This year, even before the summer heat waned, I stood in my too-small kitchen and flipped through my collection of cooking magazines, dreaming of new dishes to cook for Thanksgiving dinner. Would a beet salad topped with grated orange rind complement the sweet potatoes and stuffing? Would corn pudding loaded with eggs and cream be delectable— or too rich? Would this finally be the year for the dried fruit tart I’d been planning to make for ages?
I doubt that my grandmother, Mary Lister, who did most of the cooking for our family’s Thanksgiving meals even into her 90s, ever asked herself such questions. Photographs of the Thanksgivings of my childhood reflect a little-changing table at the Dundalk home she shared with my grandfather. There are bowls of sage stuffing, candied sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes oozing butter and half-and-half, and dusted with paprika. A divided rectangular glass dish holds red and green spiced apples from a jar and cranberry sauce bearing the stigmatic marks of a metal can. There are peas and carrots that mimic the pattern of Grandma’s print dress from Peck & Peck, and glasses of some ruby-colored sparkling wine that we thought fancy. There is turkey and pumpkin pie. And everything is served on the Desert Rose Franciscan dinnerware that I thought all grandmothers owned because both of mine did.
From photo to photo, year to year, only our hairstyles and our waistlines change; the food remains constant.
I loved my grandmother’s cooking— her potato salad, her skillet cornbread, her lemon meringue pie and German chocolate cake— and to be told that something I made was as good as Grandma’s was, for years, the highest compliment I could imagine. But as I got older and more interested in cooking, I yearned to tweak our standard Thanksgiving fare. “Let’s have pumpkin chiffon pie instead of the usual custard,” I would suggest to my mom. “Or how about mashed sweet potatoes to replace the candied?”
These suggestions would be met with a sigh, followed by the explanation that my grandfather liked tradition and would be disappointed if anything about Thanksgiving dinner changed. I would sigh back at my mother, mutter mean things about frozen peas and carrots, and follow the same old recipes.
But in 1997, the first Thanksgiving after my grandmother’s death, it didn’t matter what new food temptations the cooking magazines offered or which new cooking muscles I was itching to stretch. I wanted to make our traditional meal— to comfort my grandfather, and also myself.
The day before Thanksgiving, my husband, Kevin, lifted the turkey out of the refrigerator and into the sink for its bath, while Grandpop, hard of hearing and snapping string beans, shouted, “It’s 21 pounds. The same as Simon!” (Simon is our big-boned cat.)
Grandpop passed away at Christmas in 2000, but each year we remember how much he loved shopping for the biggest turkey, “so everyone could have enough to eat”— even though no one in our family actually likes turkey.
“Grandma didn’t really follow a recipe,” Mom confided that day when I asked her how to make Grandma’s sage stuffing. So I found a recipe in an old Betty Crocker cookbook and began to adapt it while my methodical husband diced mountains of onions and celery. I put a stick of butter into the skillet, then another, then one more. When the vegetables were in and browning, I wondered if just a bit more fat would make the stuffing taste as good as Grandma’s. It did.
My memory of my grandmother’s cooking was guiding me. But so was my own cooking intuition.
“Grandma didn’t really follow a recipe,” Mom said, once again, when it was time to make the mashed potatoes. I knew Grandma used butter and half-and-half. I knew that after whipping the potatoes, she’d dot them with more butter, sprinkle them with paprika and put them in the oven for a few minutes to brown. Desperate to create potatoes worthy of Thanksgiving heartburn, I mashed a square of cream cheese into the potatoes and swooned as their tangy creaminess hit my tongue. Not quite Grandma’s— but not bad, either.
That first Thanksgiving without Grandma was a success, and Grandpop said she would have been proud of our efforts. But even before the dishes were cleared, I knew that in Thanksgivings to come, I wanted to honor Grandma and myself, tradition as well as innovation and imagination.
So Mom and I have continued to cook Grandma’s stuffing and pumpkin pie— we’ve not yet managed to channel her perfect gravy, unfortunately— but each Thanksgiving we add a new dish or two. One year it was a light gingerbread roulade filled with whipped cream. Another year, it was cranberry sauce made with fresh berries, simmered in red wine and spiked with spices. Last year, sauerkraut showed up for the first time when a friend brought it (it was tradition in her family). This year it just might be that dried fruit tart.
Several Thanksgivings ago, I tried out a recipe for braised Brussels sprouts with shallots and toasted pine nuts. Everyone (except my dad and my uncle) loved them. The Brussels sprouts have appeared in every Thanksgiving photograph since then. I guess they’re a tradition now.