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Family Matters

The most important ingredient


I’ve spent my 37 years eating at the tables of some pretty amazing cooks.
My Gram was renowned for her beautiful caramel cakes; hamburger vegetable soup that could cure just about any ailment; her special pork tenderloin with mustard sauce; and breakfast spreads that could have fed the entire 82nd Airborne Division and always included, among everything you could possibly hope for in your first meal of the day, three different kinds of toast.
My Mamaw, a true Southern cook, rarely used a recipe and made the best chicken salad I’ve ever put in my mouth. I think it was the peeled, finely diced apples and sweet pickles, homemade with cucumbers from her garden, that made it so superb. If I could choose my last meal on this earth, it would be Mamaw’s fried chicken, fried cornbread, squash casserole, butterbeans and stewed cabbage, finished off with a glass of her sweet tea and a big ol’ slice of pineapple cake.
My mom cooked elaborate and enormous sit-down meals for the six of us just about every night of the week and twice on Sunday.
My dad makes fairly simple things like creamed potatoes and chicken ’n’ rice taste like home.
My father-in-law grills ribeyes and flips pancakes to perfection.
And my mother-in-law serves up the best chicken pastry and a Thanksgiving feast that I start dreaming about as soon as the first leaf turns each fall.
It’s safe to say that my clan takes our cooking (and our eating) quite seriously. I think it’s something in our DNA that makes us genetically predisposed to love extra butter.
And now, the season of eating is upon us, and my big family collectively understands the assignment. It is not lost on our current family cooks that we come from a long line of culinary standouts, and we try our best to carry on their legacy by way of following time-tested family recipes to a T. We’ll sometimes get squirrelly and add a Pinterest-inspired, fall-themed cocktail to the mix, but for the most part, the dishes that we all contribute to our Thanksgiving meal stay the same.
I’d venture to say that while our traditional roast turkey is always predictably tasty, it has never been the star of the feast. We’ve never brined it, stuffed it, tucked fancy herbed compound butter under its skin, or laid it upon a bed of autumnal root vegetables. We always have baked ham, too. But it’s really the dishes meant to complement the bird and the pig that we all look forward to most, along with the desserts that we force ourselves to make room for at the end of our meal.
The kitchen island is lined with bowls and pans of all the dishes that have, over the years, come to define our Thanksgiving. Frost-hit collard greens are triple-washed, chiffonaded into long strips, and cooked long and slow in water seasoned with ham hocks, a proprietary blend of spices, a few dashes of hot sauce and, yes, lots of butter.
Both sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes are served because it seems inconceivable to all of us to go without either. Green bean casserole is also an annual staple — not one of the new-fangled, gourmet iterations with fresh organic green beans, DIY chicken stock, and a homemade panko breadcrumb topping. We tried that one year and all agreed that for us, nothing but the ingredients-dumped-from-a-can and French’s Original Crispy Fried Onions-topped version will do.
There’s corn pudding, gravy and deviled eggs. A big pan of non-cornbread dressing (not to be confused with stuffing) is a bready casserole of sorts made by adding soft white breadcrumbs and crushed saltine crackers to one bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, chopped hard-boiled eggs, sauteed celery and onion, all held together with turkey drippings and — would you believe it? — butter.
A basket of yeast rolls comes from the grocery store freezer section. And you can’t forget homemade cranberry sauce.
Then there’s a heaping bowl of a family favorite that I would wager most people don’t associate with Thanksgiving, if they’ve even ever heard of it at all. It’s called Pink Cloud, and it’s one of those dishes that most people who live below the Mason-Dixon line would classify as a “salad” and balk at anyone who dared consider it a dessert. Pink Cloud is an interesting concoction: a served-cold blend of Cool Whip, canned cherry pie filling, crushed pineapple, chopped pecans, sweetened condensed milk and miniature marshmallows. As I said, it’s a salad, and it cannot ever be absent from our holiday table.
For dessert, there’s always chocolate bourbon pecan pie with homemade whipped cream and my sister’s famous pumpkin cheesecake.
I realize that our buffet is missing a handful of Thanksgiving-y things that some folks might say are a sin to omit: mac and cheese, rice, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, apple pie.
It’s fun to engage in some occasional good-natured debate with family and friends over what fare absolutely belongs on the Thanksgiving table and what things should come nowhere near it. And, joking aside, it’s touching to think about what everyone brings to our different tables, on Thanksgiving and beyond, and the important things like tradition and heritage that shape those dishes that we all gather to enjoy.
Whether you like your turkey stuffed, spatchcocked (yes, that’s a thing), roasted or fried, your sweet potato casserole topped with “pee-cans” or “pah-cahns,” your cranberries jellied or relished, and your deviled eggs concocted with Duke’s or Hellman’s, we can all agree that our unique dishes, whatever they may be, are each made with the one ingredient that must always be added to the mix and is best when shared: a big, heaping spoonful of love.