Ten Best!: Thanksgiving dishes
When my mother was a child, my grandfather and his brother, Cecil — in the Southern tradition — would actually kill the family turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Then, my grandmother — with some assistance from her four children — would perform the arduous task of preparing the recently deceased bird for dinner. For the past 50 years or so, store-bought turkeys have been the staple on Thanksgiving Day. My grandmother doesn’t do much with respect to preparation: a sweet onion stuffed in the turkey cavity and a good rubdown with real butter on the turkey’s skin. The key is timing. Mema always sets her alarm for 4 a.m. Thanksgiving morning to place the big bird in the oven.
My grandmother’s cookbook is overflowing with recipes clipped out of newspapers. The datelines on the clips offer a timeline of her passion for cooking great food for her family. This is a recipe from 1993. You’ll need two cups of pineapple tidbits, three-quarters of a cup of sugar, two cups of crumbled Ritz crackers, one cup grated sharp cheese, six tablespoons flour and one stick of melted butter. Place pineapple in buttered dish; sprinkle with cheese; combine sugar and flour; then sprinkle again with cheese. Mix crackers and butter and spread on top. Bake for 30 minutes in 350-degree oven.
Curiously, Mema doesn’t go by a script when she cooks Thanksgiving dinner. Having grown up as the daughter of an innkeeper in southwestern Virginia, cooking is embedded in my grandmother’s DNA. This is an easy one. A few days before Thanksgiving, my grandparents would always drive down to the Honey Baked Ham store in Winston-Salem, and select a 7-pound ham. “I like the butt end, not the hock end,” Mema says.
Sweet potato casserole
Boil locally raised sweet potatoes until tender; remove the potato skin and cream the potatoes; add butter and sugar and place in a glass dish; sprinkle half a cup of brown sugar and pecans on top and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
Mema is world-renowned for her green beans. First, she gets her string beans from a nearby farmer’s market. Once the beans are strung and broken into thirds, she steams them in a large pot over medium heat. The beans are seasoned with fatback, new potatoes, salt and sugar and cooked until the water boils down — which normally takes two hours — then taken off the flame and served hot.
Pretty straightforward on this one: Buy locally raised corn, shuck the ears, cut the corn off the cob and steam in a medium-sized pot with just a little bit of water. Cook until tender, and add half a stick of butter. Mix in the butter and serve.
Buy locally raised yellow squash, and wash and cut into quarter-inch slices. Then, boil squash slices in a pot of water until tender; drain off water and add salt. In a bowl, combine diced onions, half a sleeve of Saltine crackers and half a stick of butter and then mix. Pour cooked squash into glass baking dish, add contents of bowl, crumble crackers on top and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
Affectionately known as “wads,” Mema’s cornbread dressing consistently draws rave reviews. First boil two chicken breasts and cook a pan of cornbread. Once the cornbread cools, crumble it up and place in a large bowl. Toss into two slices of loaf bread, add a teaspoon of black pepper then pour in the homemade chicken broth, just enough to make the cornbread mixture moist. Stir the mixture and form into balls with your hands. Place wads on buttered cookie sheet and cook at 350 degrees until golden brown.
Macaroni & cheese
Boil store-bought macaroni elbows in large pot with salt; drain off water and add three-quarters of a block of sharp cheddar cheese. Stir all the cheese in and place in a buttered glass dish. Add pepper and bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees.
Mema’s homemade biscuits are like dessert. Mema doesn’t know how much of each ingredient she uses in her world-famous mixture, but the result is always the same: Southern-style biscuits that are often imitated but never duplicated. Pour Red Band self-rising flour in a bowl; add Crisco vegetable shortening; one cup of buttermilk and add more flour as needed until proper consistency is achieved. Once the dough is made, pinch off sections to form biscuits and cook on a greased cookie sheet for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.