Dean’s List: Thanksgiving and our food traditions

I’m looking forward to observing Thanksgiving with loved ones at home this year.


I’m looking forward to observing Thanksgiving with loved ones at home this year.

I spent the holiday with family out of town last year so this is my first Schenectady Thanksgiving.

We’re planning a merry feast with a big turkey and all the trimmings. Three of us will be preparing dishes for the dinner, but for me the centerpiece will be the mince pie prepared by my loving partner who knows that, even if no one else wants any, it’s one of my favorites.

She’s making it from scratch and, as you read this, the pie’s innards — apples, raisins, beef suet, crystallized ginger, lemon and orange zest and dried cherries — are steeping in brandy, lemon and orange juices and aromatic spices in a covered bowl in her refrigerator.

We say that Thanksgiving is a time to show our gratitude for our overall plenitude, but we all know it’s really all about the food. I don’t mean the spectacle of a bountiful feast crowding a festive table, but each separate dish lovingly prepared, sometimes from old family recipes, for the enjoyment of loved ones.

Each has a story to tell — like the cornbread, sage and sausage dressing that I make, adapted from my mother’s traditional stuffing, and the escalloped oyster casserole which was a holiday must when my children were growing up.

As families mature, and successive generations grow up and move out, new traditions are added to the communal feast. The turkey gravy I make from pan drippings, flavored with freshly ground black pepper and red wine, wasn’t passed down from ancestors but is my own, which I’ve been making the same way for years, not because I liked it but because my guests did.

So we make some of the dishes our forebears made and some of our own, and our Thanksgiving food lexicon evolves, not always with praiseworthy results. But that doesn’t matter. What does is the communal meal of dishes lovingly prepared and the memories.

The Thanksgivings of my childhood were happy events but there was a certain suspense at the dinner table, which always was populated by a sprinkling of colorful guests. My parents were big on inviting people who might otherwise be alone on the holiday.

There was Mr. LaBarge, known as “Tubby,” who passed out in his mashed potatoes because, my mother explained matter of factly, he had “overserved himself” and had diabetes.

There was Miss Belleville, a French woman who reminded me of Miss Haversham of “Great Expectations.” She was always bedecked in her finest clothing, wore pearls and always spilled hot food on whoever was assigned to sit next to her.

When I complained about this, my mother told me I should be more tolerant because Miss Belleville had “a palsy.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I made sure my brother sat next to her after that.

There were also various pets — mostly dogs — who scrambled for prime seating under the table where they could snag any irresistible morsels that might fall from above.

And that will be the same this year, though the newest member of the family, a kitten named Salami, is probably too young to join the fray.

Irv Dean is the Gazette’s city editor. Reach him by e-mail to [email protected].

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