Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. Growing up in a huge Irish Catholic family, Thanksgiving dinner quickly turned into a raucous event with upwards of 20 cousins under the age of 18 scattered throughout my aunt Karen’s house. Karen, the culinary expert of the family, sequestered herself in the kitchen for hours while her husband Randy and the rest of my uncles perched on couches pointed at the big screen television in the family room. With the soundtrack of the football game echoing through the house, appetizers were quickly devoured by the adults and children as we all anxiously awaited the impending buffet. My sister and I always ate the green olives which were provided especially for us, as we were the only members of the family that ate them. We asked for the bowl to be refilled again and again until our mother finally cut us off after the third round, fearing our appetites would be ruined or that our blood pressure would spike to astronomical levels, whichever came first.
Every year was comfortingly consistent, featuring two giant turkeys with homemade dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and a variety of fruit filled jello. The smell of buttery dinner rolls baking and singed marshmallows served as the figurative dinner bell, sending a palpable wave of excited anticipation throughout the house.
I always made sure to have one scoop of everything offered on my plate, piling a few spoonfuls of green olives from the appetizer table in the center. My mother ribbed me for trying to fill my fork with every flavor at once and inevitably losing much of it attempting to steer it toward my mouth.
After dinner came the dessert buffet. Along with the traditional pumpkin pie my aunt also offered at least two fruit pies, usually apple or cherry, as well as sweet potato pie and chocolate-caramel turtle cake with lots of whipped cream. Every one of us had our favorites — mine was sweet potato — and Karen made sure we were all satisfied.
Over the years, as the kids began to grow up and many members of our family moved to far away places, the gathering began to dwindle. I made it back for a few years after I moved out of my mother’s house, but eventually I was bitten by the culinary bug and started some of my own traditions based on the ones I grew up with. I even undertook the daunting task of cooking my own turkey, basting and checking frequently, fearing that as I prepared the side dishes I might forget about it and resign it to an inedible carcass of dried flesh stuck to charcoal bones. The balancing act Karen had perfected was truly something to be admired.
I live thousands of miles away from my family now and I’m still trying to capture the feelings of home every year around the holidays. I’ve spent Thanksgiving with the families of close friends and even hosted a few “friends-givings” for others who have no where to go for the holiday, but nothing compares to the old traditions. In 2016 I decided to try a solo Thanksgiving, curating a menu inspired from the one I grew up with. Preparing a Thanksgiving feast for one is not such a simple task but I gave it an honest effort and there’s nothing wrong with leftovers, after all! Instead of a turkey I decided a whole chicken would be more practical, but all of my favorite childhood side dishes were there, as well as a few new additions. I used my aunt’s recipe for the sweet potatoes but made my own mushroom gravy in lieu of condensed mushroom soup in the green bean casserole. I settled for store bought pumpkin pie, since baking had never been my strong suit, but everything else was made from scratch: garlic mashed potatoes, cornbread dressing, turkey meatballs, brown rice and broccoli-cheddar au gratin. The balancing act felt effortless as I had plenty of time and no guests to please. Every dish was ready by the time the chicken was finished cooking and all was piping hot. My plate included a scoop of everything and, of course, a few spoonfuls of green olives in the center. I poured myself a glass of wine and piled my fork with every flavor–hearing my mother’s playful voice as I steered it toward my mouth.