The leaves are mostly off the trees and crunching under our feet. The air has turned cold. The endless, and relentless sappy Christmas commercials and movies have hit the airwaves. The inflatable sleighs and snow globes have gone on sale. It’s the holiday season. As you can tell I’m pretty cynical when it comes to the holidays - well, I should say Christmas. It is one of my least favorite holidays of the year because I feel that society has lost touch with the most important part of this or any holiday – family and friends.
I grew up in a fairly large family. Many holidays were spent going from home to one set of grandparents’ house to the other and then back home. I grew up loving Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, not for what I got – believe me, my family could pull of some pretty amazing gifts, but for the time I got to spend with my family. Even more valuable to me was the time I spent with my grandmother helping her prepare all the food for the family meal. For some reason Thanksgiving was my most favorite holiday no matter what age I was.
My wife would say it was because of the food – I’m a sucker for a turkey dinner – as a matter of fact our first date was to Hart’s Turkey Farm in Meredith, New Hampshire – we both had a turkey dinner. I think the reason behind Thanksgiving being my favorite holiday is not just the food that goes onto the table, but the traditions behind that food, the people it is shared with and the time spent with family preparing it.
My family preparations for Thanksgiving would start almost an entire week ahead of the holiday. My grandmother and grandfather would get out their huge metal bowl and make the Thanksgiving stuffing. Though I wrinkled my nose at some of the ingredients, I loved my grandmother’s stuffing. My grandfather would get out the electric knife and cube the four loaves of Wonder White Bread. My grandmother would stand over the stove nursing three pans – one with butter, one with butter and onions, and one with chicken broth and chicken livers – I told you I wrinkled my nose.
Soon, the metal bowl was mounded over with cubes of bread. My grandfather did the mixing because my grandmother never had the full strength in her hands to do it. He’d have the cold water running from the tap, he’d hold his hands under the water then mix the hot ingredients together. Soon the white bread turns into a tasty brown Thanksgiving stuffing. They would then put the stuffing in gallon sized baggies that would then set out to cool. My brother, Keith, and I would steal tastes of the stuffing while it was out on the counter – my grandmother would always know even if she were in a completely different room – we’d unzip the bag, and she’d yell “leave the stuffing alone!” We never could figure it out. The best part of this whole thing is that my grandmother’s goal was to have the stuffing in the freezer before my father came to pick us up – she knew she’d have to make more for Thanksgiving had he ever gotten his hands on those bags.
The best part of my family’s Thanksgiving feast is that we get not one, but two different stuffings. My grandmother’s stuffing as I mentioned above and my Vovo’s stuffing. My Vovo is my maternal grandmother. She was very Portuguese and her stuffing matched her heritage to a T. Her stuffing, instead of livers, had chorizo and tomato paste. Equally flavorful and delicious and completely different. I look forward to both every year.
Fast forward to when my grandparents lived with us here in Maine. The stuffing tradition still stood, only I was the one who helped cut the bread and mix it together. Here in Maine, however, I remember my father and mother, about three days before Thanksgiving, picking up the turkey and setting it in the roasting pan. My mother would remove the gizzards and neck – I remember wondering, every year, how the neck came from the inside – took me many years as an adult to figure out that that’s where the butcher puts it for packaging. Anyway, my mother would mix up a marinade for the bird, and the bird would sit in the roasting pan being turned every so often in the marinade until Thanksgiving Eve. My mother would roast the turkey overnight in a low temperature oven. In the morning the house would smell amazing. After popovers made by my father for breakfast, my mother and grandmother would set to work on the sides: Mashed potatoes, gravy, squash and turnip.
Now, times have changed a little. All of my grandparents have since passed away. I make my grandmother’s stuffing with the help of my wife. I think, if memory serves me, I am the only member of my family who knows the recipe the way she would make it – not the way she dictated to my father a year before she died. My mother still makes the turkey and the sides. My father still makes his ambrosia salad. My brother makes his fantastic stuffed mushrooms, and my sister-in-law provides the maple roasted sweet potatoes. Though some of our traditions have changed, and our family has changed, the one constant that I always look forward to is sitting down at the table to spend time with my family.
I cannot divulge any family recipes. However, I will share with you a whipped cream recipe that is absolutely amazing on top of my mother’s pumpkin or apple pie.
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 Tablespoon real maple syrup
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
I use a whipped cream aerator to make my whipped cream, but you can whip this in a bowl using a hand mixer or stand mixer – Just be sure to chill your bowl ahead of time. Combine contents and whip to stiff peaks. Whip this just before the meal starts so it has a chance for the flavors to marry by dessert.