Here's the scoop: I grew up in PA and truthfully, my family never really travelled or went anywhere except the very rustic little cabin (no tv, no radio, no telephone, thus, no Internet) that my great-grandfather built many, many years ago outside of a little, teeny, tiny town named Mapleton. A great-uncle, long since gone, bought the place decades ago and it's stayed in the family, with minor improvements like a shower (I used to take a bath in the kitchen sink -- when I was 10, not 2...awkward!), but still no indoor commode. That's right my friends; an outhouse. But I digress...
You see, I never missed a Thanksgiving there until after I was married. I think I was 26 when I spent the first one away with folks that dressed a little fancier than our normal jeans and sweatshirts, had matching plates and silverware, and didn't have to eat in shifts (each year varies from 35-65 people for dinner, though the numbers have dropped off a little since my generation has grown up). Don't get me wrong -- I always liked going to The Cottage (outhouse excluded) with my family and the dozen or so dogs that roamed freely in and out of the kitchen throughout the day.
Grandmas would get up at 4am to start cooking turkeys, then everyone else would slowly rise starting around 6 or 7 and start finishing up from all of the prep work done the night before. When I say "everyone else" please understand that I mean the grannies and the aunties, NOT me. My generation (those of us who weren't slackers not because we didn't want to be but because we knew our moms & dads would KILL us if we didn't help) was responsible for setting the table, filling plastic cups with ice water, and then of course, washing the dishes as there was, and still is, no dishwasher. Most of the cousins would high-tail it out of there while it always came down to my side of the family and the sons of one of my dad's cousins washing dishes. A heck of a freakin' lot of dishes.
My family's menu was always basic and carb-tastic:
- Stuffing that I swear never actually saw the inside of the bird, despite my mother's claims
- Baked Corn
- Mashed potatoes
- Baked Oysters (layers of cracker crumbs, oysters, and butter -- that's it)
- Relish tray (carrots and celery)
- Cranberry sauce right out of the can, cut to accentuate the little ridges
The menu never changes. You can always count on the same dishes, made the same way. It's comforting and reliable. Plus, everything has some sort of sauce on it, so it's got that going for it too.
As I started alternating holidays with my husband's family and my own, I started to experience different kinds of food at Thanksgiving. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but cooked in different ways. I think that they even had unadulterated green vegetables AND salad. Salad! And wine. Wine! My family never had wine or any other kind of alcoholic beverage with dinner, so this was almost scandalous to me, yet somehow delicious and much appreciated. Yet there were many times that I longed for the casual comfort of the mountains, complete with cranky uncles, loud aunts, and lots and lots of yelling, I mean, speaking loudly.
Anyway...I believe that one of my great failings as a cook is that I've never made Thanksgiving dinner. I've taught classes on delectable side dishes, showed folks how to truss and stuff a turkey, whipped out fabulous desserts fit for a holiday buffet, but it's all a lie. I had to make dinner, or at the very least, contribute.
See, I'm not allowed to actually cook anything at The Cottage. I'm not old enough (41!) or experienced enough (did I mention that I completed culinary school and own a recreational cooking school of my own?). Hello? This is it -- my game. I'm ready. Put me in coach!! Nope -- not gonna happen.
So I took things into my own hands. A few years ago I decided to make a few things at home and take them to dinner, whether they wanted them or not. I knew that they would be delicious. I knew they would be better than anything we usually had. I can cook! I cleared it with mom, who gave me permission, begrudgingly, to bring a few things.
I made a cornbread-pecan stuffing complete with bacon (surely the bacon would win them over!) and all the yummies that would normally go in; onions, celery, etc.. It was moist and flavorful. The perfect complement to the turkey. While I was at it, I also whipped up a cranberry-citrus compote. Tart yet sweet and soooooo fantastic with real cranberries -- lumps and everything!
As I passed my offerings around, I was stunned as a solid half of the family refused to try them. Flat out refused. Said no. Wouldn't even taste a bite. I was defeated. I understand that with age comes a more strict adherence to tradition, but my food kicked butt. I was hurt and down in the dumps that they wouldn't even give it a taste. I do have to say though, my dad is about as stuck to tradition as you can be, and though it was a tough choice for him, he always tries what ever I make (especially sweets for Sugar-Boy!). He almost always likes it (unless there is thyme in it) and he tried what I made that year. It was a hit, at least with Dad!
Now, I realize that my family in the mountains want things the way they have always been, and there's nothing wrong with that. I can "get fancy" with my husband's side of the family and bring my cranberry compote and an additional side dish or two. They'll go over well and be appreciated. I guess there's a right time and a right place for everything, including everyone's own Thanksgiving traditions. As long as I still have green bean casserole, it will all be alright.
Tomorrow I'll post the recipe for my Cranberry-Citrus Compote -- you'll love it, even if you think your family isn't ready for it.