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Delicious . . . but Where Are the Mashed Potatoes?

Reflections on Thanksgiving tradition and the temptation to improvise on cherished culinary customs

By Laura Leon

Thanksgiving, 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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


New 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.

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