Thanksgiving’s Blend of Cultures
For as much as I tease about enduring decades of Americana Thanksgiving Dinner, I do love the intent that all cultures here in America give this day. Sitting together for a family meal has become an anomaly. Devoting a day to it is invaluable for nurturing community, trust and gratitude.
At our house, both in my childhood and present day, every meal is made from scratch and enjoyed together. It was a standard set by my mother to replicate the Peruvian culture she left behind when marrying my father. She strived to blend in to the American culture in order to be accepted so we children would be protected from bullying. Her Peruvian courage was left for the higher goals of success and financial security, like she had at home.
So when it came to Thanksgiving, my mother had to learn both the concept and the expectation of what this day is all about. The first acknowledgement was that she would often share the day with her birthday. The idea of working all week to create the Americana meal instead of reveling your birthday had her torn, especially when her birthday cake was too often a candle stuck in the pumpkin pie.
In the 50’s, all knowledge, regardless of accuracy, was passed down from mother to daughter. Although she had learned to be a business woman from her own mother, my mom was never taught the American holiday. Thanksgiving meant that she had to rely on another woman to be her sage: my paternal grandmother, her mother-in-law.
She adored my father’s mother, a gregarious and kind woman whose petite stature and piercing brown eyes my have reminded my mom of her own mother. My grandmother shared all her Thanksgiving recipes from her family; a mix of Black Irish, Native American and English. Mostly the English side came through in the food; simple, straightforward and sugar heavy.
Grandma’s Thanksgiving Pies
My grandmother could have won the Great British Baking Contest readily with her pie making gift. She would pour some flour in a tie tin, add some chopped butter and salt and then gently need the dough into the crust as we watched. The favorites were of course pumpkin followed by the English representative, Mincemeat pie.
In my dad’s childhood, this filling actually consisted of meat made into suet that would be stored in barrels at their town store. The molasses dark filling is an acquired taste; one that only my dad commanded. But, every year, with his inherited pie making skills, he would make two pumpkin and one full-size, yet personal, mincemeat pie.
By the time we were born, mincemeat had been marketed purely as a mix of molasses and raisins in a jar. Over my lifetime, I would see the stock of mincemeat dwindle from a noticeable tower at the front of the store to a couple of jars on the bottom shelf. By his last year, my dad would have to describe the concept to the young clerks and send them searching out of curiosity for the concoction, proudly delivering it to him like the Holy Grail.
Americana Thanksgiving Dishes
He would also be the Turkey King with his brining and basting focus. Dad’s cooked his own turkey gravy from the innards of gizzards and heart that were always tucked into the cavity of the bird. Being the meat and potatoes kind of guy, he would take on the yam casserole and thus begin ratcheting up the Americana meal.
The “casserole” was more of an adornment of boiled yams that couldn’t stand alone in their natural sweetness. Instead, they were boiled in pineapple juice and mashed with brown sugar. Once in the casserole dish, the yams were decorated on the sides with sliced oranges and topped with canned pineapple and marshmallows.
I can feel my temple pounding in rhythm with these keystrokes; no pun intended.
My mother wanted to impress her new mother-in-law with her willingness to be American and be the next best woman for him. She took to heart learning the recipes and ingredients that were completely foreign to her in the same intensity that ricotto and aji amarillo were to my dad. Still, she was relegated to the base dishes after her early attempts had sent Thanksgiving sideways when she forgot the sugar in the pumpkin pies and didn’t take out the innards from the turkey before roasting it for 6 hours.
Mama Gets Her Cooking Assignment
I loved her home cooked cranberries sauce, made from whole cranberries and oranges. This would be the first dish that each following generation learned and was allowed to take over. All the other dishes were base, mashed potatoes, green beans and Parker rolls except for the infamous Jello Salads.
Yep, plural; one green base and one red. Molded out of a Bundt pan with varying layers of ingredients. They would be turned out onto a platter, starting the guaranteed Jell-O jiggle with the heavy bottom layers securely anchoring the towers. It’s a good thing because the salads would get passed around the table in an attempt to entice the diners.
The green Jell-O suffered a base layer of cottage cheese topped with a layer of crushed pineapple before the translucent green top layer. Something about that lumpy, pastel green color left this salad intact for the entire meal every year. The red one had more chance of piquing interest with its Cool Whip blended base and canned fruit cocktail middle layer. We could be more forgiving to fake whipped cream and the resemblance to strawberry ice cream.
I can’t slam Jell-O too badly though since they are celebrating their 125th Anniversary next year. And shots wouldn’t be as fun if they weren’t used to make those Dixie cups full of gelatin. Besides, gelatin is a made of collagen that boosts healthy hair, nails, bones and skin. There’s just no need to add in the cottage cheese.