by Frank Dunnigan
I know that whenever I relate my own family's stories of Thanksgivings past, I get a series of all-knowing nods from friends and strangers alike, suggesting that they, too, have been down the same well-trod holiday paths as my own relatives. Join us now for a quick run down the Thanksgiving memory lane that courses through the various streets and avenues of the Outside Lands.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, Mom decided early on that it was not an easy thing to separate a child from his Christmas presents, so why bother trying? She and my father wisely judged that it was best to visit with relatives and friends at their homes on Thanksgiving and then to stay home on Christmas and play host to everyone else in December. This simple idea set the pattern for our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations for decades.
With that in mind, Thanksgiving always belonged to the grandmothers, and we alternated between the two of them, year after year. Dad's mother on 21st Avenue and Rivera, had some of her own rituals, one of which I'm going to resurrect this year. Starting in late October, Grandma would save all the crusts and bits of leftovers from all her loaves of bread, English muffins, biscuits, rolls, crackers, French bread, etc. as the basis for her turkey dressing. One of my first kitchen projects was to help her break up the pieces, and then feed them through her mother's old metal meat grinder that she bolted to her kitchen counter. Type of bread didn't matter—croissants, raisin bread, stale biscuits, and corn muffins all went into the grinder, and when mixed with chopped celery, onion, parsley, and golden raisins, the whole thing combined to make far more than the sum of its parts—the most delicious turkey dressing that I can ever remember.
That grandmother forced everyone into a pre-meal ritual that would have been the envy of any religious group that still promotes fasting. Not only was there nothing to eat before dinner, but guests were also encouraged to skip lunch on Thanksgiving day. My other grandmother, Mom's mother, always insisted that there be some appetizers before dinner, but nothing too heavy—"because you don't want to spoil your appetite." She set out tray after tray of stuffed celery—medium sticks filled with a variety of soft cheeses, topped with paprika, along with a few assorted olives and nuts, and grown-ups were entitled to one cocktail and kids could have one glass of root beer, but that was her limit for pre-meal snacking.
Mom's mother had seven grandchildren, and so all of us cousins were relegated to the "children's table" which we didn't like at the time, but which brought about the formation of certain bonds of closeness and affection between many of us that still exist today. That children's table largely disappeared once there were no pre-schoolers left, and we all joined in at the grown-up table after that, and finally got to know all those great-aunts and uncles, along with Grandma's cousins and their families. By the time I was 10, I could define the term second cousin once removed, and knew that I had several, one of whom, Carmel, the mother of five, I liked very much.
The practice of having children cut out autumn leaf or turkey-shaped place cards from sheets of yellow, orange, and brown construction paper, and then printing each guest's name on them was always a good way to keep idle hands busy during a hectic afternoon. It worked well with me; I used it with my godchildren throughout the 1980s; and with any luck, I'll soon be trying it again soon with a whole new generation. Understanding that someone you know as "Aunt Bun" also goes by the real name of "Veronica McEnnerney" is very enlightening for children, as well as being a good spelling exercise for them.
By the 1960s, with one grandmother gone, the other picked up full-time Thanksgiving duty. She had one particular quirk, and that was that she always insisted that food had to have the right color to match a particular holiday. With Grandma's edict in mind, Mom wanted to brighten things up with something orange early in the meal, so she relied on a neighbor's suggestion, circa 1967 or so, that remains with us to this day—Mandarin Orange Salad—a Jell-O-based salad with tiny orange segments and orange sherbet. It's light and refreshing, and has graced every Thanksgiving table in our family for well over 40 years now, and I'm constantly being asked for the recipe.
The turkey, of course, was center-stage, and Grandma used to pick up several extra drumsticks at the butcher, just so that there would be no squabbling among her adult children and their spouses about who was getting their favorite part. Some years, the center of her dining room table looked like an advertisement for the chorus line of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. This is one tradition that I've allowed to pass into quiet oblivion.
When I was in college, my last grandmother died, and Mom's sister took over Thanksgiving. For more than 20 years, the Stonestown Apartments on Buckingham Way were Thanksgiving Central for our family. The lobby and the elevators pre-told the treats to come from every one of the 90 kitchens in the building that day, and our mealtime photos show that glorious view from those towers out to Lake Merced and beyond, with a red-orange sky as the backdrop to our celebrations. Virtually every photo from the time shows Mom and her sister, backs to the camera, attending to last-minute prep work in the kitchen, both of them outfitted with Grandma's old aprons. Mom was destined to be the last of her siblings, and she took over the role of Thanksgiving hostess after her sister died in 1992, and held a firm grasp on it for the next 10 years, until the mantle was passed to me.
Vegetables are seldom warmly embraced by most meat-and-potatoes Irish families, and ours was no exception. Grandma's standard choice was a couple of boxes of frozen peas and carrots, boiled to death, but thankfully, that has faded from the scene. Nutritionally, I acknowledge that there must be at least one green vegetable—Mom used to make German Green Beans—fresh green beans, cooked with onion, then marinated in oil, vinegar, and pepper, and reheated just before serving. One year, my friend Linda, also ethnically Irish and German just like Mom, persuaded her to leave the big chunks of onion mixed in with the beans when serving them, thus bringing the whole dish up to a new level.
Now I happen to like sweet potatoes, but what some American cooks did to them beginning in the 1960s seems almost like a Mad Magazine satire on food preparation. I've seen them covered in marshmallows, doused in Kahlua, and buried under boxes of brown sugar with cubes of butter piled on the top. Most of these methods leave me cold (if not cold AND nauseated). My favored method is simply baked, then puréed with butter, salt, and pepper. One year, a guest brought along a baking dish filled with hollowed-out orange shells, filled with a rich mixture of sweet potato, butter, ricotta cheese, sour cream, and orange juice. Oh so good, even though you could hear heart ventricles slamming permanently shut all around the dining room table with each bite consumed.
Yellow is another favorite color for Thanksgiving vegetables, and corn usually tops the list, whether served plain, creamed, baked, as corn fritters, etc. I've had some success with corn soufflé recipes, though I've migrated away from the one that requires eggs to be separated and beaten, combined gently, and then stirred four to six times during its 30 minutes in the oven. The dish currently in favor among my family involves a combination of canned corn, milk, eggs, cheddar cheese, Corn Chex cereal, and some seasonings. Mix it all together, plop it into the oven for 45 minutes or more, and it comes out great. Bake it too long and the top just gets extra crunchy—nothing like flexibility on Thanksgiving!
Over the years, I've attended a couple of cooking classes and made the acquaintance of a couple of authors of various cookbooks, and I've tried introducing some of their favorite side dishes to holiday proceedings. One is Pickled Baby Carrots and another is Cheddar Scalloped Baby Onions. Everyone consistently remarks about how good they are, and everyone dutifully eats exactly one piece before passing the dish on to the next person. One friend, who specifically asked me to bring along the onion dish remarked, "It just would not be Thanksgiving without those onions." I later learned that such a statement does not necessarily mean that the speaker actually LIKES the onions—it just means that she feels it just would not be Thanksgiving without them. Given the slow rate of consumption, I began to estimate my preparation costs as $1 per baby onion (lots of ingredients), but oh, the leftovers are sooooo good.
Then there's cranberry sauce. Everyone I've ever known has some sort of clear glass or crystal dish (usually having belonged originally to Grandma) that has held nothing else in its 75-year life span but a can of Ocean Spray molded cranberry sauce each and every Thanksgiving. The first year that I worked for a popular San Francisco-based kitchenware company, I won a case of 12 jars of "Holiday Cranberry Relish" in a contest at work. Proudly serving the gourmet treat, I had glares from around the table, and was severely questioned as to "Where's the cranberry sauce?" My explanations were futile, with one guest hurriedly dashing off to the old faithful Eezy-Freezy Market on West Portal, where a veritable mountain of Ocean Spray cans had been stacked up at the check-out. People don't mind variety, but the host must never overlook tradition.
Finally, dessert would arrive, and with it, high expectations of tradition. Like millions of other households, there would always be both pumpkin and apple pie. My late Uncle Jack was the last person I ever remember who truly loved Mincemeat Pie—an acquired taste, to be sure. Mom would dutifully send me off to the old Ahren's Bakery on Van Ness Avenue on Thanksgiving morning, so that she could round out the dessert offerings with Unc's favorite, and although he left us in 1988, we still reminisce about his favorite dessert.
Beginning in the early 1990s, my St. Helena cousin Kathy began joining us with her family, and every year, as faithful as clockwork, she would arrive with not one, but TWO homemade lemon meringue pies. This became a colossal new holiday sensation in our family—cool and refreshing (and also adhering to Grandma's insistence on colorful), while cleansing the palate after a heavy meal. Sadly, Kathy left us last year, but her daughter promises to continue the tradition this year and into the future.
Then, as now, we all converge on the living room afterwards, polishing off the last of the wine, nibbling at bits of leftovers, watching replays of parades and football games, and thinking about how fortunate we all are, here with each other, knowing full well that each year brings about one change after another.
As we sit back and relax, we always reminisce a bit about those relatives and friends who are no longer with us, recalling treasured moments, their likes and dislikes, and their famous or infamous sayings, thus just setting the stage for the Christmas and New Year's holidays to come. As the calendar progresses, we give thanks, we rejoice, and then we look forward to the future as we all collectively perch on the cusp of yet another new year.
It's these real as well as these remembered get-togethers that make us love the holidays so very much.
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!
Page launched 16 November 2009.