“It’s the end of an era,” I said to my close friend, Joyce, who was letting me know that this year her family would be having Thanksgiving in Vermont, where one of her married daughters now lives. For many years, Joyce’s family has spent the holiday with mine, and part of the pleasure in our being together was marking the progress of our children.
I am happy to say, all turned out pretty well, but one of the consequences of this success is that Joyce’s daughter now wants to cook her family’s Thanksgiving meal, so we will have to find other times of the year for both families to get together.
What is it about Thanksgiving that urges one particular family member to take on the responsibility of producing this traditional and very American meal? I can only speak for myself by pointing out the importance for me of storing up holiday food memories and reproducing the dishes I grew up with, remembering loved ones now gone but who I feel are with me at this time of year.
I think about them as I stuff the turkey, clean the vegetables, and bake the apple, pumpkin and pecan pies. So important to me are my family’s recipes that one year when I accepted an outside invitation I wound up cooking my own Thanksgiving dinner the next day. It seems another family’s traditional dishes just do not cut it with me.
For instance, I do not like mashed sweet potatoes, especially if they have been baked with marshmallows on top. More welcome are the candied sweet potatoes my mother taught me how to make, always a hit at my table. One time a guest surprised me with a bowlful of creamed onions, prized by many but hated by me. That’s because I dislike creamed dishes, particularly if a thick white sauce enrobes something that is also white.
Everyone has a turkey technique
Clearly, I have strong feelings about what I cook, and I should mention that I take pride in how I roast a turkey. This is a problem for many, judging from the popularity of turkey holiday hotlines that serve the country every year.
My technique is to stuff the bird at the last minute, season it, then turn it on its stomach on a flat roasting rack for the first half of the cooking time. The turkey’s juices land in its breast and seem to guarantee a moist and tasty bird. There is nothing original about this method because I have seen it in print numerous times, but I don’t know anyone else who does it. Others make aluminum foil tents or do tricks with cheese cloth, but often still wind up with a turkey that is dry.
I pour boiling water into the pan, baste the bird with butter every half hour or so, then flip it over at half-time. That’s the hard part, considering that I am handling a stuffed 23-pound turkey. I have a special pair of oven mitts reserved for this purpose that always wind up incredibly greasy, so I launder them immediately and put them away for the next year.
Food, friends, family
We like to maintain our Thanksgiving traditions, and this desire is especially true for Americans abroad who yearn for a Thanksgiving meal. They search in vain for large raw turkeys, often settling for a bird that is scrawny and expensive or more likely a chicken. Cranberries, a quintessential American food, are also difficult to find in foreign stores.
Ex-pats sometimes find themselves in restaurants supposedly offering an American Thanksgiving dinner, but from all reports these dinners are disappointing, largely, I suspect, because family and friends are absent. Some Americans abroad stare forlornly at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on cable television they find somewhere. Being out of the country at Christmas is not as hard on people because other western cultures observe that holiday, and the American traveler will easily find a way to celebrate.
When it comes right down to it, the strongest appeal of Thanksgiving is that it’s all about food, friends and family, and, for the cook, the pleasure of offering a memorable meal to people who matter the most. I am going to miss Joyce and her family this year, though I understand why her daughter, Lauren, wants to start her own tradition and orchestrate her own meal, perhaps restoring dishes from her childhood that resonate for her.
I will be thinking of her at the start of my Thanksgiving meal, for she long ago pointed out something I was unaware that I said each year. She would wait for me to take my seat at the table after having masterminded the procession of serving dishes going into the dining room. As she tells it, I tuck in my napkin, take a forkful of food, then close my eyes and croon “Mmm. This is so good.” She claims I always say this and I believe her. For, as I already indicated, I like my own Thanksgiving dinner.
Candied Sweet Potatoes
4 good-sized (not huge) sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons of butter
½ cup of dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons of water
1. Boil unpeeled sweet potatoes in water (to cover) until just done — not mushy. Let them cool, and then peel and cut into quarters.
2. Melt butter in frying pan 12-inch or larger. Add brown sugar and stir into the butter until sugar melts. Add water and stir until the syrup thickens.
3. Place quartered sweet potatoes into the pan and cook at a low heat, all the while spooning syrup over the potatoes, and turning them over. Keep on turning the potatoes and spooning over the syrup until the potatoes take on a coating and are candied. This takes about 10 minutes.
4. This dish can be made early in the day and then reheated and served with the rest of the Thanksgiving meal.
Photo: Sweet potatoes ready to be candied for Thanksgiving dinner. Credit: Barbara Haber