Ceremonial Holiday Food …

Ceremonial Holiday Food …

Okay, I’ll admit it — I think Thanksgiving is the most boring holiday meal of the year. Perhaps it’s the residue of the Turkey Years, when Mom fed us on a couple of turkeys a month because it was a lot of meat for the dollar, or perhaps it’s just because it *is* the most boring meal of the year — but snore snore snore. Turkey. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. A couple of sides — brussell sprouts or green beans. Cranberry sauce. Pie.

It’s inviolable. There are variations, sure — every year the magazines plop into my box full of variations, but essentially, you’re stuck with the same meal. For a couple of years there I fled the country — went to Paris for Thanksgiving (I could take a full 10-day vacation and only had to take 3 days off work.) I remember explaining to some French people that it’s a meal no one really likes, but everyone is forced, by the culture, to eat. They were French, a culture in which food ritual is so ingrained that although they were bewildered by the very American excess, and by the somewhat crude nature of the menu — they understood the concept of a shared national meal.

What saves Thanksgiving for me is the annual appearance of those ceremonial dishes that are really horrible, but without which it just doesn’t seem like Thanksgiving. My Aunt Daphne’s Baked Oyster Thing, for example. Beloved to her because it evokes her Maryland girlhood but translated to the Midwest in the 70s and 80s it appeared as a loose gratin of jarred oysters in cream, covered with smashed saltines. To a bunch of 10-15 year olds, it was everything horrible — slimy, wet, oystery and as I recall, a sort of unappealing grey color — but there it was, every year. And we were raised with the kind of manners that required us to take at least a bite, and to thank our beloved Aunt Daphne for the delicious Oyster Thing.

Or my mother’s standard — the Tomato Aspic Ring. This one is right out of some 1960s magazine. A jello mold made with half strawberry jello, half tomato juice into which is suspended a hash of onion, green pepper and celery that has been shredded in the Cuisinart. It’s unmolded onto a lettuce-lined plate, filled with curried mayonnaise and surrounded by a festive garland of canned artichoke hearts and hearts of palm. It’s ridiculous, and actually sort of refreshing, and when my mother tried to retire it, my cousin Denise specifically requested it’s return. It just didn’t feel like a holiday without it.

So folks, spill the beans — what are the ceremonial food items without which your Thanksgiving just wouldn’t feel complete?

13 thoughts on “Ceremonial Holiday Food …

  1. We make oyster stuffing, based on my grandfather’s recipe from just post WWII. It has a whole head of celery, 2-3 large onions, two sticks of butter (sauteed togetehr until all is soft), dump in a can of cream of mushroom soup, 2 cans of oysters (fresh oysters are really good, but doesn’t have that post-WWII soup-in-a-can-plus-ingredients-for-the-busy-family vibe), dump entire mess (and I mean mess) on two bags of seasoned croutons, add two eggs, combine all together and voila. My family can’t stop eating the stuff, and it’s more popular than any of the rest of the stuff that gets made on that day. I always wonder how guests view it, though… or how it tastes to someone not of the family.

  2. Oh, I love all the Thanksgiving foods! Well, most of them… But the dish that makes Thanksgiving Thanksgiving is my Mom’s baked Garnet Yams and Apples. Layered yams and apples with lots of butter and cinnamon. Oh, I love it!

  3. Kim, the yams and apples sounds great! The Thanksgiving dish that I’m not fond of is the sweet potatoes with the sweet sweet sweet brown-sugar-and-pecan crumble topping. My brother makes it, though, so it stays. But I’d like to try those yams and apples someday.

    Otherwise, we’re pretty lucky. No Tomato Aspic or Oyster Thing in our families. It’s just the standard turkey, etc. And I look forward to it, although I don’t love turkey the way I did as a kid.

    I loved Thanksgiving best by my teens, because it was all about the food and the family without the aggravation of the presents that Christmas had. I was a weird youngun, I suppose.

  4. Pumpkin roll. This is really good, though (it has more sugar than pumpkin 🙂 ), not an item that we keep around just because it’s Thanksgiving and we should.

    Traditionally, we eat pecan pie, pumpkin roll, and scrapple the next morning for breakfast.

  5. It’s Shrimp Aspic in my family, it sounds just like your tomato Aspic but with addition of little canned shrimp… as a kid, this along with most of the other T-giving stuff, was pretty euuww. As an adult I’ve come to love the flavors of Thanksgiving, but the Shrimp Aspic, I just can’t get into it. A couple years ago my mother came to Livingston to celebrate Thanksgiving and brought her beloved Shrimp Aspic! Needless to say my guests…. well, I think I know what they thought about it! 😛

    Kristi- OH yes, the yams with all the goo on them. Luckily I escpaped that family tradition, we did regular yams. But alas my SO absolutely insists on the yams drowned in brown sugar and butter, in memory of his wonderful mother, so I’m happy to comply. Now I’m finding myself starting a new tradition of making food I don’t like!

    But- it is these unsavory dishes that are part of the tradition. And isn’t that only fitting – in a sad twisted way- to make food we don’t like and then throw away to round out the irony of this rather strange holiday. If I think about the meaning of Thanksgiving, I just can’t get into it; if I consider instead the 2 blessed paid days off and time to hang out with family & friends, it’s not so bad.

    And I do love the turkey!

  6. I’ve always wanted to do a big potluck Thanksgiving where everyone brings their family’s ceremonial dish — some of the icky ones I think are simply situational — it’s not like there was a lot of good cooking going on in the era of the green-bean-mushroom-soup-canned-onion casserole. But they’re dear nonetheless — what I love about Thanksgiving — that we all take an impractical Thursday off work, get together with people we love, and pretty much eat the same meal across America while giving thanks, no matter how perfunctorally. It’s so North American (including the Canadians here) — so New World. We made it across the oceans, we all wound up here, and we’re all thankful to be bringing our contribution to the table.

  7. I really hate the yams, too – my sister insists on topping them with marshmallows, which to me is just the worst! Our signature funky Thanksgiving staple, though, is the cranberry Jello mold. Any sort of red Jello, a can of whole cranberry sauce, some orange juice, mandarin oranges, walnuts and chopped celery. Molded, of course. At some point this one was deemed my responsibility – I think I made it twice, then finally opted out and started bringing poached pears with fig preserves and goat cheese instead. Everyone loves the pears so much that no one misses the cranberry mold at all!

  8. Mhy husband’s family is the master of jello-based devices. Every time we visit, there’s a new jello dish on the table (they’ve been farmers since the 1840s, but never nursed thier kids and eat most of their food from packages–I don’t get it). I just have to describe one that was made for me for my birthday, which is a holiday, right? It’s a bag o pretzels chopped up and baked with melted butter ina pan to make them crispy, then cooled. Jello with fruit (red jello w/ strawberries this time) is poured over, followed by a layer of some whipped white stuff once it was cool. His aunt said “I was planning on making something else, but every cookbook I opened turned right to this recipe!” While I couldn’t believe it was in more than one cookbook, his relatives greeted it with the exuberance of finding a long-lost puppy. I actually look forward to seeing what jello confection I will meet each time we visit!

  9. Mandy, that is SPECTACULAR! I admit, I do sort of have a soft spot for really unfortunate dishes. I found a recipe in an old cookbook I have that I’m dying to make for…something – anything! It involves hollowing out a cabbage, lighting a can of sterno inside it and sticking little smokies (or similar) all over the outside with toothpicks. It’s basically a weenie roast in miniature to awe and entertain your party guests. Maybe that will be MY sad contribution to Thanksgiving! 🙂

  10. Tara, I can’t get the image of the Coliseum out of my head, with all the little weiners looking down into the flames in the bowl below. For Christmas a few years ago, Ben’s mom gave us the church cookbook, of which the pretzel jello surprise was one of the recipes. I think I will start posting some of these recipes on my blog so they can be preserved for posterity.

  11. Wow — baked pretzels in jello! Flaming cabbage devices! I never imagined such wonders … (well, on the Jello — I did do my PhD at the U of Utah, heart of Mormon country, and anyone who has spent any time at all in Utah knows that the Mormons are famous for their jello creations). This is so much more fabulous than I ever could have imagined …

  12. Thanks Kristi for the link to the Cards of Amazing Food Items — I remember seeing them a couple of years ago but didn’t have the link … they’re hysterically funny.

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