In his 1863 Thanksgiving toast, Abraham Lincoln said, “The year that is drawing to its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
I have very fond memories of our family Thanksgivings in Virginia. My mother and I would begin preparations days in advance, polishing silver, ironing the pale green embroidered tablecloth, which only came out in November, and making a detailed shopping list. As I recall, my brothers and my father spent this time watching football and poking the fire. The centerpiece would be a bowl of green and red apples and nuts with a nutcracker. “How’s that Redskins game coming along?”
On the day of Thanksgiving, my job would be to meticulously arrange as many mini-marshmallows on a casserole of mashed sweet potatoes as I could fit. I still love sweet potato casserole with mini-marshmallows and I’m not ashamed to admit it! My father, a fully disabled, very proud World War II veteran, would always contact the local Veterans Administration Hospital to invite whatever stray soldiers were around with no place to go that day. Our cousins would join us and it would be the same jolly feast every year.
For many years after that, we would go to our in-laws’ farm in Doylestown, Pa. Nanny, a superb cook, did most of the work, so I have never in my entire life been responsible for cooking an entire Thanksgiving dinner. Since I am a pastry chef, I am usually asked to bring the pie. But what I really like to contribute are side dishes. Side dishes that travel well.
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, a three-day feast of venison, duck, goose, turkey, lobster, clams, smoked eel, cornbreads, leeks, watercress, wild plums, dried berries, and plenty of wine. The occasion even included games of skill and chance.
In the mid-17th century, Thanksgiving became an annual event after the first harvest and was celebrated on different days in different colonies. In 1777, President George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving as a celebration of victory in battle, whereas John Adams and James Madison chose other dates, none in autumn. In 1817, the governor of New York appointed Thanksgiving an annual celebration, but some Southern states opposed the observance of this day on the grounds that it was a relic of Puritan bigotry. Sarah Josepha Hale (maiden name Buell) has been credited with convincing President Lincoln to give Thanksgiving a yearly, permanent national date.
Thanksgiving celebrations have changed as families have changed. What do you do about the vegetarian guest? What if family tensions and sibling rivalries escalate? Why are the women in the family still doing all the work? These are questions that even the Butterball Turkey hotline can’t help you with. But I can help you with some imaginative side dishes. How about a mashed potato casserole with a little something extra? A sweet potato dish with some Southwestern flair and bite? A wonderful salad that combines many Thanksgiving ingredients but without the calories? And last, a brussels sprouts recipe that will convert the fusspots in your family. Some of these recipes can even be made a day ahead, so all you have to do is show up and present your lovely, fragrant dish to the harried host.
For transportation and ease, it is best to bake some of these dishes in the container they’ll be served in. In other words, don’t take a Tupperware container of mashed potatoes for 20 people and expect your hostess to scramble for an attractive platter. So use your more fetching Le Creuset or simple, white ceramic baking dishes, which can go straight onto the buffet or dining table. Take your salad fixings in plastic baggies, but take along a nice wooden salad bowl and servers to be helpful. Put the food in the trunk of your car with a baking sheet or tray underneath. Line the tray or sheet with a dish towel to prevent slipping and sliding. Yes, you may be a good driver, and it’s only two miles to Auntie Mary’s house, but chances are Bambi and Uncle Buck are going to fly across the road in front of your car and you may just have to slam on the brakes!
This year I shall be a grateful guest of the White family. One of my brothers will be in Chicago, the other in Key Biscayne, Fla. My son will be celebrating a faux-American Thanksgiving in Canada with his vegetarian girlfriend. I will miss them all, as I miss our long-deceased parents.
So this year, once again, let us give thanks for all that Abraham Lincoln reminded us to be grateful for. And in my case, I’ll also give thanks for only having to contribute a side dish or two to this elaborate, great American food holiday.