As stores cram their shelves with Stove Top stuffing and Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, my mother drags a chair in front of our kitchen counter, climbs up, and reaches far into the top shelf of the cabinet where we keep our cookbooks. She pulls out a small box stuffed with cards and a photo album containing lists of ingredients and instructions. She only needs a few recipes, and she shakes her head at our disorganization when she finally spies the schoolhouse roll recipe, handed down to us from my grandmother, who nabbed it from my father’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Early.
This Thanksgiving, I’ve thought about suggesting to my mother and grandmother that we try some new recipes. Sites and publications like Buzzfeed’s Tasty, Tastemade, Bon Appetit, and the New York Times cooking section flood my social media feeds with Thanksgiving-themed cooking tutorials. Along with millions of other viewers, I’ve salivated over the videos that show a pair of hands nestling an apple pie onto a flaking cinnamon roll crust, folding a thick cranberry jelly into a savory Bundt cake, infusing a cocktail with a warm cinnamon spice.
But these recipes haven’t earned their way onto our Thanksgiving table like my family’s traditional dishes have.
We are loyal to our set of family recipes because they’re loyal to us, even under the most disastrous of kitchen conditions. My Great Grandpa Read owned an apple orchard that sprawled behind the house he built himself. His wife, my Great Grandma Read, could transform their fruit into a luxury dessert—applesauce has never tasted so good. (Her secret? Red Hots.) These days, even the family’s most clumsy cooks can dump diced apples and candy into a crockpot and let it bubble to perfection.
I rarely think about Great Grandma Read now. She died a little less than ten years ago after a long battle with dementia and I have few memories from the time we spent together when I was a young child. But I do remember her visit to one of our Thanksgiving dinners in vivid detail. Great Grandma Read, her head covered in a plastic rain bonnet, shuffled into my grandmother’s Indiana home through the front door. My father helped her inside, one arm looped through his grandmother-in-law’s and the other cradling a crockpot full of applesauce. Every time we dish up the applesauce at Thanksgiving dinner, I think about Great Grandma Read, how she and her husband built their home together; how, as a child of the Depression, she saved everything; how she sheltered her daughter and granddaughters after a divorce; how she loved Indiana University Basketball, the Yankees, Dalmatians, and peppermint candy.
I wouldn’t know any of this, of course, if the Thanksgiving dinner-table conversation didn’t inevitably turn to each dish and its original chef. We always talk about Gra, my great-great-grandmother, who would stir together an oozing mound of her signature mac and cheese for any special occasion. And we chat about my Great-Great-Grandma Bessie Daisy, whose recipe for pumpkin pie my mom still uses. We venture on to other family stories, such as how my grandma and great-uncles used to rub fresh-picked tomatoes on the cow’s salt lick at the family farm, and how my mother once spent whole afternoons with her Lincoln logs and tinker toys in the dusty closet-turned-toy-room at Great Grandma Read’s house. Through these conversations I learn more about my relatives who passed away long ago, but I also grow closer to the family who raised me and who, thankfully, stand by my side today.
We could introduce a new recipe to our Thanksgiving dinner table this year, and I’m sure no one would mind. They might even enjoy a new dish that brought fresh flavors to an otherwise antiquated meal. But I fear I would have no story to tell upon presenting a dish that YouTube taught me to make. So I think I’ll stick with tradition. Maybe you should, too.
Image: The Lakeside Collection