I watched an HGTV cooking special the other night. Four families were competing for $10,000 and the honor of best Thanksgiving feast. They had six hours to prepare the meal from scratch. Each team had 3 members. Each team's leader was the matriarch of the family. The obligatory turkey ranged from fried, to roasted, to "tofu-ed." It was fun to see the variety in the menus and the interaction of the families.
My family is from Oklahoma and our traditional Thanksgiving meal is rooted firmly in Southern cuisine. A large turkey is prepared. If it's not at least 18 pounds, it's not worth the trouble. It's thawed over several days in a cooler, then wrestled into the oven by my mom (the only one in the house up at 5 am.)
I get involved in with the preparation of the centerpiece of our meal – the cornbread & sage dressing. It's very labor intensive – lots of chopping, mixing, and tasting. The recipe is very close to what our ancestors fixed a hundred years ago. Each generation has tweaked the spices – my paternal grandmother added a couple of cans of chopped oysters. My mom and I have added cheese. About ten years ago we invented "dressing balls." We had more dressing than we could fit in the oven to bake, so we put the leftover raw dressing in greased muffin tins. We baked it after the rest of the meal was done. The result was individual portions of dressing that had a crusty top and sides – perfect for reheating in a microwave for the second, third, and fourth meals with the Thanksgiving leftovers. Now we bake all the dressing in the muffin tins. Modesty aside, I'm sure our Thanksgiving dressing is the best in the world.
The rest of our menu includes gravy, mashed potatoes, a cranberry/apple ring, a pineapple/orange Jell-O dish, green beans, steamed broccoli, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows, homemade yeast rolls, pumpkin pie, and cherry pie. We wash it all down with gallons of iced tea.
My co-author is from New York but her mother was Southern. We've found that we have some of the same traditions and some different.
Thanksgiving dinner seems to be set in stone. Sure we can mix it up a little, maybe try a new dessert, but basically my family wants to see the same items on the menu from year to year, regardless of whether I’ve got my Barefoot Contessa apron on or not.
Turkey is a given – although personally I ate all sides last year and never touched the bird. Sweet potatoes with marshmallows is a staple, a salad (which is more an homage to nutrition than actually eaten), and this year I’m trying a new cranberry conserve, but I’ll also have a can of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly for the traditionalists in the group. My daughter wants to make a pecan pie (yum!), and I’m going to make a devil’s food cake with a turkey decoration. If time is running short, it may just be chocolate cake sans the fancy bird – chocolate is a perfect way to express thankfulness.
Equally important to me as what is served, is what it is served on. I have several platters that belonged to my mother, the original Evelyn. A holiday wouldn’t be complete without having those dishes heaped with food – reminding me of wonderful holidays of long ago.
Our latest mystery, Murder Takes the Cake is set during the week before Thanksgiving. In one scene our main female character is debating on how she was going to spend her holiday and with whom.
Murder Takes the Cake – Evelyn David – May 2009
Mac started to walk to the door, but paused. "So what are you doing on Thanksgiving? Jeff and Kathleen want me to join the family, but I'm not up to that scene. You're probably doing something with your family.…"Tell us about your Thanksgiving menu? Does it vary from year to year? What's your favorite dish?
"Not this year." Rachel sighed. "Sam is going skiing with his new girlfriend and my brother is off visiting his fiancée's family. Kathleen asked me to come too, but I'm not up for that scene either. I thought I'd stay home and feel sorry for myself."
"So maybe we could do that together? Or if we got really inspired we could get a pizza and watch some football or something?"
"Or maybe we could eat some turkey with cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and pecan pie and then watch a movie?" Rachel countered.
"We'd need to negotiate the menu. Whiskey doesn't like pecan pie."
"How does she feel about apple pie?"
"A la mode?" he asked.
"It's a date."
Happy Turkey Day from Rhonda, Marian, and Evelyn David