The Thanksgiving Traditionalists

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My mother liked a loud (and, given our family, distinctly off-key) rendition of the hymn “We Gather Together” to kick off Thanksgiving dinner. The internet tells me it’s a Dutch Calvinist hymn of thanks for victory (in 1597) over Catholic Spain, so I’m not absolutely sure what it meant to my mother, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Still, she taught us the one verse she knew, and we all obliged.

Then one year a decade ago or so, she turned up with sheet music and passed around copies, so now, in her memory, we sing all three verses, complete with the unreconstructed lyric, “We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader in battle.” In newer versions of the hymn, that’s been changed to “Thou leader triumphant,” but we are rigorously loyal to our militant adopted version.

According to those who assign generational categories, traditionalists were born between 1927 and 1946, putting many of them in their 80s these days. My mother, who tended to make her own traditions, was of that generation. But the truth is, children, including those in Generation X and Generation Z and generation millennial, not to mention all the little ones who have yet to grow up and be assigned to some popular sociology classification, can sometimes be extreme traditionalists, even, at times, as they are doing their developmental duty and trying hard to rebel.

When our oldest child was born, we announced that we would no longer be traveling for Thanksgiving — and, as the possessors of what was then the One and Only Grandchild, we quickly established dominion over that particular holiday. We lived in Cambridge (with the One and Only Grandchild), and every year parents and siblings came up from New York and New Jersey, and we made the dinner.

We meant to be at least a little creative and a little nontraditional in our menu, but somehow the experiments, over time, have been ever more strictly codified. Laurie Colwin, whose food writing and recipes contribute heavily to my family Thanksgiving traditions as to those of so many other families, wrote brilliantly about how angry people get when you change the stuffing — even people who complain about the stuffing. For that reason, I have never gotten to make her cornbread prosciutto stuffing on Thanksgiving, though we religiously begin the evening by eating her spiced rosemary walnuts with our martinis, and the meal would be incomplete without her iconic creamed spinach with jalapeño peppers.

So this year I will make my two stuffings, one with chestnuts and herbs that comes from a Thanksgiving dinner in a very long-ago issue of Gourmet magazine (I am cooking from a photocopy of a photocopy) which also taught me how to make the apple cider gravy.

And then, in further memory of my mother, there will be curried butternut squash or pumpkin; my parents spent a year living in an East Indian village in Trinidad, where they both developed a strong taste for Indian foods, and then we spent a year in India when I was 5. That will sit alongside the candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top that my mother-in-law brings every year.

In further memory of my mother, and in one very particular pot, which I took when she died, I make a dish with the evocative ethnic name of “shells and cabbage,” which involves cooking pasta shells together with (surprise) cabbage, and a lot of salt and pepper — the pasta overcooks, as does the cabbage, making me suspect that dish does in fact go back to my mother’s childhood (my grandmother was big on overcooking), and it tastes great. So the Thanksgiving lineup thus encompasses Mama’s childhood (cabbage, long cooking, no spices other than salt and pepper) and also her adulthood (travel, Indian spices).

There will be mashed potatoes, of course; how can you have Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes? Ours are adapted from a 1992 recipe in the great Italian cookbook “The Splendid Table,” by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. These particular mashed potatoes are rather labor intensive, since they involve caramelized onions, garlic, basil and grated Parmesan cheese, and my children generally make them, out of some sense that I don’t know how to do it right.

As you would expect, there will also be Zubin Mehta’s Indian lasagna — how can you have Thanksgiving without Indian lasagna? I can date this to 1991, the year the article on Maestro Mehta and his recipes appeared. This needs to be made the day before, since it involves preparing a keema-style meat sauce — with a lot of hot chilies and fresh cilantro in it — and then grating a great deal of Gruyere cheese, and assembling the lasagnas; family battles have been known to break out around wiping last bits of sauce out of the pan with fragments of torn noodle. But nothing says Thanksgiving like chopping fresh chilies until everyone in the kitchen is either coughing or crying.

It kind of makes sense that in the early ’90s, when we were cooking those first Thanksgiving dinners (and the One and Only Grandchild was young), we would have been experimenting, and there were dishes that came and went. (Was there a brief flirtation with a lamb tagine with prunes in it? Wasn’t there a period of Italian sweet and sour pumpkin? Was there maybe a year or two of chili as a side dish? And what about those curried chickpeas I really liked?)

But once the OOG was joined by other children, and they all got old enough to express their opinions, it became clear that their opinions were pretty uniform: You have to make what you always make. Sometimes I think they are more vigilant about demanding their less favorite dishes, just to keep us on our toes.

I am not the baker, but it is impossible to leave out either the chocolate pecan pie or the apple cream cheese pie or the pumpkin pie, which my husband makes from his mother’s recipe, steaming and storing the pumpkin earlier in the month, and which is served warm, and which is by far the best pumpkin pie in the world. His mother brings the rugelach, which are, similarly, the best in the world. My children have loud and strong pie allegiances but no one is willing to countenance the elimination of a less favored pie.

The turkey and one of the stuffings come out of that long-ago Gourmet magazine set piece dinner, everything themed together (November 1993 — the early 90s again). I don’t really understand the appeal of a unified, organized, even themed Thanksgiving, maybe because I don’t have a unified, organized, themed life — and I suspect most people don’t.

So my children are strict about traditions, but like many families, we got to make up our own traditions, from yellowed clippings to appropriated hymns. What I’m really thankful for, I guess, are the many scraps and pieces that don’t necessarily belong together — and of course, for the traditionalist children who demand the repetition and the ritual. Though I am thinking of adding back those chickpeas.