Three Things, Issue Eighteen

As holidays go, Thanksgiving lives at the tippity-top of my list of favorites. There’s something so lovely about its simplicity–a day to gather our beloveds, break bread and give thanks. You know, we should do that kind of stuff more often. And although I’ve moved beyond the romantic fairy tale of the landing of the Mayflower and alleged convivial clambake between the indigenous peoples and the Europeans, I’m still a sucker for the fact that we take a day out of our too-busy lives to simply be with each other.

It’s like we all press “pause.”

As dysfunctional as my childhood family was, we typically did holidays right. Everyone seemed to behave a little better. Thanksgiving was the one day of the year that we ditched our everyday plastic melamine plates for our grandmother’s elegant gold-trimmed and monogramed French Haviland china. We never had much money back then, but the pomp and circumstance of these beautiful, expensive dishes made me feel as though we did. The setting of the Thanksgiving table began days before the actual holiday. Tablecloths and napkins pressed, silver polished, crystal shined. As a card-carrying anticipation junkie, I loved going to school the week of Thanksgiving and coming home each day to discover what other preparations had been made in my absence. Pies baked. Potatoes peeled. Tear-inducing onions chopped on Thanksgiving morning giving way to the Macy’s parade on our tiny black and white TV perched in the kitchen. Relatives we rarely saw making appearances to pinch cheeks and press quarters into our palms. My mom’s stress level operated at a low roar on Thanksgiving Day, but she managed to pull it off, year after year. And then, after all the guests had left and the grandparents retired to their bedrooms, she would meticulously wash each piece of china in warm, soapy water, accompanied by deep, reflective sighs.

We all helped out on Thanksgiving Day, but there was no mistake of who really made the magic happen.

I am now the keeper of my grandmother’s china, as well as the china cabinet it was stored in. I love the smell of the antique cabinet–old wood and musty memories. The delicate clink of teacup on saucer that sends shivers down my spine. I usually set the table the morning of Thanksgiving, but it is no less a ritual than when my mother did it. I hear her voice as I pull the stacks of plates from the shelves. Be careful! They chip easily! I can’t replace that! I find the old wicker turkey basket that sits at the center of our table and fill it with whole walnuts, almonds and pecans, along with a nutcracker or two for those enterprising enough to crack them open. Tall, tapered candles and fancy candy dishes. Etched-crystal goblets and little bread plates. Which direction do the knife blades face? I imagine the voices of my relatives–grandparents, uncles and aunts long deceased–as I arrange each place setting.

I love ritual and tradition. I love Thanksgiving.

Growing up, we always had turkey and dressing. Mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Green lime jello blended with cream cheese and studded with pears for an “undersea salad”. Occasionally, a palate-cleansing course of sherbet. But I never remember there ever being a mushroom-soup-dried-onion-topped-green bean casserole on the table. Or candied yams lidded with tiny marshmallows.

And I’m okay with that.

Instead, these days I throw slivered almonds into a pan with a bit of butter and brown the nuts and butter together. I add in fresh green beans and sauté until a few of them begin to blister. Green beans almondine is fast and tastes brighter and fresher to me than a heavy casserole. Sweet potatoes are tossed in a sweet-tangy-spicy glaze of maple syrup, lemons and cayenne pepper. And for god’s sake–dry brine your turkey this year and every year after because it is the most simple, most delicious way to roast a turkey–or any poultry, for that matter.

So, in honor of Thanksgiving, I’m sharing three things that you’ll find on my holiday table this year and every year. Click on the title to link to the recipe.

Thing One: Maple-Glazed Sweet Potatoes

I get it. You love those little marshmallows on top of your sweet potatoes and can’t imagine them any other way. Fine–read no further. But if you’re ready for a change, give these a whirl. Everybody who tries them loves these sweet potatoes and I think they give a lovely bit of kick and zest to an otherwise heavy meal.

Thing Two: Caramelized Onion And Kale Dressing

Don’t even start with me about serving kale on Thanksgiving. This dressing is sublime. It is what you crave the morning after with an over-easy egg on top. (Unless you’re that friend of mine who can’t bear the thought of putting one more egg on one more thing.) But seriously–this is fantastic. Not to mention you can prepare all the parts of it days ahead of time, so that on Thanksgiving, you simply mix it up and stick it in the oven. It is so good.

Thing Three: NPR Cranberry Sauce (AKA Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish)

Full disclosure: I also serve that jellied stuff that slides out of a can, because if I didn’t, my family would kill me. But this stuff–this Pepto-Bismol pink stuff–is what I crave with my turkey and mashed potatoes. Again, it’s the contrasting bite of the horseradish and onion that gives a wonderful respite from the gravy-laden-mashed-potatoes on your plate. A hat-tip to my brother who introduced us to this magic many, many years ago. I can’t imagine my Thanksgiving without it now.

So there you have it. Happy Thanksgiving. Use the good china. Shopping can wait.

Press pause and take time to love the ones you’re with.