…memories of grateful & merry gluttony.
When I was a very little girl, Thanksgiving in Savannah was a large family gathering at my grandparent’s house on the Wilmington River, complete with the obligatory 2:00pm turkey dinner. It was quite southern: I don’t remember snow, but it was just cool enough for a sweater, and while there wasn’t even a whiff of Christmas, the holiday was festive in its own right. An entire Thursday set aside for gratitude was a still big deal back then and it commanded attention without serving as the doormat of the holiday season. The annual, single airing of the Charlie Brown special was emblematic of my childhood Novembers, along with turkey handprints, construction paper feather headdresses, and historically iffy Pilgrim pageants. Thanksgiving was a peaceful custom I relied on to balance the fantasy and fancy of Halloween and Christmas.
All of this seems very Americana-standard, but our family had a couple of special assets, the least of which was a penchant for impish naughtiness. There was always laughter and some sort of badness at every family function and Thanksgiving was no exception. But more importantly, we had the bluff, that green, salt-kissed oasis at the edge of the marsh at my grandparents house. Everyone would gather on the bluff beforehand for a convivial oyster roast with Bloody Marys, and then return after dinner to watch the Thanksgiving regatta sail by. Our tryptophan recovery was not dependent on football, but rather we all simply breathed in the beauty of the river. And we laughed and laughed and laughed. It was this quirky and uniquely coastal adaptation that sealed my love of Thanksgiving, although I didn’t know it at the time.
I remember those holidays as casually traditional and comfortably predictable, although there was that time raisins showed up in the sweet potatoes. It was quite the scandal – it’s funny how such a silly, seemingly inconsequential thing like a raisin could cause such chaos. But that’s the paradox of Thanksgiving. Raisins led to a heated discussion about how marshmallows are far superior to pecan streusel topping. That of course morphed into the old jellied v. whole cranberry sauce debate, only to be punctuated by a cousin breaking a knife attempting to (re)carve the turkey. Daddy seized the moment to blurt out something cleverly disguised but nonetheless offensive and a baby started wailing in the background. My great uncle Bob attempted to salvage some family dignity by reciting 18th century verses on gratitude as an ironic blessing over the meal:
“Gratitude is the fruit of cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.”Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784
Everyone was just a bit tiddly, so when the adults finally made it to the dinner table they no longer possessed the faculties to absorb those poignant readings. And then there was eight-year-old me, the observant grandchild too young to understand all of it, but old enough to appreciate Uncle Bob’s efforts to civilize the heathens.
In the late eighties our family Thanksgivings took an interesting turn in the spirit of both rebellion and convenience. Somebody’s mother declared: “nobody wants all that turkey and stuffing” and that was the end of that. Instead of a traditional holiday meal, it was determined that Turkey Tetrazzini and a giant green salad was close enough. Mother and Tante A. would each make a version the creamy turkey and noodle casserole in place of roast turkey, stuffing etc. They were equally delicious and we were all perfectly free to choose, but I knew better than to betray my maternal bloodline. Unlike many recipes that are floating around, there were no peas or carrots, but plenty of ‘shrooms, a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese and a distinct hints of nutmeg and sherry.
In all fairness, they were exquisite and sophisticated, and the word “casserole” is an injustice. Best of all they removed the stressful demands of babysitting a 20-pound bird and her various accompaniments so everyone could partake in the pre-game activities. We named them the Dueling Turkey Tets and they merely needed to be heated up during the oyster roast shenanigans. Today a Tet is my go-to recipe for Thanksgiving leftovers, right after a turkey sandwich slathered with gravy, cranberry sauce and stuffing.
During the nineties Thanksgiving often shifted from the waterfront to my parents’ house in the historic district, an 1880 Victorian with massive gingerbread porches overlooking Monterey Square. These porches essentially became the new bluff, a breezy brokered exchange between inside and out where guests gathered throughout the afternoon. Also, the bar was there. The oyster roast was relocated to the lane, the Dueling Tets took their places on opposite ends of the sideboard and the Bloody Marys were replaced by hazy, orange Tequila Sunrises. That probably explains the post-feast dance parties instead of snoozy lounging in front of the television.
From then on the Thanksgiving craziness waxed and waned, Tets and turkeys came and went, and the various branches of the family outgrew the cozy gatherings of my 1970s childhood. But in 1998, when I was a young mother, we had what might have been one of last holidays out on the island. With four generations dutifully and respectfully waiting for the blessing, another great uncle decided this was the perfect moment to tell the gang about some new little blue pill he discovered. Apparently it was a Thanksgiving miracle. Dear Uncle Bob tried to intervene once again with a solemn, scholarly passage, but the damage was done; there was no coming back from that one. We all convulsed and giggled for the rest of the meal.
When my boys turned five and three I really wanted them to experience a very traditional Thanksgiving dinner in a slightly more wholesome setting. Luckily time has a way of tamping down “badness” while sparing silliness and fun, so for 20 years we’ve simply bounced between Husband’s family in New Jersey and my peeps in Savannah, especially when my little sister had children and took over hostess duties. This year I wanted to just stay home, dance around my own kitchen in private, and update some old recipes – a big family Thanksgiving is not the moment to experiment or hack.
my ridiculously traditional menu: roast turkey, giblet gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato soufflé, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce
In addition to my French take on the sweet potatoes, I enhanced the green bean casserole with a savory béchamel, four types of mushrooms and crispy fried shallots. I also compromised with Husband and served mashed potatoes instead of rice in exchange for a 2:00pm dinner. Yes, that’s still considered dinner. For the purposes of familial harmony I’ll swear that there was no sour cream or cream cheese in those potatoes, but the Silver Palate might disagree. I chose a 7-pound Turkey breast that I surrounded with a basic, herby ciabatta stuffing and a straightforward gravy amped up with some additional giblets. Without Sous Chef around I had the entire can of Ocean Spray’s finest jellied cranberry sauce all to myself, served whole with rim marks visible as custom demands. And in an inevitable fit of “we don’t have enough food!” I whipped up that Jiffy corn casserole which we really didn’t touch. It was a full table of thanks and carbs.
Thanksgiving feels a little different as I grow older; not just the people at the table or the menu or the toxic political issue du jour, but the overall tone. Perhaps it’s because the third Thursday in November is more and more dependent on the holiday marketing cycle. Or maybe because it takes more effort and honesty to place the day in historic context, from colonial mythology through the 20th century to the present. My own memories paint a vivid and lively picture now, but at the time those unconventional Thanksgivings were a lot for a little girl to digest. They certainly spawned a reactive little goody-two-shoes traditionalist for many years. But the best of those outrageous moments are who I am today, from jester to sage and everything in between.
Soapbox time: I really hate when Thanksgiving is identified only by the threat political discord and the promise of tasteless, carbohydrate-ridden food, as if either of those are new things – we’ve been at it for years. Have you heard of Richard Nixon? Duh. Is stuffing an evil socialist construct of the last 10 years? Hardly. Haven’t we all gagged down Aunt So-and-So’s vegetable surprise? I bet yes. I’m calling out the endless tropes that have reduced Thanksgiving to a mandatory family meeting sandwiched between two flashier holidays. We’ve been duped. Many people (snort) have said there is a war on Christmas. That is utter nonsense, but Thanksgiving is apparently under actual threat. Heaven forbid we have a day of reflection and thanks for what we have, instead of complaining about what we don’t or scheming for what we want or holding our hands out for candy or a present. Gratitude as a quantifiable exercise is appalling to me. Count your blessings? How about welcome them, embrace them and fold them into your life. I now yield the floor to my Turkey Tet recipe:
- 12 oz spaghetti
- 3 cups leftover pulled turkey
- 5 Tbs butter, divided
- 2 Tbs flour
- 2 cups turkey or chicken broth, room temp
- 1 cup heavy cream or half and half, room temp
- 1 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- Pinch of fresh ground nutmeg
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- at least 8oz mixed mushrooms, sliced
- 1/2 cup dry sherry
- salt & pepper to taste
Preheat over to 350°.
Cook spaghetti in salted water until just under al dente. Rinse with cold water to stop cooking, drain and set aside.
Heat 2 Tbs of butter on medium-low in a medium saucepan. When melted, add flour and whisk until smooth and golden, about two minutes. Slowly add the 1 cup of cream and 1 cup of chicken broth, continuing to whisk until incorporated. It will take about 8 minutes to thicken, so whisk occasionally to prevent lumps. Add 1 cup grated parmesan cheese, stir to combine and adjust salt. Dust with fresh nutmeg to taste. Remove from heat.
In a large skillet, heat 2 Tbs butter on medium. When melted and bubbling, add chopped onion and sauté until soft and just beginning to brown. Add garlic and sliced mushrooms and cook until tender. Season generously with black pepper. Deglaze the skillet with sherry. We like lots.
Add the shredded pulled turkey and white sauce to the mushroom mixture and toss gently to combine.
Fold in the reserved noodles. If the sauce seems too thick, add stock 1/4 cup at a time until creamy but still fluid. The noodles will want to soak up some of that liquid. I kept mine in the carbon steel skillet but you can transfer to a pretty 9 X 13″ greased casserole dish if you prefer. But then you have a casserole, so…
Top with remaining Parmesan cheese, slivered almonds and panko. Dot with 1 Tbs butter, bake for 20 minutes and serve hot with a big green salad and a self-satisfied smirk.