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Streetwise: Giving Thanks Through the Years

by Frank Dunnigan
November 2018

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Now that I have threescore-and-a-bunch of Thanksgiving holidays under my belt (both figuratively and literally), it’s time to take a look back at the subtle changes that have taken place in celebration rituals over the years.

Before my parents were married, Dad’s family enjoyed Thanksgiving dinners at Grison’s on Van Ness Avenue—a popular restaurant from the 1930s through the 1970s where management even provided guests with a box for taking home all the leftovers from each table’s turkey and side dishes. By the 1950s, though, they were celebrating at his family’s home on 21st Avenue in the Parkside. Mom’s relatives, on the other hand, had been gathering around her parents’ dining room table in the Mission District for every Thanksgiving dinner since her childhood.

In the early years of their marriage, they alternated between the two groups—a pattern that continued for some time. Once I arrived on the scene, my parents established a firm rule—we continued to spend Thanksgiving with relatives, but always stayed at home for Christmas and Easter, since it was too difficult to separate a young child from his just-opened gifts and chocolate eggs.

One of my grandmothers was a better cook than the other—something that became clearer to me over time. And while one of them permitted guests a beverage before dinner, along with a small dish of nuts, olives, and cheese-stuffed celery on the coffee table, the other imposed a fasting ritual that would have strained the most fervent religious zealots. In her opinion, even a single cup of morning coffee was sure to “ruin your appetite for dinner.”

Each grandmother emptied her linen closet and china cabinet to set an amazing table. Freshly ironed tablecloths and napkins were standard, along with large china dinner plates and an array of sparkling glassware, surrounded by more candles than at the Vatican. There were enough utensils laid out to dig another Panama Canal, and while one of them put out multiple sets of salt and pepper shakers, the other made all seasoning decisions in the privacy of her kitchen.

Each grandmother grew up in the era of coal-and-wood stoves, so it was no surprise that the time required to roast a turkey was highly subjective, even though both of them had been using modern-era gas ranges since well before I was born. (My personal preference today is simple—20 minutes per pound at 325° and covered with foil until the final hour.) There was the perennial debate over mashed potatoes (one favoring smooth and the other preferring tiny bits of lump) as the cook and her helpers were huddled over the oven, poking and probing the bird, while Dad stood by patiently holding his trusty carving knife—updated to an electric version after 1965.

At one house, it was just a small group of immediate family at the table, while the other grandmother included her four children and their three spouses, plus seven grandchildren, a few of her own siblings and their spouses, along with a variety of cousins—many of us overflowing onto the “children’s table.” Much of my interest in genealogy began once I was seated with the grown-ups, where I learned first-hand the difference between a second cousin once-removed and a third cousin, recognizing that I had some very nice ones in both categories. Place cards, if not actual name badges, were essential, and conversations ran the gamut of Chevy vs. Ford, employee benefits in civil service vs. private industry, and which cousin once came home from the office Christmas party and then fell headlong into the tree while adjusting the star.

Until the late 1960s, the dress code dictated neckties for men and dresses for ladies, but that’s where the resemblance to the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner table scene ended. Each grandmother “dished up” in the kitchen, making her own decisions about various portion sizes for each guest, which ones preferred light vs. dark meat, and precise quantities of mashed potatoes, dressing and vegetables (always frozen peas-and-carrots, boiled to death) for each of us. The only choices to be made by guests at the table were gravy, rolls, and cranberry sauce—Ocean Spray jellied, served on a small crystal dish which never held any other food in its life. That dish, now 100+ years old, is still in use on my own table.

One grandmother was a teetotaler, the strongest liquid in her kitchen being a bottle of vanilla extract. The other grandmother, who had an ongoing friendship with some retired Christian Brothers, was always in possession of a few bottles of wine—gifted to her in exchange for regular packages of chocolate chip cookies and banana bread that she would ship off to them in Napa County.

Both grandmothers served apple pie and pumpkin pie for dessert—made from scratch by one and purchased from The Different Bakery on Taraval by the other. Whipped cream and à la mode were essentials at one house, and at the other, were considered to be excesses that no one should expect after such a filling meal.

The Different Bakery at 925 Taraval Street near 19th Avenue., Feb 1951 - WNP collection

Sadly, by 1970, both grandmothers were gone. Mom’s sister began hosting Thanksgiving at her sixth floor apartment in Stonestown, and immediately relaxed the dress code—no more neckties required for men and women could wear slacks. She also ditched the boiled peas-and-carrots in favor of Stouffer’s spinach soufflé and a corn casserole. Gewürztraminer and Riesling wines were substituted for Grandma’s favorite Chateau La Salle (which always resembled a slightly alcoholic version of Welch’s White Grape Juice with a generous dollop of sugar added). Mandarin orange Jell-O salad replaced the tossed green salad favored by one grandmother and the vegetable soup served by the other in earlier days, while Sunset magazine’s “Artichoke Nibbles” were added to the selection of hors d’oeuvres. Those Thanksgiving meals throughout the 1970s/80s still evoke memories of spectacular sunsets over Lake Merced before, during, and after the meal, plus an ever-changing rotation of non-relatives, many of whom became close family friends.

After my aunt’s passing, Mom took over Thanksgiving when she was well past 70. Even though she never before hosted this holiday on her own, she was the hard-working #1 assistant to others for years. I remember taking her to Petrini’s at Stonestown to pick out a turkey, and she definitely put the staff through a rigorous workout. “Too small,” “bad shape,” “too heavy to lift” were just a few of her criticisms. One butcher finally solved the problem by gently suggesting that she buy two medium-sized, perfectly shaped birds, and then roast them side by side. Problem solved!

Guests now included a few of her cousins and some of Dad’s cousins, as well. One year, out of deference to picky eaters, Mom declared Thanksgiving to be a buffet, and laid out all the traditional dishes in the kitchen so that everyone could help themselves to desired portions of what they liked best before sitting down in the dining room. This method also accommodated second helpings, plus the erratic schedules of some guests who might be delayed because of volunteering to serve food at a shelter or by late-running high school football action at Kezar Stadium. At the end of that first year’s experiment, everyone agreed that serving dinner buffet-style was great.

Just before the turn of the millennium, we began accepting invitations from cousins and some long-time family friends who lived in the Wine Country. This turned the holiday into a long-weekend excursion, and that pleased Mom considerably—plus she did not have to worry about cleaning up afterwards. She even came home with some new recipes, including one for lemon meringue pie from our late cousin Kathy. The palate-cleansing properties of lemon are so good after a heavy meal that I still give a silent nod to my cousin by always having one of her pies among the desserts. Once home, Mom’s first task was always roasting a stuffed turkey so that there would be enough “leftovers” for sandwiches over the weekend and then a big pot of soup.

In this millennium, I rotate between accepting invitations from family and friends one year, and then playing host at my home the following Thanksgiving. Many years of being “assistant helper” has given me a fairly good repertoire of recipes, though just for the record, I will admit to a culinary mishap or two—like the year that I served a colorful but too spicy carrot soup from a recipe that I found on a can of ground black pepper—that should have been a tip-off!—or the time that one guest brought a pumpkin pie made with honey instead of sugar, thus producing a thick, syrupy filling inside a very soggy crust. Moral of the story—always have a back-up “Plan B” for an essential dish that does not turn out correctly AND know the location and holiday hours of the nearest neighborhood grocery store for last-minute emergencies.

Thanksgivings spent as a guest at someone else’s table remind me of side dishes that I have never been able to prepare successfully at home—the perfect cornbread muffins, a spectacular casserole of Brussels sprouts with bacon, hollowed-out orange shells filled with a creamy sweet potato mixture. Each year, I continue to experiment, hoping to re-create some of these memorable recipes.

As for serving, I began to notice a long time ago that Thanksgiving foods taste better when re-heated, so I now roast the turkey and prepare the side dishes one day before the holiday, and then let everything cool. Once the turkey is sliced and arranged on platters, I cover and refrigerate everything, and then clean up the enormous kitchen mess and relax, knowing that the entire meal is ready to go and that it just needs to be warmed up. So far, after more than a decade following this routine, there have been no complaints from guests, and I get to spend more time with them in the living room vs. working in the kitchen. In the years that I’m at someone else’s table for the holiday, I still roast a small turkey at home so that there will be a generous supply of leftovers for sandwiches.

Today, the linen napkins and lace tablecloths of the past have faded into history, and I use a very washable, non-wrinkle tablecloth/napkin set with an autumn leaf pattern that hides red wine stains easily. There is just a single orange candle as the centerpiece, and wine glasses are the sturdy survivors from a set of stemware given to my parents at the time of their 1947 wedding. One unmolded can of Ocean Spray is displayed on that small crystal dish, though nowadays there is also a more adventuresome homemade version of cranberry sauce alongside it.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a tendency by some people (NOT in my home and NOT in the homes of my friends and relatives) to include Santa Claus décor, complete with holly, twinkling lights, and decorated trees in mid-November. This is “holiday creep”—and creepy it is. As much as I love Christmas, it comes a full month after Thanksgiving on the calendar, and that’s where it should stay.

The most memorable celebrations seem to come soon after the loss of a loved one. In those years, there is some re-shuffling of the guest list—the dearly departed, perhaps someone else unable to travel, and occasionally some missing younger folks away at college or off on their own. At the same time, new guests appear—those whose plans shifted at the last minute, along with new friends and perhaps some recently-acquired fiancés, spouses, babies, and significant others joining us for the first time—often setting a new tradition for years to come.

Each time the group changes, we shift gears and welcome newcomers, sharing our own traditions with them, and listening attentively to their cherished holiday remembrances as we all give thanks—because that’s what this holiday is all about.

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