I never really thought that it was important to do the exact same thing every year when celebrating a holiday or event. I still make a point of changing up the food on occasions like our Christmas and Easter dinner. However, I have found that since having children, there are certain things that I cannot mess with, and if I do, I will ruin or mar their experience and expectations.
On our way home in the car from my mother-in-laws house last night my daughter said, “Thanksgiving wasn’t as good this year” and her comment took me by surprise. The whole clan probably turned out the best food in years and surly that was the most important thing? Well, not the case according to my kids (at this point my son had piped in his agreement of it “not being the same as before”).
Since moving closer to my husband’s family 12 years ago we have always celebrated Thanksgiving at my husband’s parents house. I never really wanted to take on this holiday because growing up Ireland I did not know about Thanksgiving, nor had ever seen, let alone eaten, pumpkin!
My introduction to this holiday was a long time ago at my friend Dave’s friend’s house in a town in upstate New York. They were an older couple, and when I sat at their Thanksgiving table the spread before me felt habituated in tradition and familiarity. They offered me sweet potato pie with white fluffy marshmallow on top like they ate it everyday. So many of the dishes were so alien to me that I did not really know how to approach or even enjoy the meal.
It turned out that this particular Thanksgiving dinner was only one take on Thanksgiving food, and what is cooked varies from generation to generation and from family to family. I landed myself in an era and in a house that added a lot of sweet elements to practically everything, from the broiled marshmallow topping to the jello which accompanied the turkey meat. The only remote similarity to anything I had ever eaten was mint jelly with lamb (and that was extremely rare as it is more of an English than an Irish tradition – a bit too posh for us!) and mango chutney on my cheese and toast (another english thing which came from the British Empire expansion into India) which I love to this day to the disgust of my kids who find it distinctly unappealing and adds one more thing to their list of what makes me a weird mother (in a good way I think).
Over the years I have been to quite a few houses for Thanksgiving and each one had their own unique style of celebrating. The elements that are key however are the same across the board, even if cooked in very different ways. There is always turkey, some kind of sweet potato, yam or squash dish, cranberry relish/dressing, corn in one form or another and pumpkin pie. After that, you can add things like green beans, brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, meat or bread stuffing and perhaps a salad with something sweet added, like dried cranberries.
When we moved closer to my husband’s family, it was so much easier to settle into their traditions than try to create my own version of Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law always makes the turkey, mashed potatoes and her mother’s meat dressing (sort of tastes likes an aromatically spiced Shepard’s pie). Our family and my sister-in-law’s family work out the rest of the sides between us. Even though Diane likes to plop out a gelatinous can of cranberry sauce onto the table, my sister-in-law began making a fresh cranberry sauce/relish infused with fresh ginger a few years ago which is sublime (and now she always makes extra for me to take home for my cheese and toast breakfasts) and now we expect her to make it every year.
I have ended up making various vegetable side dishes (and I always make my mother’s bread stuffing that we had every Christmas day growing up) while Dave makes the pumpkin pies. My sister-in-law’s husband ( I still do not know how I should refer to him, but Bob is his name so I’ll go with that) Bob grew up with an Italian-American mother and so he always brings an unctuous pasta dish that feels celebratory to him. I look forward to this dish because there is always something magical about a dish that someone has been making their whole life that you can never copy, even if you follow the recipe to the letter. I am still trying to unlock the secret to my mother’s bread stuffing and have yet to capture the essence or soul of the dish.
This year was different because my lovely mother-in-law Diane was under the weather and we insisted that she not darken the door of the kitchen this Thanksgiving and that we kids would take care of everything! That left me in charge of some of the more important components of the meal, namely the turkey – yikes. My strategy was to look at lots of roast turkey recipes to get a sense of things and what would work best for me. There were all sorts of decisions to make: marinate or not marinate, brine or not to brine, barbecue perhaps??? Anyway I went with a slow-cooked method with lots of basting but pretty straightforward. That way, while the turkey lazily cooked, I could get on with all the other dishes I committed to preparing, (and I was severely committed).
I stuck to what I knew about roasting chickens and adjusted for the weight (15lbs, small really by Thanksgiving standards). I used a very basic mirepoix (celery, carrots and some fresh herbs from my garden, along with a lemon from the grocery store!) and white wine and it was pretty darn wonderful. So much so that I want to share it with all of you who might have to tackle this job on the 25th of December.
But back to why my kids were disappointed yesterday. When we got to Diane’s house she was lying on the couch and asked if it was okay if she didn’t join us at the table and we could hang out with her after dinner. Of course, but we felt bad and made a seating adjustment to make sure she was not left out completely. Some of us sat around the ample kitchen table and the rest set up a makeshift table in the living room with Diane, and this is how we ate our Thanksgiving dinner. The dining room felt so much further off so this was a good compromise. (I liked it better in some ways as the food was all right there with no schlepping dishes to the center of the dining room table and the usual running back to the kitchen for forgotten items).
I asked why it was not “good this year” and she told me that it was not the same because we were not all sitting together in the formal dining room. I didn’t even think about this. She said she missed the food running down the center of the table in lovely bowls and the big ceramic turkey (that Grammy insisted on being there) right in the middle of it all, and how we all went around the table to say one thing we were thankful for (always a dreaded moment for some, including me – so hard not to sound cliché). She said the food was good but that it didn’t taste the same from the plate sitting on her lap on the couch.
Wow – I completely got it of course. I am the one who always insists, no matter how many people are crammed into our house for any kind of party, that we use real glasses and real plates. I cannot stand eating from paper plates and drinking wine from a plastic cup! The dining room at her grandmother’s house is so different from her own. It is filled with heavy dark wood which is carved and serious-looking. The seat and seat back of the chairs are all covered in a rough tapestry fabric with dark wood to match the side boards and table. There is a chandelier hanging from the ceiling and we eat in this room exactly once a year, each Thanksgiving.
This room has become the very heart of Thanksgiving for her, and my son. When they get excited about this holiday they picture the turkey with all of the trimmings, and that dining room. And she was right. It was different for me as a grown-up whose life has been made up of making adjustments and juggling my way through unforseen obstacles. I did not think anything of shifting from the dining room to the kitchen and the couches and chairs in the living room. However, it did make a difference to them and I felt sorry that their experience was lessened. I told them that we didn’t think about the implications but that next year we would make more of an effort (even if someone is sick, we can prop them up in a comfy chair!) to all sit around the table and eat together. And now that I think about it, we never did say what we were all thankful for either.
I don’t think it was a total disaster by any stretch, but I just wanted to comment on how we count on things when we are young. It was very poignant to hear my kids talking in this way and made me more aware of how we unconsciously shape their childhood memories. I will tread more mindfully in the future. After all, I don’t want them to end up on some psych couch blaming me for all of their problems (that’s a joke folks).
So here at last is the ROAST TURKEY RECIPE (serves 12-15)
You will need:
1 12-15lb turkey (whatever quality bird you can afford)
1 head garlic – peeled and finely minced
1 tbls fresh thyme leaves
1 tbs tomato paste
1 tbs honey
juice of 1 lemon (save the juiced lemon for the cavity)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
several grinds black pepper
3 sticks of celery, broken in half
2 cups baby carrots or 3 carrots cut lengthways and cut in half
2 to 3 stalks of sage with leaves
bunch of fresh thyme with stems
2 cups white wine (Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon blanc)
2 tbs all-purpose flour
2 tbs soft unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 400*
Each pound of meat will take 14 minutes to cook so write down the time you put your turkey into the oven and calculate the time it will be done and write this time down also. It will save you guessing and being confused later!
1 – finely chop the garlic with the thyme leaves, salt and pepper until is looks paste-like. place in a small bowl and add the tomato paste, honey, lemon juice and olive oil. mix together.
2 – pat the turkey dry and then run your hand between the skin and the flesh to separate. Take some of the mixture and insert it between the skin and the flesh, covering as much of the area as you can open up. Rub it very well. Rub about 3 tablespoons of the mixture all over the outside of the bird.
3 – put the thyme leaves and the juiced lemon halves into the cavity.
4 – Arrange the celery, sage and carrots in the bottom of your roasting pan (like a rack – see picture in this blog post) and set the turkey breast side down on top.
5 – Turn the oven down to 325* place into oven. Cook for 30 minutes and then pour a cup of the wine over the turkey and cook for another 30 minutes. Pour the last cup of wine over the bird and continue to cook. Baste turkey every half hour or so.
6 – one hour before your turkey is cooked, remove from oven and turn turkey over so it is breast side up. Baste and cook for the last hour basting once halfway through.
7 – remove from oven when your turkey reads 175* and remove to platter and loosely cover with foil. Rest for 30 minutes.
8 – strain the turkey juices and skim off as much of the fat on the surface as you can. Place back in roasting pan or into clean saucepan and bring to a low boil. Mix 2 tablespoons of soft butter and 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour together until you form as paste (called a roux)
9 – Add the roux to your gravy and stir quickly with a whisk to disperse. Stir for about 2 minutes and cook for about 5 minutes more so the flour cooks into the gravy. Taste gravy and adjust for salt.
Carve turkey and serve with gravy.