Readers' favorite fixin's and traditions

aweigl@newsobserver.comNovember 26, 2013 


To some, Thanksgiving traditions are sacred. And most of the time, that sanctity relates to the menu.


To some, Thanksgiving traditions are sacred. And most of the time, that sanctity relates to the menu.

It would not be Thanksgiving without Mom’s gravy, Aunt Linda’s sweet potato casserole or three, four or five kinds of pie.

Our Thanksgiving food traditions are so sacrosanct that we asked readers to share them and to tell us what happens when someone tries to change a tradition. These stories run from hilarious to inspiring. Some families experience a revolt at the dining room table. Others merge and adapt family traditions without much fuss. Still others go home and cook all the dishes they wanted to eat but weren’t served at grandmother’s house.

Here are the edited essays and some of readers’ “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it” recipes.

I came home for this?

Peter Lanier, 27, of New Hill: The words stuck in my throat like a stray bone. I choked on the fountain of outrage trying to escape my mouth as I stared at my sister and my mother, unbelieving and indignant. It was a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions – even more so since during the four-hour drive from Asheville, where I attended college, I had reveled in fantasies of smoked turkey dripping with gravy, steaming shovelfuls of chestnut stuffing, and serving bowls of Thanksgiving favorites passed around like sacred treasures.

But the word I could have never prepared myself for hit me where it hurts the most . Fish – that is what we were having for Thanksgiving. Not turkey. Not chestnut stuffing. Not anything that belonged on the festive, autumnal feasting table I had grown up with. Instead, my father, a food scientist at N.C. State University, had special ordered two fresh catches of enormous size and abhorrent fishiness.

“It will be like the Pilgrims,” they said. “It will be exciting, like reliving the first Thanksgiving.”

I wasn’t even sure if they ate fish at the first Thanksgiving, but if even if they had, why did we have to relive it? Despite my frantic appeals, I was too late. The fish had already been ordered. The ghastly deed was done.

Predictably, a somber atmosphere descended upon us as we sat around the table that Thanksgiving, staring at the roasted fish carcasses. As everyone quietly passed their plates to receive their allotted portion, we all thought the same thing: “ Why did anyone think this was a good idea?” To this day, I still don’t have an answer, but thankfully, that day was so awful that never again will our usual traditions be changed.

Editor’s Note: We asked Peter Lanier’s parents for a response to his essay. His father, Tyre Lanier, wrote:

While I would like to take credit for this particular aberration of a Thanksgiving meal, the honor actually goes to Peter’s older sister, the true gourmand of the family. She was, I think, on a mission to expand our culinary horizons.

As a food scientist I admit that I readily embraced the concept of transforming a fish into a Thanksgiving turkey. But wow, that red snapper cost me more than a truckload of chestnut stuffing. I remember thinking: “This had better be good.”

Unfortunately, I have to agree with Peter. It wasn’t.

So I and my family heartily apologize for popping my son’s holiday bubble that cold Thanksgiving long ago. Drive home all the way from college to join with friends and family around the festive ... fish? And the next day, we had no idea what to do with the leftovers.

We’ll pass on the Turducken

Betty Anne Lennon, about 60, of Raleigh: The Lennon family has gathered at Holden Beach every other year for Thanksgiving since the 1980s. Everyone shares in the preparation of the big meal. The menu always included two large turkeys to feed the 40-plus family members. There was never any turkey left over.

A few years ago, one cousin decided to take it upon herself to substitute a 21-pound turkey for a Turducken. This gave us one lovely large turkey and one small mystery bird on the buffet table. The turducken was mostly stuffing with a strong onion powder aroma, and fell into a blob on the platter with the first slice. It was left untouched. Those at the front of the buffet got turkey, the others chose to enjoy a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner that year.

A sweet potato tradition

Susan Lemmon, 61, of Charlotte: When we used to have Thanksgiving with my husband’s parents in Raleigh, I was introduced to two dishes I had never seen: peanut butter dressing and baked grated sweet potatoes. My mother-in-law was from Thomasville, Ga., where they love peanuts and recipes that use them. I was never a fan of that dressing; however, the sweet potatoes were wonderful. The shreds of sweet potato retain the slightest bit of firmness, almost like they’ve been cooked “al dente,” and they’re surrounded by a lovely spiced custard. This way to prepare sweet potatoes must be on our Thanksgiving menu every year.

A must-have

corn pudding

Kim Ammons of Zebulon: For the 26 years we have been married, my husband and I have alternated our Thanksgivings. One year would be celebrated with his family in Lizard Lick and the other with my family in the Triad.

His family’s feast would consist of the traditional turkey, dressing and a host of sides – one being corn pudding. This is a must with his family. The lucky family member who makes this demanded dish would take on the task of fighting the summer’s heat, shucking each ear of corn, dealing with the dreaded worms, silks sticking to everything and the corn kernels flying across the kitchen. One Thanksgiving, canned corn was substituted but only that one time. Being such corn connoisseurs that my husband’s siblings are, they quickly recognized the taste was not the same.

The next year, we would celebrate with my cousins from up North. Because of their Italian heritage, they prepared Italian Wedding Soup as our first course. Having them make the trip, we had to be the perfect Southern host and serve corn pudding. They hesitantly tried it and from that moment on, it has been the most requested item served at the Thanksgiving table.

A coleslaw that never lasts nine days

Susan Russell, 66, of Raleigh: A tradition in my house for Thanksgiving is my mother, Dot’s, recipe for nine-day slaw. It originally came from her sister-in-law, Alice, but we have tweaked it over the years. It can be used the day it is made but it gets better with each passing day. Ours never makes it all the way to nine days. It is perfect to serve with your turkey or ham. I hope you enjoy it as much as my family has for more than 50 years.

An island retreat

Beth Brody, 51, of Raleigh: Our family is originally from Pittsburgh, Pa. For the first few years of our marriage, we made the pilgrimage for Thanksgiving. By our third child, we realized that driving 1,000 miles round-trip with kids for a three-day weekend full of shuttling from one relative to another was really not the holiday experience we wanted. So 17 years ago we began our own tradition. We go to Bald Head Island every year for five days. This is without a doubt the smartest thing we ever did as a family. Our children are grown now and all of them count the days until our annual “BHI Thanksgiving Protected Family Time.” Bald Head Island has no distractions and for years no Wi-Fi. We spend our days taking in the beauty of the car-free island, playing games and watching the same five movies.

During the first few years, the island had a small store with limited supplies, so I had schlepped everything needed for a complete feast. We do it up right: beautiful place settings, organic free-range turkey from Whole Foods, lots of home baked desserts, including date bars, double chocolate chip brownies, pumpkin spice bread and even a Costco pumpkin pie. The island store is big now and has many choices, but in the spirit of tradition I still take 90 percent of our supplies. Our menu: Turkey with vegetarian stuffing, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, Gran Marnier-infused cranberry sauce, green beans with almonds sautéed in olive oil, lots of wine, pumpkin pie with fresh whipped cream infused with cinnamon.

Note: Those same five movies are “Jaws,” “Hook,” “Big Fish,” “Oh Brother Where Art Thou,” and “Birdcage.” And Brody notes: “Do not try to introduce an unsanctioned movie. I try every year just to hear the screams.”

Dessert and more dessert

Elaine Whisnant, 77, of Cary: Our family Thanksgiving traditions begin with the grandchildren making the little turkey appetizer, a pecan-coated cheese ball decorated with carrots and roasted red pepper to look like a turkey.

Before the meal begins, we hold hands around the table and each person recounts the blessings they have received throughout the past year and we give thanks. The main dinner is at 1 p.m. The menu each year, with slight variations, is: roasted turkey, dressing, sweet potato souffle, gruyere potatoes, Pennsylvania Dutch-style green beans, cranberry relish and cranberry sauce (the open-can-and-slide-into-a-dish kind).

At 6:30 p.m. our supper meal is a dessert extravaganza. Friends, neighbors and relatives from far and wide gather to end Thanksgiving day with all of our desserts combined and put on the dining room table; perhaps groaning board would be more appropriate. We have had as many as 21 desserts on the table with 25 guests. Some include New York-style cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake with gluten-free ginger snap crust, chocolate kahlua pecan pie, spicy pecan pie, apple pie, pecan pie, chocolate swirl cake, pumpkin pie, gluten-free pumpkin pie, fudge, pumpkin roll, chocolate chip pound cake, sour cream pound cake and whatever tickles the chefs’ fancy.

Fighting over the

turkey neck

Jeanie DeGroff, 63, of Raleigh: Growing up in an Italian family of nine children, holidays were always special and fun. My mom let each of us pick our favorite pie (yes, nine different types). We always had a huge fruit and nut tray, pasta and meatballs and sometimes even homemade gnocchi. Of course, there was the traditional turkey with homemade dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy. There was also Southern fried chicken and a baked ham.

The tradition continued even after we were all married with children. We all would gather at my parents’ home for the feast. The biggest problem was there was only one turkey neck. One year, my older sister actually picked me up, threw me over her shoulder and tossed me (gently of course) outside so she could get the turkey neck first. We laughed about that for a long time and still do today, some 35 years later! Now with my own family, I just buy extra turkey necks and roast them for hours and serve them as an appetizer.

Thanksgiving with Kevin

Dee Blackwelder Marley, 60, of Carrboro: Each Thanksgiving, my husband, Harris, and I gather with our friends John and Mona to share the same meal, at the same time, in the same place, but none of us prepares a single dish. Our food comes from the kitchen of Acme Food & Beverage Co., prepared by chef Kevin Callaghan and his team.

Thanksgiving wasn’t an important holiday in my family, so after I married Harris, we spent the day with his family. Fifteen years ago I was on call for my job and had to stay in town. Everyone understood because it was work and of course you have to do your job. It was so wonderful spending the day as we pleased and avoiding driving that I made it a point to be “on call” every year. By the time I retired his family was used to us staying put. We claimed a holiday for ourselves.

John and Mona joined us for the first time a few years later and we switched off picking the restaurant. After our first Thanksgiving at Acme, we stopped switching. We meet at the bar an hour before our reservation and share a bottle of champagne and force Mona to watch football. She hates football, but tolerates it nicely thanks to the champagne.

The restaurant offers the same options each year. The menu starts with soup or salad, then four entree choices and dessert. John and Harris always order the grilled beef tenderloin, Mona mostly chooses the turkey (which includes Yukon potatoes and gravy, bourbon sweet potatoes, sage and rosemary dressing, collard greens and green beans!) and I opt for either the pan-seared salmon or wild mushroom risotto. I do carry on one family tradition by not eating turkey. My father hated turkey and we usually ate country ham for Thanksgiving. We eat, we drink and we laugh. We laugh a lot.

I’d love to share recipes with you but since they’re Kevin’s, I don’t see how I can pull that off. As traditions go, I’m happy to let him keep his secrets as long as I get to eat the results.

A Thanksgiving leftover casserole

Carol Jones Shields, 55, of Scotland Neck: One of our most anticipated traditions has become the casserole that we make out of our holiday leftovers. We have grown to love this casserole as much or more than our featured Thanksgiving meal. I think part of its appeal is that the flavors have had time to marinate and that it occurs after the hectic pace of preparing our holiday meal has subsided.

A day or two after Thanksgiving, I take a casserole dish that will accommodate the remainder of our leftovers and I build this concoction. First, I begin with a layer of dressing on the bottom. Then I add bits of turkey and/or ham and spoon on a little gravy over these foundation layers. Next, I add enough cranberry sauce to cover. On top of the cranberry sauce, I add a layer of sweet potatoes or sweet potato casserole and, then, any remaining green peas or broccoli or string bean casserole. The final layer is creamed potatoes that are spread to cover the top, like a Shepherd’s pie. I sometimes add a few pats of butter on top and then heat in a 400-degree oven. Once hot through, I serve this all-in-one dish with a little extra gravy and some hot rolls. This casserole is a great way to use up your holiday leftovers and it always earns rave reviews.

Merging families

and traditions

Fredlyn Kelly, 56, of Raleigh: As a newlywed to my first husband, I got the recipe for my mother-in-law’s stuffing. My mother’s idea of homemade stuffing was opening a bag of dried bread cubes and following the package directions. My mother-in-law’s – made with white bread, turkey stock, turkey liver, sautéed onion and celery – was much better. My family and I always had grandma’s stuffing, even after my first husband and I divorced. It wasn’t Thanksgiving without it.

The first Thanksgiving after my second marriage, we merged two families and Thanksgiving traditions. Corn bread stuffing was, and still is, a must for my husband and his family. My stepdaughter always makes a huge batch. For several years we had stuffing and dressing, until my grown children confessed that they preferred the corn bread dressing to grandma’s stuffing. Not a problem at all!

A graceful way

to say thanks

Nikki Bird, 40, of Fuquay-Varina: When I cook the Thanksgiving meal for family and friends, I always stick to the old standards: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc. However, I like to introduce one new side dish that I’ve never prepared before. I keep the amount small in case it’s not a hit. But if everyone loves it, they’re begging me to cook it again next week.

Our family tradition: instead of saying grace, we hold hands and one by one say what we are most grateful for.

Sweet Potato Pone Susan Lemmon of Charlotte said the butter or margarine can be cut by half and the dish still tastes good. From “Tea-Time at the Masters,” an Augusta, Ga., community cookbook 1 stick butter or margarine 3 cups raw sweet potatoes, grated 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup milk 3 eggs slightly beaten 2 tablespoons dark corn syrup Juice and grated zest of 1 orange 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 1/8 teaspoon allspice 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Coat a large casserole dish with cooking spray.

COMBINE all ingredients in the casserole dish. Bake for an hour. Can be served as a side dish or as a dessert with ice cream or whipped cream.

Yield: 8 servings Corn Pudding From Kim Ammons of Zebulon. 2 cups corn 2 eggs 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk 1 cup sugar Butter (optional)

HEAT oven to 350 degrees.

COMBINE corn, eggs, flour, milk and sugar in casserole dish. Dot the top with slices of butter, if desired. Bake for one hour.

Yield: 8-10 servings Nine-Day Coleslaw From Susan Russell of Raleigh, who notes that you can add grated carrots and celery as well to this coleslaw. 2 pounds cabbage, shredded 1/2 green pepper, minced 1/2 red pepper, minced 1 medium onion, sliced 3/4 cup sugar 3/4 cup vegetable oil 3/4 cup white vinegar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon mustard seeds TOSS cabbage, peppers and onion in a large bowl or container with a lid.

COMBINE sugar, oil, vinegar, salt and mustard seeds in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Pour over vegetables. Stir to coat. Seal with lid. Store in the refrigerator for up to nine days.

Yield: 10-12 servings

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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