There is one in every family: the one who gets “picked” to host the big holiday meals each year. At some point in my adult life, I was picked as one of those favorite places to stop by for Thanksgiving.
Maybe it’s because I keep all the family recipes in my head. Or maybe it’s because I try to keep a few traditions going, carefully trimming the bird with a hint of nostalgia. Heck, it could just be because I make a mean turkey.
I’d love to tell you that I learned everything I know from my granny, who, just after Thanksgiving every year, would say that she was “down for a week” after the holidays. This was as close as she came to bragging, a self proclaimed indicator that she had went all out for the festive spread ... a spread that at one time fed a dozen or so grandchildren and a few stragglers every year.
But my granny, well, let’s just say she was a “play it close to the apron” kind of cook. She said that no one had bothered to teach her, and that it was better to learn on your own. So whenever she was in the kitchen, I stayed just a few steps behind, making a mental note of the ingredients (forget measurements, it was a pinch of this and a cup of that — and by a cup of that, I mean a water glass that held an undetermined amount of ounces). If I was lucky, I could watch from start to finish. More often than not, though, I was shooed away to put a rubber band around my unruly long hair. She was a stickler about that. A single hair could ruin an entire meal. Guess I couldn’t blame her. And yes, I picked up on that early and always pull back my hair before beginning any meal preparation.
Granny used to make this chocolate-peanut-butter fudge that turned out like a hard chocolate bar, dark brown like a Hershey’s, but without any uniformity at all. She’d simply break it into uneven pieces and throw it in a pile on a plate (which would later be divvied up amongst the grandkids as part of our take-home goodie bags).
Thirty years later, I’m still trying to perfect that recipe. I’ve made progress over the years, but I have never found the right combination of cocoa, peanut butter, and soft-ball consistency. I am still hopeful and try again every year. I think her recipe came from the back of a can of Hershey’s cocoa powder, when the container was metal and you had to pry the top off with your fingernails. If anyone else has ever made it, I’d be ever so grateful if you could share!
She always made turkey, but ham was her real specialty. She’d take a plain piece of ham (bone in) and turn it into a work of art, carefully pinning pineapples and cloves and drizzling it into a brown sugar mixture of goodness, making your mouth water before taking the first bite.
My granny has been gone for a couple of decades now, and my life is full and rich, so remembering those holidays has less to do with any strong yearning for days gone by and more to do with trying to pass along new memories for my own kids and extended family.
I wasn’t “down for a week” after my own planning and preparation this year. Not because I didn’t go to any trouble or walk the extra mile. But as a working mom, my holiday planning requires a little more strategic thinking. Unlike my granny’s kitchen — which went non-stop every day, around the clock, up until “T” Day — my own kitchen runs hot and cold (a lot like me some days). I worked around my kids’ schedules, my own work schedule, and even the more mundane ones (like the days when the dishes were done and I actually had a clean kitchen counter to work on).
Setting my table began a few weeks in advance. And this year, I abandoned the good china for my Fiesta ware. I have a combination of sage and ivory ... though the name, ivory, is misleading, because it’s really more like a cheerful pale yellow in color. I bought some flowers from a street vendor outside my building (yep, city dweller and wannabe homesteader, with just enough of a garden to be dangerous). It looked lovely on my table, carefully arranged inside a repurposed antique mason jar (you know, the ones with the tin and zinc lids).
As my centerpiece, I had planned this wonderful cornucopia of Indian corn and squash, but was missing one glorious cushaw squash due to a last minute decision to upcycle this fall décor to a Thanksgiving dessert.
I started baking a full week before Thanksgiving, bringing out my homemade jars of peach, strawberry, and blackberry jam. This was my first year of canning, and so I was excited to be able to take my thumbprint cookie recipe to the next level. No more store-bought jam for me!
And getting back to that lovely Cushaw Squash: Someone was mighty neighborly in growing it in their own garden and passing it on to me (along with aforementioned fruit I used to make my jam). Feeling inspired by all this “seed to table” activity, I decided to try my hand at an old southern Appalachian dish, Cushaw Pie. I’d heard it was as good as pumpkin pie.
I’m a firm believer that technology can bring benefits to the homestead, and that just as there is no shame in borrowing a recipe from a neighbor down the road, it’s equally acceptable to make new ones who don’t share the same fence lines. So I started by searching the Internet for a good recipe. I avoided the streamlined blogs and food network types; I wanted a recipe that was tried and true and not dependent upon ingredients bought within driving distance of a television studio. I landed on The Saucy Southerner and was not disappointed. I added some candy corn to the top and substituted sweetened condensed milk instead of heavy whipping cream (spoiler alert: use the heavy whipping cream).
I had a beautiful Thanksgiving with my family this year and wish y’all the warmest of holiday memories. I can personally attest to the fact that even the simplest of traditions and gestures will carry over for decades to come.
I’m so glad to be a part of this new community, and I hope to be able to share as much as I learn!
Mary Niehaus Ralles