I know Thanksgiving is over, but the fullness of food and family and good times still lingers with us. I am pretty sure some of us still have leftovers (I know we do, though it is almost the end of the line).
I have started to explore the creation of family Thanksgiving menus. Some people stick to tradition, the usuals and dishes that have been passed down through generations and generations, while other families constantly evolve and add and subtract. Some times these changes happen because of expertise or even prices of ingredients, and some times it has to do with the morphing and changing of the guest roster.
I already talked a little about the classics in my family here. But I got to talk to my mother further about how she developed our current Thanksgiving menu, as it has hardly changed in my memory. Perhaps the dishes have been the same, yet the mild modifications and alterations to each, have not severely impacted our holiday meal. Many of the things that we eat every year for Thanksgiving, like the corn pudding, turkey, sweet potatoes, greens, are the things that she ate when she was growing up as well. And even in her childhood, the menu of her family’s thanksgiving dinner did not vary tremendously from year to year.
She gave some insight though into how our preparation of the turkey has evolved through the years. After a mild catastrophe one year, involving a dysfunctional oven and carrying all the various dishes to be cooked and warmed at a neighbor’s around the corner, it was decided that the oven was not the best avenue for all the dishes. This marked the beginning of our use of the outdoor grill for our smallish turkeys. The grill has been found to be much more reliable and allows more things to fit in the oven with ease. Even since we changed the method of cooking our turkey, the recipe for preparing it has varied, from a fancy Martha Stewart recipe involving coffee and a homemade bbq sauce, to the easy peasy brining method. This year, mom undertook the brining method, which left the turkey a little salty, but reduced the cooking time and maintained moisture.
There is always stuffing at our thanksgiving feasts, but my mother said that her famous cornbread stuffing came about after trying the recipe in the early years of my parents marriage, and liking it, adjusting it, being addicted to it, and keeping it on the list. This is a similar story to the corn pudding that is now a part of my favorite meal. My mom and even my dad grew up with corn puddings too, so that was a combination of two different family’s dishes. The corn pudding was not always a stable member of the Thanksgiving cast, until Mommie found the recipe we use now.
This is also true of the kind of sweet potato casserole we make annually. My mother grew up with sweet potatoes on her Thanksgiving table, but not necessarily the way we eat them now, laced with sugar, rum and butter, crowned with an ample amount of marshmallows. She revealed that this came later, after seeing how her mother in law (my grandmother) prepared her fancy sweet potatoes. It was this way that my father grew up with them, and so then I did too.
Our Thanksgiving is a happy mixture of dishes from my mother’s childhood and that of my father’s, keeping many of the traditional dishes with some modifications and personal touches.
My friend, who is of Cape Verdean descent, also has a mixed Thanksgiving, where her parents bring some of the traditional dishes to their table, along with some of the American Thanksgiving favorites, like turkey. This includes pastel (the Cape Verdean version of empanada), seafood rice, bacalhao, catchupa (Cape Verdean stew) and other favorites of the family (lasagna, mom’s famous shrimp and broccoli pasta). She mentioned that all of these dishes are not exclusive to the Thanksgiving holiday, like our corn pudding or cornbread stuffing may be, but they make appearances at many of the holidays and family get-togethers. These are the Cape Verdean crowd pleasers.
She also informed me that this year was kind of different, even though usually the menu stays close to the same most years. This year introduced more American elements as the family is morphing. So their Thanksgiving included some more of the typical things we tend to think of when dreaming of the classic Thanksgiving like mashed potatoes.
This goes to show that new additions to family and visitors adjusts and morphs the traditional Thanksgiving fare, just like I previously mentioned with my aunt bringing string beans. Not only is it different dishes, but members and visitors also include their specialties and favorites. Another of my friends mentioned that some things find their way on the holiday table because they are an expertise of a guest or a family member. And sometimes those items, like great rolls or fancy sweet potatoes, become a permanent fixture on the menu, taken up by another family member further down the line, passing on the tradition and recipe.
This is kind of like my boyfriend’s family. He patiently explained that this year was very different from the previous years, because all of his siblings were trying out new things. Typically, his mom made most of the fixings, the traditional ones (turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing… you know the drill), but this year there was an explosion of enthusiasm from the sibs and each contributed their own masterpieces, taking the weight off their mom. Some of the dishes added new favorites, like butternut squash lasagna and stuffed grape leaves, while replacing the foods that mom used to make, like the mashed potatoes and stuffing. The diversity in their dishes comes from family additions and also food interests.
Even the first Thanksgivings were not exactly how we picture them today. As I learned from Iron Chef America and Cooking Channel’s “Back in Time for Thanksgiving,” many of the things we eat today for Thanksgiving were hardly thought of then. The pilgrims and natives most likely chowed down on what they could find and what was available, like pigeon poultry, and corn breads, eels and other fishes, deer and other game. Lobster was a big part of early Thanksgivings in the New England area, and I know where I am from, we do not always see that. Just how price fluctuations and costs of food affect some current Thanksgiving traditions, availability of items played a large role in what was eaten early on.
The ideas and connotations of the Thanksgiving holiday have been conflated with food and over indulging. In reality, it is that, but it is also a moment for family and friends, celebrating traditions old and new. Food is just a great platform to bring these people together and reflect on bounty and blessings. Thanksgiving will always remain one of my favorite holidays, and I can’t wait to create my own Thanksgiving menu and see how it evolves.