Thanksgiving Lessons I Learned from My Grandmama
When I was 12 years old, my grandmother, Mary Davis, taught me how to make the perfect Bloody Mary. It was not so much a lesson in booze for her pre-teen granddaughter, but a life lesson in entertaining to prime her for future success. And if there was one holiday where her skills shined like the starlet that she was, it was the Thanksgiving meal she hosted in her home in Shalimar, FL. Thanksgiving for my grandmother was not just a meal, but a grand performance she gave her audience, our family, to enjoy around her dinner table. Grandmama hosted Thanksgiving through the ‘80’s until she was 79 years old, when she injured herself in a dance competition, and was promptly moved in with my aunt Stacy for closer surveillance.
Rehearsal for Thanksgiving began weeks in advance when my aunt Patsy would arrive from New Orleans to find Grandmama propped up in her king sized bed surrounded by an arsenal of cookbooks. This vintage collection of Southern recipes equipped her for decades of serving in style, and she studied them like scripts to prepare for the act that opened with barbecued Gulf shrimp on Wednesday and ended with roasted turkey on fresh bread on Friday.
As her granddaughter, I have been attempting to recreate her performance almost every year, and have experienced many highs and lows as a Thanksgiving host. And though I have added newer, shinier items to my Thanksgiving menu, it is my family’s recipes of the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s that have given the most hosting success. Give me my aunt Stacy’s Sweet Potato Supreme with the sticky, sweet topping and Grandmama’s Southern cornbread dressing over any other. Tradition and sticking to it is the best advice I can give any aspiring host, as well as these lessons and recipes passed down
Good Bacon Fat. It is the lubricant of the gods in the culinary South, as well as the backbone to many of our Southern Thanksgiving sides For a Nashville Thanksgiving, I prefer Gifford’s Bacon over Benton’s, but if you’re lucky enough to find a slab of Wright’s Limited Edition Barrel-Aged Bourbon bacon in the cooler section at Kroger, then, well, you’ve won in that regard, too.
Pickles and Preserves. This is the time to celebrate the harvest and terroir of your region, and my family does so with the pickles and preserves we’ve prepared (or collected) during the season. Grandmama always had a few jars of fig preserves from her backyard tree, as well as a jar of pickled peaches that bobbed in a sweet syrup with cloves and other spices. My Thanksgiving pickle platter always includes the following—Wickles Pickles of Dadeville, AL, green olive varieties, cornichons, and fresh dill slices.
Cheeseball. I have unkind feelings about a person who turns their nose up at a good cheeseball. Grandmama taught my sister and I how to make an irresistible one with fresh garlic, sharp cheddar and soft bleu cheeses, fresh parsley, and good pecans. Sarah and I make it every year for the holidays, and we say, hey, cheeseball is here to stay.
Fresh Bread, Always.
A Spread of Desserts. Find a sideboard or clear a desk to create a dessert display that kids and adults can sneak from. Grandmama’s spring porch was shaded by long-leaf pines and stayed cool enough to keep fudge and custard pies from melting. There was always a coconut cake, a pecan pie, German apple cake, and the family favorite for more than 30 years, aunt Angie’s chocolate fudge.
Porcine and Poultry. Southern families love a variety of turkeys. Grandmama had one roasting in the oven dressed in an old butter-soaked t-shirt, and one on the rotisserie that my Papa Clay tended over the coals. But however the birds were baked, we always—always—had a ham. Studded with cloves and shellacked in sugar, the sweeter the better. I put my order in every year at Honey Baked Ham on West End Avenue
Kick that Can. Blessed be cans of cranberry sauce, but cranberry salad is so easy, why not give it a go? Two bags of berries, the juice and zest of an orange, the chopped segments of another, sugar, and presto, change-o.
Gravy. I send blessings out to every young cook who first tries their hand at gravy. At 19, my mother walked me through giblet gravy on the phone, and after her recommended 2 tablespoons of flour turned into a cup and a half, I was left with a gummy brick that weighed almost as much as the turkey. Just remember that gravy is a dance, and the rhythm and the steps will come back to you every year—let your roux cook!…stir, stir, stir!…use a good stock!…reduce, reduce, reduce!
Dressing. Grandmama said to add a bit more stock than you think it needs—”soupy” she’d call it. I like mine browned on top with a softer, soufflé-like center--a personal preference.