American Thanksgiving is coming up, and with it is a plethora of suggestions all over food-related media about how to create the perfect meal.
This classic holiday meal is like any other—it’s as much about the side dishes as the turkey, ham or roast that adorns the holiday table.
Holidays are steeped in tradition and tradition is often all about the little things, like side dishes. Those seemingly innocuous dinner items can derail the whole evening if they are messed with. Tell me I’m wrong. I bet your family has something that fits the bill.
When I was little, our family developed our traditions from the combination of my mom’s favourite things and my dad’s. There were things that survived the years, and others that didn’t.
My mom loved tomato aspic, which is by most people’s standards a horribly savoury interpretation on jellied salad. I liked it, but I know it’s not a crowd pleaser.
On the other hand, my dad’s family had what they called “apple salad”, which my mom tried to elegantly rename Waldorf Salad – but that was supposed to be made with mayonnaise and apples and my dad’s version had whipped cream. As a kid, which one do you think I voted for?
Over the years, the apple salad did get walnuts, and the old-school taste of aspic was replaced by old-school British-style bread stuffing (or dressing, if that’s what you call what gets put in the turkey). It had sausage and dried fruit, maybe, or nuts along with the array of herbs and spices. Everybody made compromises, and we were all still very thankful.
We never had marshmallows in any side dishes – not on the yams, and not in an Ambrosia Salad. I have not tried green bean casserole to this day, and mac n’ cheese just seems like overkill to me on a holiday table. That’s not to say I wouldn’t try any of those things if given the chance.
The only evolution our mashed potatoes made was when my mom discovered they tasted better made with cream instead of milk. I love them whipped, but I know friends who are nostalgic about Aunt So-and-So’s lumpy mash. Love always wins.
I have heard stories about many different signature quirks from folks over the years. Some of my favourites:
• Smother the broccoli or cauliflower in cheese sauce; that makes it tolerable. (The same story apparently applies when adding bacon to the Brussel sprouts.)
• Don’t ever forget to put the potato water in the gravy. (It was supposed to add flavour and help it thicken from the potato starch. My husband says that is a real wives’ tale. Don’t bother.)
• Cranberry jelly is supposed to be on the table in the shape of the tin can. Debate over this one has been known to cause deep rifts in family circles.
The cranberry jelly debate is part of what inspired my stepdaughter to contribute to her new in-laws’ holiday table. She made a delightful cranberry relish with orange zest. Little did she know her father-in-law was one of the “it should be shaped like the can” folks.
Thankfully, he was willing to try a new version of his tried-and-true condiment and he liked the variation.
On the other side of the table, my stepdaughter was not as thrilled with the apple salad. The world is not perfect.
But yes, there is a happy twist in that tale. I managed to end up with extended family that loves apple salad made just the way I like it. What are the odds? Better than the lottery, I can tell you that much.
Finding happy connections with family is the true secret to peace – at least at the dinner table.
So you see, it’s worth saving your stories of weird side dishes as tales for the grandkids. They might meet people who are the same kind of weird as them, if they’re lucky.
If you are hosting a holiday meal this winter, maybe you want to try something new – or even old school. I found a fascinating link from a food blogger in Oklahoma named Ree Drummond. Her Pioneer Woman blog is now an institution.
If you want down-home goodness, she’s got it. How about 110 ideas for side dishes?
If you’d like the health-conscious approach, then here is a lovely article with dishes that could accompany any winter meal.
Let’s face it, we all know the real magic comes in sharing it all. Remember to enjoy your company and if you’ve been invited, remember to enjoy the adventure.
A few spoons’ full of weirdness could do us all a bit of good.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.