdom before exiting the stage. I asked him for the secret to his phenomenal cuisine. ”Double the butter,” he answered. So at Thanksgiving, I do. I also add chestnuts to my dressing, because Paris is full of vendors hawking roasted chestnuts at this time of year. They still remind me of one good year.
In a large frying pan, add the olive oil to cover. Over low heat, sautÃ© garlic, shallot and onion till soft. Add celery and continue till soft. Remove from heat. Melt butter in a separate saucepan or microwave, and let cool. Put the cubed bread in a large mixing bowl, then add contents of frying pan, butter, sage, salt, pepper, chestnuts and chicken broth. Being sure the oil and butter have cooled, mix thoroughly by hand. Be careful not to crush bread cubes.
Turn out into a buttered casserole. Cover with foil and put dish into oven with turkey. Within any temperature range between 325 and 425, the dressing can comfortably cook for about an hour. Remove foil and serve. Once cooked, it may rest for up to two hours. If not served direct from oven, or for a crispy top, place under broiler on low for about five minutes.
by Kristina Campbell
I learned early in my relationship that family gatherings with my would-be in-laws are more serious, more structured, more formal and more traditional than anything my ragtag family ever had. There was always a dining room table involved, and things cooked from scratch.
In the first few years of our relationship, these gatherings took place in Garrison, N.Y., at my partner Kim’s grandparents’ house. They were both German, the real deal, so everyone, from biological grandkids to urchins off the street like me, called them Oma and Opa.
Oma was probably the kindest and hardest-working woman I’ve ever known. I met her in 1995 when she was 84 but still in pretty good health and able to do all the cooking for holidays.
Oma died in 2003, but her legacies live on in many ways. One of the richest is the perpetuation of her Thanksgiving specialties by those she inspired. For my partner and her two siblings, that takes the form of her red cabbage — they each have taken it to Thanksgiving gatherings when family members have gone separate ways on the holiday. Oma’s version of the recipe — which she dictated to Kim’s sister Karen one year as a few of us sat in the kitchen in Garrison — has been prepared some years in kitchens in Takoma Park, San Francisco and suburban Philadelphia all on the same November day.
Oma is no longer with us, but there’s always red cabbage at the Thanksgiving table. It’s always tasty. And that makes it difficult for us to forget how grateful we are to have had her in our lives.
Oma’s Red Cabbage
Put oil into pressure cooker. Mix onion in and sautÃ© with the top off, stirring occasionally.
In a mug, put 1/2 cup of the water, salt, vinegar, sugar, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Put bay leaf and a few peppercorns into pressure cooker. Add red cabbage. Add in mixture from mug. Add remaining 1/2 cup water.
Peel apple, cut into pieces, and put into pressure cooker. Close pressure cooker – put knob on 15 (for 15 lbs. of pressure). Wait until it starts cooking; you will hear the noise. Reduce heat and cook for an additional five minutes.
Put pressure cooker in sink and run cold water on it to cool it down. Open pressure cooker and let it cool down. (Note: consult the manufacturer’s directions on your pressure cooker for cooling and releasing procedures.)
If you don’t have a pressure cooker, cook it for 1/2 hour or until soft. Taste to decide.
by Randy Shulman
I am not a big fan of Thanksgiving food. Actually, that’s going a bit easy. I can’t stand much of it.
Now, I’m not a fussy eater. Ask anyone who’s ever dined with me. Put it on a plate in front of me, 60 seconds later, it’s gone. I’m like a vacuum cleaner. Crumbs, bones, everything — into my belly.
But something about traditional Thanksgiving fare has never quite agreed with me. Maybe it’s because I prefer the food served at Jewish holidays — a little matzoh ball soup, brisket and garlic dills make me highly festive. Alas, the Pilgrims and Native Americans didn’t sit down to a meal of gefilte fish and pastrami on rye. Too bad for them. Too bad for America. You don’t know what you’re missing.
One could argue I don’t know what I’m missing. Yet years of Thanksgivings spent watching others gobble down my mother’s turkey, served with so many trimmings you could feed a medium-sized country, could not lead me down the path to culinary tolerance.
I don’t like stuffing — too bready. I don’t like sweet potatoes with marshmallows — too sugary. I don’t
like green bean casserole, though it at least offers a purpose for Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. But I especially hate that red blob of jellied cranberry goo that plops out of a can and wiggles and jiggles on the plate, taunting you like some sick culinary joke.
I do love my mother’s baked desserts — if Entenmann’s hadn’t beaten her to the punch, you might have been snacking on Shulman’s Coffee Cake. But with Sean Bugg, Metro Weekly‘s editor and resident baker, claiming the sweets spot, I instead offer two side items from my mother’s annual menu. Both will bring simple homemade joy to your table. And yet both remain to me dishes that are best left on the side, untouched.
Sweet Potato Casserole
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mash sweet potatoes and add pineapple with just a little juice. Add salt, vanilla and mash together with butter, to taste. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Cover top with marshmallows and return to oven, baking until the marshmallows are soft and lightly brown on top.
Green Bean Casserole
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a 1-1/2 quart casserole, mix all ingredients, reserving 2/3 cup of French-fried onions for later. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees or until hot. Stir. Top with reserved onions. Bake 5 more minutes.
by Sean Bugg
When it comes to holidays, the Buggs are big on dessert. While that unfortunately means that some Buggs are bigger than others, it does make for some sweet Thanksgiving memories.
My childhood Turkey Days were spent at Granny’s house. After the dinner — the midday dinner, with supper to follow — the focus moved to the buffet in the living room, where you could choose from pecan pie, pumpkin pie and chess pie. If the mood suited you, you could sample some coconut, German chocolate, or red velvet cake.
Or you could eat a little bit of each, my favorite option.
Those days are long lost to the hazy glow of memory, as Thanksgiving has become the holiday I spend in my adopted home town, while only Christmas warrants a trek to the old Kentucky home. Thanksgiving dinner itself has relocated to a cousin’s house, as such an undertaking became too much for Granny a few years back.
So old traditions die and I find myself hoping to recreate them. My sister and I have both evolved as amateur cooks, stocking our kitchens with sweet and savory nostalgia. Not surprisingly, given my constant struggle with being a big Bugg, baking desserts is where I concoct my favorite sugar-filled reminisces.
I like my concoctions complicated — old style homemade pie crusts, every cake from scratch, multiple layers towering over the table. So a red velvet cake fits my holiday bill, with its striking crimson hidden beneath a white, buttery icing. Its an investment in time, effort and patience — from the grade-school chemical reaction of vinegar and baking soda, to the extended whipping of the icing — that makes the cake and the day special.
And it’s good enough to make being a bigger Bugg an acceptable prospect, at least for the holidays.
Red Velvet Cake
Make a paste of the food coloring and cocoa, and set aside. Cream shortening with sugar. Add eggs. In a separate bowl, combine flour with salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Add vanilla and cocoa paste. In a separate small bowl, mix vinegar and soda — fold into cake batter. Pour batter into three 8-inch greased, floured cake pans. Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. When completely cool, top with frosting.
In a saucepan, add a little milk to flour, stirring until lumps are gone. Add rest of milk and cook over medium-high heat until thick, stirring constantly. Chill mixture completely in refrigerator, until cold.
In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat until light and fluffy, 15 to 20 minutes. Add vanilla and salt. Add the chilled milk mixture and thoroughly combine. Spread generously on cake. If not serving immediately, chill cake in refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours to set icing.