Pumpkin pie or pecan? Oyster stuffing cooked inside the bird or cornbread dressing baked in a pan? Collards or sauerkraut? Pick a side. The holidays are coming, so it’s time once again to prepare for our annual Family Food Fights.
The holidays bring families together for sharing simple joys and creating timeless memories. But once Thanksgiving, Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve actually arrive, what’s on the dinner table can make or break the holiday party. The turkey, ham, turducken or tofurky may come roasted, baked or fried, but getting Grandma’s sweet potato casserole (with those crunchy little marshmallows on top) just right or preparing Aunt Mimi’s greens-with-chow-chow properly can make all the difference in how the meal goes down.
We asked regular contributors to Atlanta Senior Life for some of their own holiday food memories. They are sort of our little magazine family, after all, so we thought we’d see what holiday recollections are hidden in our cupboards. Some shared a warm-and-fuzzy tale. Others recalled holiday-defining dietary surprises, confrontations with strange new foods, cooking mishaps or hard-core kitchen competitions.
Enjoy them as you prepare for your own family feast.
The season for stuffing (yourself)
My late wife’s family always had huge meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas. My late mother-in-law, Miss Carolyn (aka “Meemommie”) was always “lodge and in chodge.” (Translate that to say, “large and in charge.” In her truly “Propuh Suhthun” pronunciations, there were few R’s.)
Southern-style everything covered the holiday table: turkey, ham, dressing, gravy, sweet potato souffle, various veggies, greens of some sort, and desserts from G Daddy’s ambrosia to Aunt Mamie’s chocolate pie. Add Meemommie’s biscuits, made from a secret recipe, and we’re talking a family feast.
There usually were about 12 of us, sometimes a few more. The children’s table was in the kitchen and was reserved for the young ones and immature adults. When we were told “dinnuh” was going to be at noon, everyone knew it actually would arrive closer to 1 or 1:30 p.m. Of course, there was always joyful chaos with kids running around and the occasional puppy trying to steal a sample.
With the dressing and gravy, most diners enjoyed giblets (another word for innards), but there was usually some who had to have it giblet-free. Restrictions were requested for the souffle: no marshmallows on one serving, no pecans on another.
After consuming massive servings, we were pretty much filled to the gills and useless for the rest of the day. We’d move to the family room to watch football. If it was chilly, there would be a fire in the fireplace. The most difficult thing would be staying awake to escape the food coma we’d just inflicted on ourselves.
I must admit when I reflect on those days, I get a little misty. Memories of quite a few who are no longer with us physically, but the delicious memories remain. “Shuga, pass the peppuh sawce.”
How does a Hungarian cook fix collards?
When we celebrated holidays in our small Ohio town in the 1950 and ‘60s, we knew what each other’s friends and families would do and eat. We were all proud of our backgrounds, but none more so than my family, because our grandparents were Hungarian.
We kindly excused others’ habits (“Honey, she can’t help it, she’s Italian”) but lived with the smug (but always modest!) certainty that Hungarian anything was the best. For New Year’s Day, our good luck meal was always roast pork nestled atop sauerkraut sprinkled with brown sugar and served with rye bread. So, when I moved to Atlanta, I was shocked that I could find only a few pork roasts and dusty cans of sauerkraut at the supermarket.
But I married a Southern boy, and he requested black eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread … so, well, I tried.
I bought a huge bunch—a shrub? –of collards. On New Year’s morning, I sleepily stood at the sink and started to wash the greens—until a real, live grasshopper hopped out.
I hate grasshoppers.
I hate grasshoppers the way Indiana Jones hates snakes
I threw the greens out the door.
For decades, my husband has had his yearly collards from a can.
I will say that last year was a breakthrough of sorts because Publix carried triple washed, shredded (did I say triple washed?), bagged collard greens, and I cooked them with some broth and ham, and they were mostly edible.
A brotherly battle over oysters
My younger brother and I grew up to be competitive. He is 10 years my junior, so his competitive spirit was sharpened by my prodding and older-brother abuse.
As we grew older, we shared a love of food, especially Thanksgiving dinner. But differed on the dressing. My brother favored traditional dressing without too many add-on ingredients. I preferred much of the same, only with the addition of oysters, which a girlfriend’s father introduced to me when I was in high school.
Our disagreement turned into an annual competition to see whose dressing my mother would make each Thanksgiving. She was firm that she would make only one; she did not care which one, but only one.
We decided to hold an annual competition to decide whose favorite dressing would grace the table. We challenged one another in such sports as Wiffle Ball, throwing a football into a 50-gallon trashcan from 50 yards, dice, golf, putt-putt, bowling, and just about anything else we could dream up.
Our last competition took place on a cold November afternoon at my house. The contest was cornhole, that game where you throw a bean bag through a hole cut in a slanted board. We played three rounds, complete with bickering over rules and close calls. My cornhole game was strong that day and I broke the tie with a couple of well-placed shots. It would be oysters.
On Thanksgiving Day, we gathered, as most families do, compared kids, jobs, politics to start the argument, and whatever else. I gave myself a healthy dose of oyster dressing and passed the bowl.
“No thanks,” my brother said. “I’m going with green-bean casserole.”
Early the next day our wives headed to the madness of Black Friday. My brother and I headed out for a game of golf. When we finished, we packed the clubs in our cars and said goodbye.
He told me he had a gift for me. He handed me an envelope, smiled, and was off. I got in the car and opened the envelope. Inside was a wrinkled plastic wrapper for a can of Rocky Mountain Oysters and a note: “Your move.”
Wisdom of the sages: Grannies do battle over holiday dressing
My grandmothers had very different recipes for making holiday dressing. And, yes, it’s cornbread dressing baked in a pan, not stuffed in the bird – which is just disgusting. If you consider Stove Top a suitable alternative, delete me from your phone and social media.
My maternal grandmother, nicknamed Moom Moom, made very traditional cornbread dressing, starting with a skillet of buttermilk cornbread. She added chicken broth, eggs, onions, salt, pepper, butter, and some ripped up pieces of Sunbeam white bread to help “hold it all together.” The result was always a perfectly browned top and a super moist interior about two or three inches thick.
My paternal grandmother, Granny Kelley, followed a similar recipe but added two ingredients I could not abide by: sage and celery. What a way to ruin a good pan of dressing! I could live with the celery if it was finely diced, but sage just overpowered the concoction.
When the families came together for holiday meals every year, there was always an argument over sage vs. no sage in the dressing. Some family members were adamant that sage was an essential ingredient, while others – like me – thought they were crazy.
Over the years, Moom Moom’s dressing started to become the favorite, especially after Granny Kelley became more liberal with her use of sage, seemingly out of spite. Even the sage lovers started to drift toward Moom Moom’s pan – so much so that eventually she had to make two.
When asked about the family’s preference for Moom Moom’s dressing, Granny Kelley would suck on her dentures and diplomatically say, “Folks like what they like.” But I caught her more than once dishing up a big hunk of Moom Moom’s dressing when she thought no one was looking.
Forget the turkey!
I was about 10 years old when my Mama stopped having turkey for Thanksgiving at our old home on Johns Island, S.C. We would have chicken instead, she declared. She never gave a real reason, but I’m pretty sure I know why.
First, some background: Both Mama and I had the same gastric complaint, what some called “weak stomach.” My Daddy, three brothers and sister seemed not to be bothered by it. People with the condition, we all knew, tended to get sick in the stomach by just the sight of gross things like rats, roaches, blood and worms. Even the mere mention of them could make us lose our appetites.
My Uncle Bubba may have contributed to her ban on turkey. Bubba, Mama’s brother, and his wife had stopped by the house for a visit a few weeks before Thanksgiving.
It was a pleasant day and we all sat on the front porch. The women were sipping iced tea and chatting about what they would have for the holiday when my uncle interrupted and said that he once read a hilarious story in a tabloid newspaper about Turkey Day. A disgruntled café cook in Texas, seeking revenge against his bosses for docking his pay, he recounted, secretly substituted a roasted buzzard in place of turkey and served it to unsuspecting Thanksgiving Day diners — which caused them to gag when they took a bite. They wanted the cook arrested, but he skipped town and was never seen again.
“They ate a danged buzzard,” my uncle said with a chuckle. “But buzzards and turkeys do look a lot alike.” Mama, though, with her queasy stomach, seemed to turn a little pale. “Bubba,” she said, “let’s talk about something else.”
It might have ended there, except that a few days later Mama was driving my sister and me and one of our cousins to church. Then, up ahead, we saw a large dark mass alongside the rural, two-lane road. “Buzzards,“ I said.
Mama slowed down. As we approached, the heavy vultures lifted themselves away from their roadside meal. “They look like turkeys, fattening up for Thanksgiving,” our cousin joked.
Mama clearly was perturbed. “That’s not nice, son,” she said.
But it was shortly after that when Mama announced that she would roast a fat hen or maybe two and have that for Thanksgiving. She said she no longer had a taste for turkey. I applauded her decision. And that was that.
By the way, I got over my turkey aversion many years ago. I especially love smoked turkey.
The millennial macaroni and cheese bakeoff
Something really memorable is pretty much bound to happen at my family’s Texas Thanksgiving gatherings. A few years ago, the big event was the Millennial Macaroni and Cheese Bakeoff, a first for our family.
The whole affair bubbled up when my son and two nieces told my mother they’d like to make the macaroni and cheese dish traditionally served at our holiday meal. Grateful for more cooks and more leftovers, she said yes to each of them.
One of the cooks suggested they compete to see whose macaroni and cheese the family liked best. Two of us — my mother and me — immediately knew we weren’t voting. As Mom put it: “Both of them are my grandchildren!”
The cooks set out to procure their signature ingredients — multiple flavors of Cracker Barrel cheddar blocks for my niece, heavy cream for my son. The battle was on.
My niece followed her other grandmother’s recipe, which calls for mixing the ingredients in a casserole dish. My son believes in making a cheese sauce, which was nearly finished when disaster struck.
In her quest to make space on a stove jammed with pots of collard greens and boiling giblets for gravy, my mother accidentally knocked over the simmering pot of cheese sauce, losing all of it to the stovetop, the browning turkey in the oven and the floor.
Was this the end of the competition? No way! After an all-hands-on-deck cleanup, my son said he “practically begged” his cousin for some of her ingredients. She “decided to be gracious” and shared.
When all was done, they placed hot samples of their fragrant dishes on small plates labeled with an A or B. Both choices were delicious. Several people cast votes and my niece won unanimously and peacefully. No calls for a recount. No claims of fraud.
Later that evening, I couldn’t help but tell my brother that if I’d been forced to vote I would have chosen my son’s mac and cheese because of its mildly spicy flavor. To my surprise, he said his daughter’s was rightly the winner because it was creamy, and consistency is key.
We knew it was best to drop this one before it went any further.
—Donna Williams Lewis
In praise of cranberries that come from a can
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who love canned cranberry sauce, and those who are wrong.
Think about it. You’ll spend at least 30 minutes preparing every other dish on your Thanksgiving table. Canned cranberry sauce comes with two instructions: 1) remove from can; 2) serve. You’re done in under a minute.
Do you really need to spend another 29 minutes on your feet making homemade cranberry sauce? That’s time you could be spending with your grandkids or preparing for Black Friday Deals.
Besides, why mess with perfection? If you insist on getting fancy, buy the canned cranberry sauce with the whole berries in it. A bitter memory I’ve carried from childhood is the time my mother put a cranberry Jell-O mold in front of me on Thanksgiving. I still don’t think I’ve forgiven her yet.
On a table full of savory options, let your sweet tooth get in on the action with the tangy goodness of canned cranberry sauce. Yes, it’s loaded with sugar, but you can technically say your family got at least one serving of fruit as they’re falling asleep on the couch. And you can’t top off a dry Thanksgiving leftover sandwich without some tart and juicy cranberry sauce.
Here’s how badly homemade cranberry sauce wants to be canned cranberry sauce: You can buy a ceramic serving dish for your fresh-made cranberry sauce that molds it into the shape of canned cranberry sauce.
Be not fooled by the annual slander against canned cranberry sauce. It will only lead you astray, and you’ll end up washing more dishes.
One icy Turkey Day, dinner meant frozen pork chops
On one Turkey Day in the early 1990s, my wife, two daughters and I planned to drive from our home in Dallas, Texas, to my brother-in-law’s house in San Antonio, for Thanksgiving dinner and a weekend visit.
I’d heard a forecast of freezing rain but hadn’t paid it much attention because a couple of similar prognostications had busted recently. Just as I passed Texas Stadium (where the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game was in progress) sleet began, which turned to freezing rain. I skidded on an icy patch. This was not looking good.
We’d barely made it the two miles to the interstate (after nearly colliding with another car) before concluding that going any farther would be foolhardy. Sliding back to the house and having nothing resembling a Thanksgiving dinner on hand, we thawed some pork chops and turned on the football game.
Then the power went out. Fortunately, the chops were done. Barely, but done. We opened a couple cans of cold, gluey vegetables and picked at our food while being peppered with questions by the youngsters (“Why didn’t we get to go to Uncle Mike’s?” “Why do we not have turkey?”)
Fortunately, the lights returned a few hours later, after indoor temperatures had dipped into the 50s and we’d resorted to huddling under blankets and praying that the pipes wouldn’t freeze.
The next day dawned sunny, which we thought would mean some melting on the roads. Checking travel conditions, it appeared that if we could just get 40 to 50 miles south, the ice would be gone. Following a couple of hours of low-speed driving and occasional fishtailing, we reached dry roads and kicked in the afterburners. The family did get its turkey fix, one day late. For which we were, yes, thankful.
“Pork chops, the Ultimate Thanksgiving Meal” became a running family joke. And they haven’t been on a holiday menu-any holiday menu- since.
The true taste of the holidays? Homemade cookies
My favorite food memory of my childhood was baking Christmas cookies with my mother. We’d be stationed in our tiny ’70s-style kitchen for hours, sometimes days. My mother doesn’t make just one kind of cookie, but about a dozen. Everything was made from scratch. Some might call it going overboard, but to me, it was just the way you did it.
We’d roll out sugar cookies, cutting them in holiday shapes ranging from snowmen to Christmas bells to angels. Sometimes, we’d paint them with colored egg wash to give them a fancy shine. I’d spend hours carefully drawing with gel icing, strategically placing sprinkles and doting my creations with gold nonpareils (which seemed so exotic in the’80s).
Mom would always make more elaborate cookies, including crescent-shaped pecan sandies that were perfectly shaped like a waning moon and doused in powdered sugar. My very favorite (still to this day) were the jam thumbprints, these soft buttery cookies covered in crushed walnuts and topped with spoonfuls of berry jelly.
At the end of this marathon, we had tins and tins of cookies filling our pantry.
It wasn’t until later in life that I’d realize just what a production this was. Some year in my mid-20s, I had the brilliant idea to give everyone in my life a tin of gourmet cookies. I’d make 10 or so kinds. I’d just need two dozen of each. I’d just do it like mom used to. Easy.
I spent three days in that kitchen, easily 10 hours a day. Because I couldn’t just do it well enough, it had to be cookie perfection. I needed the latest and greatest in cookie decoration. Gold cookie spray? Yes. Sprinkles shaped like Christmas trees and candy canes? How could I not have those? Could I make simple cookies? No way. One was a dark chocolate cake with a caramel center, drizzled with chocolate in a perfect zig-zag pattern. That’s a three-step process.
To this day, I simply cannot make a simple dessert. Want a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving? OK, but it’s going to be decorated with hand-cut pie crust and sprinkled with cinnamon to look like fall leaves. Need a plate of cookies for the holiday feast? Alright, but I better take a few days off work.
Every holiday, we continue to have an impressive dessert display. Mom doesn’t make just one pie for Thanksgiving, but more like six — pecan, pumpkin, apple, lemon meringue, and whatever else catches her eye that year. And of course, we each get our own tin of cookies for Christmas, filled to the brim with peanut brittle, fudge, jam thumbprints, pecan sandies and more.
It’s always my favorite gift.