Tradition versus transition

Posted 11/15/23

I, like all of us, have been celebrating Thanksgiving for many, many years. 

Thinking back over the decades, I find there are some sketchy spots in my memory. I remember that when we were …

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Tradition versus transition


I, like all of us, have been celebrating Thanksgiving for many, many years. 

Thinking back over the decades, I find there are some sketchy spots in my memory. I remember that when we were very young and living on Long Island (from the time I was born to when I turned 10), we would drive into Manhattan to watch the Thanksgiving Day parade from an office high up in a building overlooking the festivities. 

Dad had a friend who had an office there and we had the place to ourselves. We were so high up that the floats of Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Babar the elephant bobbed right before our eyes, very close. It was exhilarating. 

Afterward, we would drive down to Chinatown and have Chinese food on Mott Street. I doubt we had turkey of any sort. It was probably the usual suspects: eggrolls, spareribs, egg drop soup for all of us but Mom, who liked wonton soup, shrimp in lobster sauce and either lo mein noodles with chicken or beef with peppers.

Then comes the period when neither my sister Janet nor I can remember celebrating the holiday and what mom prepared, but there’s no doubt that we did have Thanksgiving during those years. There was most likely a gloriously burnished turkey with a simple herb stuffing; twice-baked potatoes or simply roasted sweet potatoes; a fresh salad; cooked (previously frozen) string beans topped with toasted, slivered almonds; canned cranberry “sauce” (until we knew better); and a tangy apricot-pineapple mold. 

We moved to Queens in the mid-‘60s, and dishes made with Campbell’s canned soup and gelatin were at their height of popularity. Mom used them rarely. She preferred fresh or frozen foods as opposed to canned, which she felt (and knew) had little nutritional value. 

Though my memories of those years, before Mom’s death when I was 20 and Janet 23, are hazy regarding the holiday, I am positive that we never had a sweet potato casserole topped with mini-marshmallows, limp and gooey green bean casserole glopped together with cream of mushroom soup and topped with French’s fried onions, creamed pearl onions or stuffing incorporating such oddities as oysters, sausage or chestnuts.

After Mom’s death, we moved Thanksgiving dinner to Philadelphia, where our older brother Buzz lived with his wife Wendy and their two boys. For years we celebrated the holiday there, and every member of the family chipped in with a dish, flowers, wine or dessert. 

Before the holiday, we’d spend weeks on the phone planning the menu and trying to come up with alternatives to the traditional fare. Wendy consistently made a perfect bronzed, moist turkey with mushroom and herb stuffing, and a side vegetable or two of some sort. Buzz liked to make a couple of ducks with two fruity sauces that cut the slight gaminess of the birds. Janet created bakery-quality cookies of all sorts. Dad made the sprightly raw cranberry and orange relish, and I was in charge of hors d’oeuvres—a composed salad and mushroom gravy made with the copious drippings from the bird. 

One of the boys usually brought a bouquet of flowers to brighten the table and the other baked something for dessert, such as pecan pie or once a well-received pumpkin cheesecake. 

During the meal, we’d take a moment to put down our forks and share with each other what we were thankful for. 

There were wonderful, fun and free times—and awkward, tense meals over the years. Family dynamics at play. I have both fond and angst-inducing memories of those Thanksgivings in Philly.

But all things change. After one particularly upsetting celebration in Philly, Janet, Dad and I decided to spend the holiday in New York. For reasons I can’t quite put together, Buzz and Wendy caught wind of this plan and asked if they could join us. I researched restaurants in the city planning elaborate and innovative Thanksgiving feasts, but mine were dismissed because of the expense, so we ended up at Dad’s favorite Spanish restaurant in Queens. Like an idiot, I stubbornly ordered Marbella’s Thanksgiving meal while the others feasted on seafood paella, garlicky grilled shrimp and whole sea bass. 

The Spaniards working in the kitchen knew nothing of turkey, stuffing and mashed sweet potatoes. Compared to my family’s fare, it was as if I were eating school paste.

Another year just Dad, Janet and I stayed in New York and got the bright idea of going to Chinatown (for old times’ sake) and having Peking duck for Thanksgiving. The Peking duck was fabulous, but the meal came with so many side dishes that we each left with a doggie bag and it didn’t feel much at all like Thanksgiving as we walked through the throngs of people bustling through the streets.

Time passed. People we loved passed. Finally, our immediate family, after Buzz and Dad’s deaths, dwindled down to two. Wendy had her sons in Philly. Janet and I had each other in New York. We celebrated Thanksgiving our way. Turkey was replaced with seared duck breasts served with different sauces each year. Luckily, we are not far from Hudson Valley Foie Gras (80 Brooks Rd.) in Ferndale, NY, where they sell excellent duck products.

I developed two potato gratins and a sweet potato gratin with Gruyère cheese and fresh rosemary, between which we switched. Sometimes I made a raw cranberry, orange and mango relish that Buzz adored, or I cooked down cranberries with orange juice, brown sugar and spices for a homemade and slightly more traditional cranberry sauce. 

I mixed up the vegetable side dishes. Crispy, oven-toasted Brussels sprouts and shallots topped with a drizzle of maple syrup or aged balsamic vinegar, topped with toasted slivered almonds; or roasted root vegetables sprinkled with a Moroccan spice mixture called ras-el-hanout were favorites. 

My sister and I celebrate our special bond every day of our lives. Thankful? Without a doubt.

thanksgiving, day, celebration, transition, tradition


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