A Toast to Turkey & All the Trimmings

- November 16, 2011

"I would help her cut the bread, sauté the onions, peel and mash the potatoes"

Every year, Americans give thanks on this day commemorating a feast that took place in late autumn of 1621, when 13 pilgrims from the Mayflower and 90 Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth Plantation following a year of struggle for the pilgrims through a harsh winter that claimed half their group.

Their menu of thanks included geese, ducks, swans, turkey, venison, corn, cod, clams, lobster, mussels, bass, eel, leeks, pumpkin, beetroot, wild onions, barley and corn bread. The meal lasted three days, and it influenced the dishes that we traditionally serve on Thanksgiving Day.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in an attempt to mend the rift between the North and the South after the Civil War, and we've been feasting on Thanksgiving ever since. Held on the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving is one of our major national holidays, and the busiest travel time of the year, as families fly across the country in order to gather with loved ones and friends, roast a turkey and make gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie.

In my childhood home in Princeton, N.J., my mom spent the day in the kitchen, starting with the stuffing around 7 a.m. She'd slice a loaf of white bread into small cubes, sauté the cubes in butter with onion, celery and herbs, then stuff them in a turkey that would bake for four to five hours.

Next she'd make sweet potatoes baked with brown sugar and butter, pearl onions, mashed potatoes, string beans, cranberry sauce, gravy, dinner rolls and pumpkin pie. The rolls were store-bought, the onions were frozen and the cranberry sauce was canned, but everything tasted delicious. I would help her cut the bread, sauté the onions, peel and mash the potatoes, stir the gravy, make the pie crust and whip the cream.

My grandparents usually drove in from Pennsylvania for the day, bringing cheese, crackers, pies or a bottle of wine with them. We'd watch the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade on television while we cooked and when we'd gather at the table for dinner, usually around 4 p.m., and offer a prayer of thanks for food, family and friends. Then we'd feast on turkey and all the trimmings, and after we'd cleaned up the kitchen, we'd play Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly, with a football game on in the background.

Today, I continue my family's Thanksgiving traditions, from waking up early to start prepping the stuffing and watching the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade to cooking the turkey and making the same baked sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes that my mother made. Though for years, I've made my own cranberry sauce. It's so simple, I don't know why my mom never made it. Back then, I suppose, there wasn't such a trend for homemade foods as we have today. I also make pumpkin pie with homemade whipped cream, using the same recipe crust my mom used.

My mom died from cancer 20 years ago, but I think she'd be proud to know that I'm continuing her family traditions for Thanksgiving, and other holidays, too. (Her Christmas pecan pie is amazing. I'll share that recipe here in an upcoming holiday post.)

Whatever your holiday traditions are, be it turkey with all the fixings or takeout Chinese food from your favorite restaurant, may you have a Happy Thanksgiving!