Saturday, November 26, 2011

As families evolve, so do traditional holiday menus

From yesterday's Briefing:

Take a holiday built around a feast, sprinkle in folks from different families plus some changing dietary needs, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster.
Thanksgiving is always at Aunt Ami’s house in Austin. Ami is the perpetual hostess, the cheerful gourmet, the keeper of tradition, the young matriarch of the family after her mother (my grandmother) died.
One of Gramma’s signature recipes was her cornbread stuffing and dressing. (Stuffing because some of the batch was stuffed into the turkey carcass; dressing because some was baked separately.)
Each year, Ami pulls out her Thanksgiving file and finds the handwritten dressing recipe. And we discuss notes from past years and possible alterations.

Gramma baked her cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. Ami uses a giant cake pan to accommodate the doubled recipe.
A few years ago, my sister was diagnosed with celiac disease, forcing her to give up anything with gluten. That included Gramma’s original cornbread recipe and the stale white bread added to the dressing. So now our cornbread is a gluten-free version, perfected over much experimentation and sampling.
The end result is no longer stuffed into a bird. It slows the turkey’s cooking time and creates favorable conditions for a bacterial nightmare.
An additional twist this year: a newly vegan cousin. For Thursday’s feast he prepared a separate dressing altogether. And it didn’t dress up any poultry at all. Just all the other vegan dishes.
It’s not the first year we’ve served two kinds of dressing. For the first few years that Ami and Rich were married, Rich insisted on a bread-based dressing, similar to what his mom made when he was growing up.
Ami relented and prepared a Stove Top version in addition to the cornbread dish. Eventually, Rich relented, and Stove Top was pulled from the menu. (Though he confesses he’d love to have a bread version back on the menu. “Cornbread just doesn’t taste right.”)
He can’t give up on green bean casserole, though. The kind held together with cream of mushroom soup and topped with canned, fried onions. Our version has evolved to include fresh green beans instead of canned or frozen.
We serve a variety of pies — some gluten-free, some free of any animal-based products. We’re flexible on the version of sweet potatoes (this year’s was vegan). No one is choosy about the kind of rolls.
For every family that broke bread together Thursday, there are similar stories. The non-negotiable dishes. The experiments. The dish that only one person (often the cook) eats.
I have a set of friends who, when they started having children, decided they would eat just one Thanksgiving meal, always at their home. Family members from both sides are welcome to join.
And they do. But even after years of eating at the same time under the same roof, they don’t eat the same meal. They don’t even eat at the same table.
One side prefers one kind of turkey (smoked), dressing and potatoes. The other side has a completely different turkey (never smoked), stuffing and potatoes.
This year, the husband spiced up the get-together. An excerpt from a pre-Thanksgiving email to family members:
“And I (in my traditional Thanksgiving attempt to EVOLVE tradition) will be challenging two dishes to a THROWDOWN (yes … I’ve watched too much Food Network).”
Potential for disaster, pitting two families’ versions of green bean casserole and mashed potatoes? No doubt. Potential for long-lasting memories and tales to be repeated? You bet. Potential for a new tradition, beloved and improved year after year?
Only time will tell.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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