. . . but Where Are the Mashed Potatoes?
on Thanksgiving tradition and the temptation to improvise
on cherished culinary customs
perhaps more so than most holidays, is steeped in family tradition.
Whether you ride o’er the river and through the woods to Gran’s
for turkey, volunteer to feed the homeless, or chip in your
potluck lot with other Thanksgiving orphans, chances are you
do pretty much the same routine each year. When I was a kid,
Thanksgiving season began when the local radio station began
its annual Turkey Gobbler show, in which a random caller had
to guess which of six “doors” would reveal the obnoxious “gobble
gobble gobble” sound effect. My mother spent a fortune on
postage, in hopes of the chance to compete and win what I
think was a Butterball turkey donated by a local grocer. Haunted
by childhood memories of hard times, and stuck with a very
large, very hungry family, she stocked up on turkeys like
other people would firewood.
While Mom struggled to pull the gizzards out of the bird(s),
I set to polishing silverware, counting juice glasses and
ironing the table linens.
Sometimes we’d go into the woods behind our house to collect
dried milkweed, which my mother, in her only Martha Stewart
mo ment ever, would spray-paint pewter or copper and use as
table centerpieces. These routines persisted through the years,
but as with most people, it’s the food, the annual menu, where
traditions truly set in. In addition to our turkey, which
would spend Wednesday night in a speckled roaster on the back
porch, Mom plied the table with a veritable smorgasbord of
vegetables. Buttery mashed potatoes, creamy mashed winter
squash, mashed turnips and rutabagas, steamed corn and boiled
peas, roasted carrots with brown-sugar butter, the gigundo
relish tray with celery stalks and olives, creamed pearl onions,
turnip greens swimming in a vinegary dressing, steamed green
beans (before the dawn of the age of the green bean casserole),
two different kinds of cranberry sauce, piping hot dinner
rolls, Dad’s meaty gravy and, of course, stuffing composed
of the aforementioned gizzards, chopped celery, shallots,
sage and Pepperidge Farm bread cubes. Dessert was always the
same: apple pie served alongside wedges of really good cheddar,
pumpkin pie with fresh cream, pecan pie, and a sultry mincemeat
concoction that had a mysterious connection to the venison
my dad bagged during deer season.
The rare times I ate elsewhere, like in college, I was always
achingly disappointed with the meal, no matter how well-cooked.
It just wasn’t the same, nor ever as abundant, and while sharing
thanks and fellowship with others who are warm enough to include
you can be a wondrous thing, it’s hard to get around the fact
that these are not your mother’s mashed potatoes.
So, go figure—my children have never had the same Thanksgiving
menu in their lives. No sooner have I stored away the Halloween
decorations then I’ve stacked 30 years worth of November issues
of Gourmet and Bon Appetite on my kitchen work
table. I go through years of notes and dog-eared pages in
books by James Beard, Barbara Kafka, M.F.K. Fisher, Mark Bittman
and Deborah Madison. I make lists and code menus for color,
texture and innovation, and then I make secondary lists mapping
out oven time, counter space, dish availability. This year,
I narrowed it down to 11 (11!) possible menus and had my family
choose their favorites. Needless to say, the boys went with
that which read the simplest (roast turkey with rich gravy)
and my husband opted for something a little different (roast
turkey with brown-sugar-mustard glaze and bourbon gravy).
I don’t know what I was thinking.
The inherent desire for tradition, for customs cherished since
before we were born, is to me like breathing. And, yet, while
I get it, I can’t seem to give my family a standard menu which
they look back upon with, hopefully, happy nostalgia. I realize
this as I make Thanksgiving for my in-laws, truly gracious
people, who seem honestly to appreciate my efforts to provide
them with a festive repast. However, and this is not meant
as an insult, I doubt that they think such thoughts as “Hmm
. . . this is the same stuffing she did in 2004,” or “Darn,
not the cranberry with pomegranates, AGAIN!” Still, I well
remember the year I decided to forgo the mashed potatoes in
favor of something like pureed celery root . . . You just
know that an irretrievable pall has been cast over your dinner
party as soon as some brave soul opens her lips to say “Oh,
mashed rutabagas (or roasted root veggies or gratineed cauliflower)
. . . how . . . neat.”
So, this year I am endeavoring to be more mindful of the things
that people have come to expect at their holiday meal. There’s
nothing wrong with re-creating my mother’s crowd-pleasing
mashed potatoes (notwithstanding the copious quantities of
milk and butter). And the year I tried a nouvelle version
of the green-bean casserole with a fried shallot topping,
it went well enough, except that people were looking for the
dried-onion topping from a can that usually accompanies this
dish. After many variations on stuffing over the years, I
think from now on I just might rely upon my all-time favorite,
which includes homemade cornbread, chestnuts and pancetta,
as my go-to. And this year, I’m even thinking of making a
traditional sweet-potato casserole.
But I have to find a substitute for marshmallows.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
World Bistro Bar (300
Delaware Ave., Albany) was one of only 16 restaurants
in the United States to win a 2010 Santé Restaurant
Award in the Innovative Food category. The 13-year-old
Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged national
restaurant competition in North America. Chef
consultant Ric Orlando previously won a Santé
Award in 2006 at his Saugerties restaurant, New
World Home Cooking. . . . Remember to pass your
scraps to Metroland.