When I was young. we always went to The Farm for Thanksgiving Day. But the preparations started at home for my mother, Eileen. She worked to make all of us presentable, even as she prepared her own contribution to the day's feast (surely the ubiquitous green bean casserole was among her contributions). What else she carried to The Farm I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure she was responsible for the salad.
Erase from your mind the idea of pretty little organically grown leaves sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil and a little lemon juice and sea salt. That hasn't yet become our salad. You have to wait fifty more years for that in Middle America.
In the early '50s, a feast-day salad meant not lettuce but the Jello salad I wrote about a couple of months ago: lime Jello, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, canned crushed pineapple, and pecans.
Eileen this the night before, letting it gel in a big flat baking dish. To serve it at The Farm, she would place a square of it on top of a chiffonade of iceberg lettuce (that's what made it nutritious).
So what else did Eileen prepare as her part of the Thanksgiving dinner? Perhaps the candied sweet potatoes, resting coyly under their puffy white blanket of marshmallows.
She might have made the soft dinner-rolls, but they were more likely to have been left to our Aunt Jeannette, The Farm's doyenne, so that they could be served piping hot from the oven.
As Eileen struggled to finish up all her preparations—us, the food, her own appearance—Daddy had dressed himself and gone to the car to wait. After one or two of us had straggled out of the house and into the car, he became impatient. (Well, he was always impatient, my father; he was a quick man and expected everyone to be just as quick as he was.) He began honking the horn to alert Eileen to the fact (in case she didn't already know) that it was time to leave. Honk-honk. Pause of a minute or two. Another child pops out of the front door and runs to the car. Honk!
"WHAT is she DOing?" Daddy would say in exasperation. He truly had no idea at all why she was running late. How could he know? HE'd never tried to fit in all the things she was supposed to do on this busy morning. Honk!
Finally Eileen was ready. Her contributions to the feast were tucked in the back of the station wagon, along with Mike and Jerry ("You boys keep your hands away from the food!").
Off we went, over the river and through the woods, to The Farm. "There it is! I see it first!" "No, I saw it first!" "Did not!" "Did too!" Etc. We were at The Farm. We drove up the drive south of the house and parked beside Uncle John T's car. The farm dog was an unfriendly black-and-white border collie mix that hated anyone who didn't actually live there with him. He barked and snarled around the car until John T called him off. Then we piled out and tumbled into the kitchen.
The Farm kitchen on Thanksgiving Day! The turkey has been in the oven since eight in the morning and has been regularly and patiently basted by Aunt Jeannette as she sped around the kitchen preparing the rest of the meal. Let's see. If Eileen brought the sweet potatoes, the green bean casserole, the "salad", and pumpkin pie, Jeannette would have been responsible for the mashed potatoes, the dressing, the cranberry relish (two kinds, both homemade), the rolls, the Brussels sprouts, and the creamed onions. Plus additional pies, of course.
The really hard part of preparing this meal was peeling enough itty-bitty onions for a crowd. Even using the old trick of parboiling them in their skins for a minute or two, it was still tedious to peel so many tiny onions. So Jeannette always did that job first thing in the morning (right after putting the turkey in the oven). Once they were peeled she simmered them until they were tender and cloaked them with a smooth white sauce made with both milk and cream. By the time we arrived, of course, the onions were ready to be popped into the oven for a final reheating.
The homemade jams and jellies and relishes had already been brought up from the cellar: translucent watermelon pickles, sweet and sour and with a smooth soft-crisp texture like nothing else in this world; corn relish; plum jam, thick and tart; and strawberry preserves fit for a king, a tribe of Johnsons, or a soft doughy homemade roll.
How many potatoes did Jeannette have to peel for that crowd? Seven to ten adults and a dozen children, some of them in their I'm-starving teen years? I always allow two potatoes per person when I make mashed potatoes (plus a couple extra for the pot). So that would make 38 potatoes, minimum. I think she started early. Nowadays, I've perfected ways to hold mashed potatoes for an hour or so, but when I was young, you simply didn't "hold" mashed potatoes. Potatoes were to be cooked and mashed at the last minute, no matter how awkward this was for the cook. But at least they would have been peeled and quartered in advance, covered with cold water in their pot, ready to put on the flame. The cream, milk, and butter that would enrich them were gently warming and melting on top of the stove (no need to put them on a burner; the stove-top was well-warmed by the oven's turkey-roasting).
By the time we arrived it was nearly time to seat ourselves at the table, which was actually two: the big dining room table for the adults, and a smaller table, half-in and half-out of the dining room, for all the children. The six of us, plus John T and Jeannette's three boys—that's nine around the children's table—though of course older children graduated to the adult table from year to year, crowding that one but depleting the children's group.
The groaning board of the table was open for business. The platters of food were passed from person to person, rather than being served by John T or Jeannette. Children's plates were fixed first, so by the time adults had finally put a little bit of everything on their plates, the children had progressed from eating to throwing food and were now dismissed to the upstairs, with a promise that they'd be called back for dessert.
We all stuffed ourselves on mashed potatoes, dressing, and turkey covered in mahogany gravy that was salty and smooth. We ate enough to choke a horse.
When did this harvest holiday descend from being a day of giving thanks for the harvest into a gluttonous feast? What god were we propitiating by eating more than our share? It was clear from the way the meal was presented that "more than our share" WAS our share, was indeed what we deserved. Do I sense a connection here with the over-consuming sense of entitlement that dogs us today?
Well, that was then and this is now. Some of the family traditions have survived. others are long gone. For my part today, I'd cheerfully eat just mashed potatoes and gravy for my meal, with a piece of pecan pie for dessert.
And since I've brought the subject up, here are a couple of pecan pie tips. The first I adapted from Paul Prudhomme's family cookbook; the second is my own. Toast a cup of pecans until they are deep, dark brown, then grind them almost to a paste in the food processor. Add that paste to your usual filling of eggs, sugar, butter, and corn syrup. Second secret: replace the corn syrup with an equal amount of sorghum syrup, also called sorghum molasses. Mix in a lot of whole pecans, which will rise to the top and form that nutty crunchy layer. Eat it for breakfast the next day, if there's any left over.
Food blog: http://fastandfearlesscooking.blogspot.ca