Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Our Thanksgiving Table Expands...Along With Our Hearts

The Thanksgiving table is steeped in tradition.
Families make the same dishes from the same recipes, year after year, generation after generation. These tables laden with comfort food often unite us as a family, and remind us who we are and where we come from.

On my dad’s side of the family, the Thanksgiving table was set with special Thanksgiving china (used just once a year), where adults and children all gathered around a big harvest table, covered in an ornate linen tablecloth. There was a massive but meaningful centerpiece, symbolic of the abundance of the season. Often Grandma or Grandpa had a little scroll with a story or quote from one of our Mayflower ancestors next to each place setting.

Every dish was homemade, lovingly prepared, and painstakingly presented. The rolls, the pies, everything was baked from scratch. Grandpa even made his own cranberry sauce, and would don a baker’s cap and present the turkey, beautifully dressed, on a platter for all to admire, before he began carving. It was absolutely beautiful. 

When my mom joined my dad’s family, as the daughter of a department store president, she stepped very gracefully into this world of fine china and beautifully-decorated tables. She could also bake stellar Parkerhouse rolls, so her initiation was rather smooth sailing. 

On my mom’s side of the family, Thanksgiving happened in a quaint country cabin in Midway, Utah—a Swiss-settled town in a mountain valley, surrounded by rural fields and herds. There was a huge crowd, often as many as 60 people, and the food was less important than the ambience and the activities. After dinner we would all walk next door to the Homestead Resort, climb aboard a big wagon and go on a hay ride, pulled over the river and through the woods by a pair of Clydesdales. Then, like the Whos down in Whoville, we would all sing Christmas carols in rich, four-part harmony. 

My dad’s grandparents lived on a farm and raised horses, and he could sing a mean bass part, so he also melded effortlessly into this family tradition.

Admittedly, I was raised in a rather magical Thanksgiving Wonderland, seemingly straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting--on both sides. As the extended families grew, and the crowds became increasingly unwieldy, some traditions were scaled back. My mom adopted Thanksgiving as her holiday, hosting it at our house annually. The hay rides no longer happened in our city neighborhood, but we still ate on fine china and linen tablecloths around a big harvest table that seated 14-18. The turkey was no longer presented on a beautiful platter, but was cooked upside-down in a bag (Mom’s secret to keep it moist). Grandpa still brought his homemade cranberry sauce. And our gathering included an aunt and uncle and cousins.

After I married and moved from Utah to California, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. No way was I going to have her host 14 people at her house for Thanksgiving dinner, so I invited my parents and siblings to our little back-house in south-central Los Angeles for Thanksgiving.  Jeff and I had read an article in the L.A. Times about how to cook the perfect turkey, and we also wanted to try a Martha Stewart technique sliding fresh herbs between the meat and the skin to create a lacy exterior and added flavor.  We were already putting our own California spin on the family’s tradition. We also added roasted asparagus* and a fresh salad to our Thanksgiving menu, using our favorite Celery Seed Dressing*, and avocados from our tree. Mom showed me how to supreme a grapefruit, and layer and fan out the slices, alternating with sliced oranges and avocados, on each salad plate, with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds for garnish. Our first Thanksgiving dinner was as delectable and memorable as I’d hoped. (Those menu items are still part of our Thanksgiving traditions today. And they have become increasingly important now that my mom has passed away. )

After dinner we went to the beach and walked along the shore together, listening to the flap of the waves against the sand. After dark we all went to a movie together in Westwood. A new tradition was born. We continued this for years, with the family driving from Utah to California to celebrate with us, complete with the beach and a movie. Sometimes we did our own version of Black Friday shopping, and drove to Tijuana for some serious bargains.

In three generations of Thanksgiving dinners, on both sides of the family, the one thing in common is what was notably absent: Yams. I don’t know whether someone (other than my husband) expressed a particular dislike, but for some reason none of these families considered yams an essential part of any thanksgiving feast.

Imagine our shock when our new sister-in-law Ginny arrived at her first Thanksgiving with our family bearing not just yams, but a huge Yam Soufflé! I’m sure there were a few ruffled feathers and raised eyebrows. But we all dutifully dug in. And you know what? Whether you love or hate yams, Ginny’s soufflé tastes like an otherworldly confection. We cannot imagine Thanksgiving without it any more. We even published it in our family cookbook this year.

And, as you may have guessed, we also love Ginny. I cannot imagine a better fit for our family. She has made herself an integral part of us, just like her yam soufflé has become a Thanksgiving staple. 

When our daughter was invited to her new in-laws’ for Thanksgiving, eager to make a good impression, she asked for Aunt Ginny’s special Yam Soufflé recipe. Imagine her newcomer chagrin at their dinner, when her new sisters-in-law looked at her all disappointed, like, “Wait — that’s not OUR Sweet Potatoes! Where are the marshmallows?!?” Thankfully, they were gracious enough to sample her offering anyway, and discovered how good it truly is. Ginny's (now Jordan’s) Yam Soufflé has been on the menu at their Thanksgiving for several years in a row. And Jordan, like Ginny, has become fully enveloped into her wonderful family of in-laws. 

For Jordan’s husband, Austin, the one thing that makes it feel like Thanksgiving is Bumbleberry Pie. (“Bumble-what?” I may have thought. “What kind of berry is that?) But Jordan, devoted wife that she is, learned how to make it, and brought it to their first Thanksgiving at our house. And you know what? We all loved it! It’s one of my new favorites. Just like we love him! He is an even more wonderful addition to our family than the pie is to our table.

I remember my first time joining my husband’s Dansie family for Thanksgiving, and noticing the way each aunt and uncle took such an interest in me, and made me feel so welcome there. I loved their tradition of placing three kernels of corn next to every plate, and allowing each guest, from the youngest to the oldest — including this newcomer — to express three things they are most grateful for that year. Everyone listened attentively to each expression of gratitude. (Their genuine interest in others feels like an extension of this beloved tradition.) We still express our “three kernels” of gratitude every Thanksgiving. The teenagers dread it because it can take hours to hear from every person. But I always smile when the cousins serving abroad as missionaries include their “three kernels” of gratitude in their letters home at Thanksgiving. It is meaningful to them, and to us.

My mother-in-law
grew up on that Dansie farm in Herriman, and her sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy have that amazing down-home, farm-style flavor that is just unbeatable. I learned from her to boil the turkey neck and gizzard 
on the stove while the turkey is in the oven, and pull off the meat to add to the gravy. I love that in this way you are truly using every part of the bird that gave its life for our feast. Her cooking is renowned.

My in-laws have also graciously accepted my mom’s special grapefruit-and-avocado salad* at their Thanksgiving feast, as they have accepted me, and acknowledge what I bring to the table, so to speak. And when the next sister-in-law, Angie, came into the family, bringing her family’s Cranberry Relish, I didn’t turn up my nose because it wasn’t my grandpa’s version. I gave it a try, and I loved it—even if it does have Jell-o in it (or maybe because of the Jell-O!) Partly I love it because it’s chock-full of wonderful stuff like apples and pineapples and pecans. But mostly I love it because it’s hers. Every year she brings me a jar of it, and I add it to my oatmeal, and my yogurt, and even incorporate it some years into my cranberry cake. Similarly, Angie has become not just a sister-in-law but a treasured friend. And she is one of the most loving, accepting people you could ever hope to meet!

My younger sister experienced a somewhat bumpier transition into her extended family. Imagine her, growing up in the same Thanksgiving Wonderland I did, going to her first Thanksgiving with her in-laws, and being served instant mashed potatoes, and both the gravy and the cranberry sauce from a can (we didn’t even know they came that way). Instead of a beautifully decorated table, they all sat around the t.v. to watch the football game—an acknowledged norm for many families. Yet she must have felt incredibly homesick. It’s hard to find your place at the proverbial table when there is no table. But she is stalwart, and has worked and served, and found a way to love and belong in that family. She has also learned from them how to make dinner quick and easy, and how to keep your house spotless, and spends the rest of her time in other worthwhile pursuits. And her husband has learned to join us at the table and enjoy a hearty dinner and an equally hearty conversation.

Decades later
, my dad now owns a home in Midway and has carried on his in-laws’ beloved Thanksgiving hayride tradition for his children and grandchildren. My husband and I enlarged our dining room and ordered a custom-made Amish table that expands to seat 20. Gatherings are important to us. I don’t know for sure who the next addition to our family table will be, or what they will bring with them. But one thing I know for sure. We will love them. We will include them, and rejoice in what they bring. We will discover something new, just as we have with every in-law, and make sure they know they have a prominent role both at our table and in our family. And we will hope that they are also willing to sample our proverbial table of offerings, open to learning and sharing.

I honestly can't imagine our table without Ginny’s Yam Soufflé, Angie’s Cranberry Relish, or Austin’s Bumbleberry Pie. I can’t imagine it without the Dansies’ “three kernels of corn,” or their impact on our lives. And I’m incredibly grateful that my sister, who married into a family of minimal holiday hoopla, was thoughtful enough in my time of need to give me the gift of an effortless celebration.

In October of 2000 I gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. That November I was still grieving and healing from the loss, and I could not bring myself to host our beloved California Thanksgiving. My sister somehow sensed this. That same sister whose in-laws throw together the most basic of dinners and eat around the t.v., provided one of our most memorable Thanksgivings ever. She thoughtfully found a local restaurant that offered boxed dinners to go, and ordered us a complete meal. With zero thought for preparation or presentation, we picked up the boxes of turkey, mashed potatoes and other trimmings and took everything to a nearby canyon, in Arcadia. We ate our Thanksgiving dinner at a picnic table there in the canyon, followed by a brief hike, walking on pine needles and fallen leaves on a trail through the forest. As we each shared our three kernels of corn, despite the heavy loss, I was filled with gratitude. Of all our Thanksgiving celebrations, this remains one of our most memorable. It probably most like the original Thanksgiving, where our Pilgrim ancestors ate outdoors, and had lost many loved ones, but still chose to celebrate the harvest. It remains one of our most memorable.

I hope never to repeat the unfortunate circumstances that precipitated that rare Thanksgiving feast, but I have often rekindled the warmth and deep gratitude.

Above all, I recognize the importance of being flexible with our traditions, of opening our minds and hearts as new members join our family, letting the Thanksgiving table stand as an extension of family,  for welcoming their traditions (or lack of traditions) into ours, and reflect with gratitude that our lives have been richly blessed by theirs. 

*Recipes included in my cookbook, Kitchen Alchemy, available here.

Me asleep with Grandma Winters, for the cover of the Salt Lake Tribune on Thanksgiving Day.
My student-era painting of my grandma's table at Christmas (grandpa's chef's hat visible)
My dad's painting of the horse-drawn hayride in Midway.
My grandma standing next to the table at my mom's house for Thanksgiving.
An early California Thanksgiving, at our house in the 'hood, circa 1990.
Our walk along the beach after Thanksgiving dinner, also circa 1990.
Bonnie's grandfather, Alma "Hale" Dansie, with grandchildren on horse.
Dansie's Place family-run restaurant and store.
Our Amish dining room table, expanded to seat 20 for Thanksgiving.

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