I love Thanksgiving and it’s become my favorite meal to cook every year. As a child I loved to wake on the day and sneak into the kitchen to watch my mother who was elbow deep in all of her preparations by 7:00 am. I’d spend the morning on a very tall chair dipping my fingers into the stuffing and doing my favorite of the jobs assigned to me which was to stick the marshmallows on the orange and cinnamon scented sweet potato casserole. One for the pan, one for me and on and so on and so forth.
After that, I would set the table with her beautiful Coalport dishes, her wine glasses and her grandmother’s monogrammed sterling. Then she’d send me out to the garden to pick whatever was left of the fall herbs and flowers to put into her napkin rings that were little blocks with holes in them that turned them into vases. I’d arrange them and pull the napkins through. That is still to this day one of my favorite childhood memories.
The Thanksgiving after my mother died was the very first time that I’d ever cooked the whole meal myself. It was also the loneliest holiday of my life. I dreaded the day coming and finally decided that I needed to shake it up a bit. I brined the turkey in a homemade maple, spice and salt brine. I made the sausage for the stuffing from scratch. I didn’t make the scalloped oysters; a dish that is traditional at my family’s thanksgiving table yet almost universally disliked! Instead of serving wine, I served a vast array of delicious hard ciders and artisanal beers ending with some very fine port. In short I allowed myself to be really creative instead of just sticking to the tried and true and it ended up being a really great day!
As the years have gone on, I’ve noticed that there are more and more children like me. No matter how old we are, if we’ve lost our parents and there’s no other family in town, we generally feel like orphans at this time of year.
I’ve had several Thanksgivings since that first that have been pretty spectacular, but I discovered that I needed to recreate the holiday completely.
I’ve done this is by shedding all of my superstitions and being brave enough to keep only the traditions that I love while adding plenty of new dishes. Instead of the requisite oysters, I made shrimp and spicy cheese grits. I’m a Yankee girl through and through but I love rich Mexican flavors so instead of rubbing my turkey with plain butter and fine herbs I use a paste of smoky ancho chiles, garlic, butter, smoked salt, cumin and chili powder!
I realize that with this next statement that I am killing off two of the truly sacred cows of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. I’m taking a deep breath now before I say it. Here goes! I REALLY hated the sweet potatoes with the exception of all of those delicious marshmallows. I truly dislike most versions of pumpkin pie.
Incredibly enough I’m still here!
What I do instead is make a puree of cauliflower, carrots, turnips, onion, garlic and sweet potatoes that I season with a browned butter, fig infused balsamic vinegar and sage reduction. To replace the pumpkin pie that no one eats, I serve a pumpkin and peanut butter soup as a starter and a side dish that is a pumpkin stuffed with a traditional sage, cornbread, sausage and chestnut stuffing and then baked until it’s buttery and tender. Dessert is an exquisite French Canadian maple pie and latte’s made of chai tea and sweetened pureed pumpkin.
What I’ve kept the same? My mother set the most beautiful Thanksgiving table full of brass candlesticks, autumn fruits and vegetables spilling out of her collection of cornucopias and lots of chocolate turkeys and pilgrims. She always had a beautiful centerpiece on the buffet table that she made herself of mums, sunflowers, rust colored roses and fresh pine. I set the table with her Coalport china and her grandma’s silver. I still walk into my garden regardless of the weather to get the herbs and flowers for the napkin rings.
I serve my mothers nutmeg and garlic infused creamed spinach and never ever will I be able to have a holiday table without a healthy bowlful of her mashed potatoes because Alex would never come for dinner again. I am sworn to secrecy with this recipe but I will say two things- one bag of russet potatoes to three sticks of butter. Alex’s place setting is always set with a bottle of A1 sauce his favorite condiment since childhood and the one thing allowed on her table that wasn’t silver, porcelain or crystal. Such is the strength of a grandmother’s love.
If you are finding yourself in the same position as I did so many years ago I hope to have given you a way to create a holiday of your own that is rich in memories and full of new traditions. It is the only way that I have known to move on while at the same time honoring those who are at the very core of our memories. If you are lucky enough to still have all of your loved ones at the table take a look around and cherish every one of them and know that from my table come wishes to you and yours for a fabulous holiday season filled with too much laughter and love.
This was originally published in CVT Currents ~ November 2013