I didn’t know that we would have a white Thanksgiving when I wrote my recent post for Lucky & Me. It’s been snowing since noon and all the trees are covered with snow. The kids were outside building a snowman this afternoon, and they’ve come in to warm up with hot chocolate and marshmallows. The turkey’s in the fridge and the pies are in the oven, and despite losing a few guests to the weather, we are looking forward to a day full of delicious food and wonderful company.
Over the river and through the wood,
To Grandmother’s house we go.
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh
Through the white and drifted snow!
Over the river and through the wood,
Oh how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
As over the ground we go.
These are verses of the song my mother would sing as we traveled the interstate highway in our green station wagon, on our way to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving. We certainly didn’t have horses or a sleigh, but when my mom was a little girl her family did. They had a barn full of horses, wagons, carts, and a sleigh. She and her brothers would bundle up in blankets as their father encouraged the horses to race across the snow with the promise of a steaming mug of hot chocolate at the end of the ride. Her grandparents lived nearby and they could ride “over the river and through the wood” to visit. She often talks about those idyllic days, when the entire family gathered at every holiday, and no one lived further than could be traveled by horse-power.
When I was a little girl we lived in the snow belt of upstate New York and I remember my father shoveling the snow into piles that reached way over my head on either side of the path to our front door. My brothers and I spent hours playing in the snow: sledding, building snowmen and snow forts, making snow angels. Winter in the northeastern United States meant snow and quite often we had snow before Thanksgiving.
Perhaps this is why I always associate Thanksgiving with the cold – and love the cozy feeling of sitting in front of the fire, cracking open walnuts, with the smell of the turkey roasting in the oven, and the pumpkin pies baking. I love Thanksgiving. There are no gifts to buy, and the focus is on family, friends, gratitude, and counting our blessings. Yes, there is a big meal to prepare, often for 10 or more people, but the Thanksgiving menu, while extensive, is quite simple due to tradition. In my family, and many others, there is little creativity needed to plan Thanksgiving dinner.
Turkey is a definitely required – although, we tried Turducken one year. I’m not sure if it was due to the departure from expectations, or unappetizing visual presentation of a boneless hen inside a boneless duck inside a boneless turkey– all filled with a highly seasoned stuffing– but it was not a hit. This year for the first time, I have ordered a farm-fresh turkey. On Tuesday afternoon, I will stop at the farm stand and pick up a turkey which was running around the farm just that morning. I can’t wait to find out if there is an improvement in flavor, or if anyone even notices.
We have prepared stuffing the way my dad likes it for my entire life. Dad prefers his stuffing without any sage or seasoning of any kind other than salt and pepper. So I take two loaves of white bread, toast the slices lightly, and cut them into cubes. On Thanksgiving morning, I saute onions and diced apples in a lot of butter, add the cubes, lots of salt and pepper, enough chicken broth to moisten, and if I’m feeling daring I put some into the turkey and cook the rest separately. I have read all the warnings about how stuffing in the bird is unsafe because you can’t be sure it’s cooked properly and therefore could give all your guests food poisoning, but stuffing is infinitely better if it’s soaked up the turkey juices so we take our chances.
No garlic smashed potatoes for us! We have a minimalist approach to mashed potatoes. Boil them until soft, add butter and cream, salt and pepper, and mash to desired consistency. For us, that means there are still some lumps to give texture. We don’t want our mashed potatoes as smooth as baby food.
You won’t find jellied cranberry sauce in the shape of the can on my table. My mom always makes the cranberry sauce– just a couple of bags of cranberries boiled in orange juice with lots of sugar and a bit of cinnamon. Delicious! She also brings a dish of squash– nothing fancy, just a bit of salt, pepper, and some butter.
We do like to have a bit of green on the table. This year I might get creative and do a dish of Brussels sprouts with Balsamic vinegar. Don’t know how the folks will react, and I probably will have a Green Bean Casserole as backup. You know the one, it’s found on the Campbell’s mushroom soup can and involves canned green beans and French’s French Fried Onions. The recipe was developed by the Campbell’s Soup Company in 1955 and has been a staple in our family as long as I can remember.
Dessert is the one area where I can inject some creativity. Although it’s always pie and each guest has a favorite. My dad loves mincemeat pie, which his mother made when he was young, and at that time the pies were truer to their British origins and actually contained meat and suet. These days, a mincemeat pie is made with dried fruit, sugar, molasses, lots of spices, and perhaps some rum or brandy, but no meat whatsoever. I buy them already made, or if I’m feeling adventurous I have put together a crust with a jar of mince meat, but one day I might feel ambitious enough to try this recipe from 1798. Pumpkin pie is probably the most traditional Thanksgiving dessert, and the top request of my mom and son, so I always make at least one. And I always make at least one pecan pie– my personal favorite.
I have hosted our family’s Thanksgiving dinner for the last decade or more. This is one of the times when I fervently wish I had a sister! This year, we’ll be 11 at the table, and we are the epitome of the American blended family. We’ll have an 81-year span from the youngest (our 10-year-old daughter) to the oldest (my dad, intrepid at 91). We’ll include friends, family, step-children, in-laws, grandparents, parents, and siblings.
I am feeling a sense of relief that Thanksgiving is upon us this year. We have lots to be thankful for– our family has endured illness, surgeries, and even death in just the last couple of months– and now, everyone is mending well. The kids are all doing well at their various pursuits, and we even have a baby coming– due on Christmas Day. Thanksgiving Day is an annual reminder for us to slow down the pace and spend time with loved ones. And to remember that we are truly blessed!