Fresh ginger — LOTS of fresh ginger, to be exact — plus Dijon mustard does not a delectable combination make, and beloved casseroles don’t taste any better garnished with burnt plastic wrap.
And if your grandmother chased you and your cousins around the dinner table armed with a sandal when you were kids, there’s probably a good reason why, even if you can’t remember it now.
Happy Thanksgiving, readers — here’s hoping that your turkeys were properly thawed (and not in the bathtub last night because you forgot to take them out two days ago) and are now browning beautifully in hot ovens, no one locked Fido in the attic while attempting to retrieve the good china you use only once a year — right? someone please check — and family and friends, or at least the people bringing the mashed potatoes and pies, are safely en route to your house with plenty of time to spare.
Anyone bringing kale can be fashionably late.
In the spirit of the holiday, I asked my colleagues here in the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom about their Thanksgiving memories, their favorite dishes, their pearls of wisdom in hosting a meal on the biggest gastronomic day of the year.
Not surprisingly, stories centered on food — pulling on the wishbone, helping mom and grandma with corn pudding and cranberry sauce, oyster roasts, and setting off smoke alarms while burning (insert dish here).
They offered expert tips, too, like always ask for and graciously accept help in the kitchen whenever possible, and do not — under any circumstances — use Thanksgiving Day to try out new recipes. (See aforementioned reference to fresh ginger and Dijon mustard.)
But there were other stories, too, like new family traditions that involve giving back to the community, or moving to this country to start a new life on Thanksgiving Day.
Here’s what a few of them had to share.
Bet you never ate this on a Ritz
Sports reporter Mike Barber recalled that his family’s Thanksgiving meal has always included the usual suspects — turkey, stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole, sweet potato pudding and cranberry sauce.
There was one unusual exception, however, served in between lunch and Thanksgiving dinner as family arrived from out of town. While most of the “parts” of the turkey were used for the gravy, Barber explained, his father put the turkey liver into a “silver grinder” with some onions, and it “came out as chopped liver — to be spread on Ritz crackers with Gulden’s spicy brown deli mustard.”
It’s something he ate even as a child, and noted that “I love liver to this day.”
“I’ve tried to start that tradition in my home, but it’s just my dad and I who eat it,” he said. As his 6-year-old daughter has astutely pointed out, “it looked and smelled ’agusting.’”
Barber’s mother, on the other hand, makes a killer strawberry chiffon pie.
Processed meat and cheese, anyone?
Copy editor Michelle Combs organizes the newsroom’s Thanksgiving feast every year for those who — like her — work on the holiday. (The newspaper never closes, you know.)
She calls it her “work-family tradition,” one she’s been leading for nearly two decades. Combs explains that she experienced large family gatherings as a child with a turkey and all the trimmings. Her first year on her own, however, she and her then-husband both worked on Thanksgiving.
“We ended up eating a Lunchable from a drug store that year because it was the only thing that was open,” she said. Even McDonald’s — their first choice — wasn’t open.
“I was so sad that year with my stupid little Lunchable at my desk,” she said. “I decided that wasn’t going to happen again [and] every year since, I’ve planned our newsroom Thanksgiving potluck.”
Features reporter and pomegranate fan Colleen Curran joked that her favorite childhood memory of Thanksgiving was “not cooking.”
These days, she makes her grandfather’s sausage stuffing for the family’s afternoon meal, which usually happens around 4 p.m. — any later and family members might be “too boozy.” Her husband, meanwhile, serves roasted oysters as an appetizer. They’re always “a big hit,” she said about the oysters, “and actually, people seem to enjoy [them] more than the turkey dinner.”
Mrs. Buzzard’s Buns
Sports reporter Eric Kolenich said his brother makes homemade rolls every year using a recipe he got from a cafeteria worker at their elementary school.
“She used to make them for students. Her name was Mrs. Buzzard and they were called Buzzard Buns. So my brother still refers to the [rolls] as Buzzard Buns.”
Kolenich’s contribution? Cranberry sauce. As the youngest of four children in the family, his job growing up was to help his mom with the cranberry sauce. “Once I was old enough, I started making it, and it’s still my responsibility to this day.”
With just three ingredients — cranberries, sugar and oranges, he said, “it’s probably the single easiest dish to make of the entire meal.”
Movies we’ve seen 9 ¾ times
If it’s Thanksgiving Day, “Harry Potter” movies are a must for copy editor Michele Luhn.
“I grew up with ‘Harry Potter’ and the movies feel very cozy and familiar to me,” she said. As recent Thanksgivings have often been with friends, and they’ve all seen the movies, “people can watch if they’re not helping to cook, but the people in the kitchen don’t feel like they’re missing anything either since we’ve all seen them a bunch.”
Also cozy and familiar? Amish noodles — a simple recipe her mother made with egg noodles cooked in chicken broth enhanced with butter and bouillon cubes.
“They’re very plain,” Luhn said, “but they seemed to go perfectly with mashed potatoes and turkey — a great option when I was a kid and a picky eater.”
Welcome to the USA — now eat
Nothing smacks of America more than American traditions on Thanksgiving Day: gut-busting noshing, watching afternoon football (read: snoozing) and sometimes, kick-starting the holiday shopping season.
Mexico native and page designer Rafael Bustamante arrived in the USA on Thanksgiving Day in 1997 to begin his new life here. As a newly married man, he arrived at the Los Angeles airport, where his American wife was waiting to take him to his in-laws’ home for his first Thanksgiving meal. He didn’t speak English and relied on his wife, who’s bilingual, to communicate with her family.
First impressions: The amount of food surprised him, he said, adding that he was particularly turned off by gravy.
But he ate radishes from a veggie tray, so now, every year, he eats radishes on Thanksgiving. (He’s the only one in his family who eats them.)
In the days after the big day, he and his family have a second feast — this time with tacos, and at some point during the holiday feasting, he randomly blurts out the number of Thanksgivings he’s celebrating.
It’s something “my kids don’t find funny anymore, but they understand why I do it,” he said.
Andrew Cain, the paper’s politics editor, recalled one year when a debate, of sorts, broke out during dinner.
“During a Thanksgiving dinner in the early 1970s, one of the guests, Mr. Anders, got into a spiritual disagreement with Dad over the rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Mr. Anders thought it was ‘marvelous.’ Dad, a Catholic, thought it was ‘awful.’ ”
While the incident didn’t rise to the level of throwing mashed potatoes across the table, “this was great entertainment for a 10-year-old kid. We had our own theater in the dining room.”
At the end of the night, “there were no hard feelings and we would see Mr. (and Mrs.) Anders again — but Dad was never sold on ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ ”
Crispy onion casserole with a green bean or two
Education reporter Justin Mattingly recalled that one of his favorite childhood memories is watching “Emeril” with his family on Thanksgiving Eve as they started prepping for the big meal by “pretending we could cook well.”
Ironic that the popular TV chef was part of their holiday festivities, since Mattingly also admits that his Thanksgiving must-have dish is green bean casserole — yes, that casserole, with the (canned) green beans, (canned) cream of mushroom soup, a little milk and pepper and, according to him, as many crispy French onions (“which I’m convinced Jesus himself created,” he said) as he can cram both into the green bean-soup mixture as well as on top — “because I love them.”
Page designer Matt Pallister recalled that he and his dad used to watch youth football on Thanksgiving mornings during the late 1970s and early 1980s in a city park in Chicago. Though he thinks such things have since been discontinued, “the morning games were a Thanksgiving tradition for years.”
Those morning youth games have morphed into his favorite adult Thanksgiving activity — watching, or “more like yelling,” at the NFL games played each year.
He’s also a stickler for his mother’s stuffing. The recipe contains raisins, but “because some people in my family hate raisins, she makes extra outside the bird with raisins in it for me — and anyone else with proper palates.”
More garlic, please
Copy editor Mark Ferguson offered the tidbit about not getting adventurous on Thanksgiving Day when it comes to the menu. Why? The infamous squash soup incident from about 25 years ago. As he tells it, the soup was filled with “lots of fresh ginger and Dijon mustard.”
“Just didn’t turn out right,” he said, and all these years later, “I can still remember the taste of that stuff.”
For all the usual dishes that do turn out well, Ferguson suggested making more than you think you need.
“If it’s any good,” he said, “you can always send people home with leftovers.”
Thanksgiving is a large-scale production for local government reporter C. Suarez Rojas, who notes that both of his parents come from large families so the holiday is shared by 20 to 25 people, at least. Some of the dishes reflect his family’s Colombian heritage, like tamales and coconut rice. With so much food, finding a balance is key.
On the other hand, while “it can be difficult to finish a plate if you pile everything on it,” he said, “the fear of missing out on something delicious is real.”
Also, it was Suarez and his cousins who were chased by their sandal-wielding grandma when they were about 4 or 5 years old.
“I can still remember hiding under the dinner table,” he said, and trying not to laugh so their grandma wouldn’t find them. He admits that he can’t remember what led to the incident, only that “it was fun, though I’m sure my grandmother didn’t think so.”
One more marshmallow oughta do it
Squash casserole or sweet potato casserole? The correct answer is both.
Katy Burnell Evans, the local government editor, said she used to look forward to her great-grandmother’s butter beans and chicken and dumplings on Thanksgiving. These days, the meal isn’t complete without casseroles of both squash and sweet potatoes — just don’t ask her to make the latter.
As her dogs would tell you if they were able, her attempt a few years ago started well but abruptly ended with a casserole dish placed way too close to the oven broiler.
“Burned the whole top and sent thick black smoke billowing through a 700-something-square-foot house,” she said.
Nicole McMullin, the paper’s marketing director, said she’s trying to start a new tradition with her family for Thanksgiving, one that gives back to the community.
Last year, for the first time, she and her family volunteered on Thanksgiving Day at a local community center serving meals.
“We have the privilege of enjoying hot meals and time together most days of the year,” she said, noting that growing up, she often spent dinnertime with at least three generations of her extended family, and sometimes four, and especially during the holidays.
Last year’s experience at the center “reminded me of how fortunate those of us with families and friends really are. There are some people whose only place to go on Thanksgiving was that community center for dinner. It was an important experience that I hope to repeat.”