Some of my earliest food memories revolve around Thanksgiving. In fact, according to my parents Thanksgiving was the first time I really ate solid food—apparently one taste of turkey and I threw away the bottle. The earliest thing I can nearly remember is being about 3 or 4 years old- maybe a bit older, but definitely pre-kindergarten, and bringing home a Waldorf Salad recipe from NCRC (pre-school) and either insisting on making it for Thanksgiving or possibly being encouraged by my extremely encouraging and indulgent family to make it. Either way, it’s a testament to my family that (I think, according to family legend) they ate it or even contemplated eating it. I was four years old.
Waldorf Salad (see recipe below) is pretty straightforward – unless you’re stubborn and four years old and not allowed to use a knife. (My family was encouraging, not crazy). Perhaps the memories are a bit hazy but the constants in the story’s retelling are that a, I didn’t want help and b, I wasn’t allowed to use a knife resulting in not so much sliced apples but apple chunks…. Huge apple chunks. Legendary apple chunks that I’m sure if you ask my Uncles to this day, they will still laugh about. Not the tastiest or easiest salad they’d ever had, but certainly made with love.
And that was just the beginning. Family tradition is that my Mom always hosts Thanksgiving in Washington. My Grandparents would arrive from St. Louis a few days ahead and help with the cooking, organising and everything else. At some point in the preceding days, my Grandmother would re-organise the kitchen cabinets, which I’m not sure was always appreciated at the time. She would also make turkey soup with the turkey leftovers which would sit unmolested and uneaten in the freezer until the week before next year’s Thanksgiving when my Mom would throw it out. Over time, my mom experimented with varying levels of cooking- yes, we did have Thanksgiving catered more than once….. although much to my chagrin as a child, we never went out to eat and we never ordered Chinese on Thanksgiving Day. Whilst lots of things would change from year to year, (I never made Waldorf Salad again), there were lots of traditions and rituals each year that somehow turned Thanksgiving into my favourite holiday.
Every year there would be napkin ironing and folding (yes, my mother owns a book of napkin folding designs); unpacking and washing china- my mother’s wedding china (both sets) and after my Grandmother died, my great grandmother’s china; getting serving dishes and soup tureens from their packed away locations (some only came out for Thanksgiving); polishing silver; reading past issues of Food and Wine and Gourmet magazine for recipe inspiration- every year my mother makes a different soup; and a million other little preparations that made the holiday just so.
Fast forward 20-odd years or so and Thanksgiving is still one of my favourite holidays. Far more than Christmas, which is so fraught with anxiety and tension over gifts and religion and little Baby Jesus and Christmas Carols. I’ve brought Thanksgiving to Australia and for the past few years – 5 or 6 years, I’ve hosted my own Thanksgiving here in Australia. There’s no wedding china (it’s plastic plates instead), no folded napkins, and no silver to polish. My Australian-American and now increasingly Irish Thanksgiving is a far more low key affair. There are the occasional Turkey Hands, and sometimes we do go around and say what we’re thankful for, but really it’s just an excuse for me to cook and for everyone to come around and eat. There are always a few people who have never been to a Thanksgiving before and who ask what it’s about.
It’s pretty simple really, it’s about a group of people getting together to celebrate making it through another year and being grateful and giving thanks for the year that was. It’s about people coming together, despite their differences or maybe because of their differences to eat, drink, and be merry!
**** Small disclaimer, whilst I LOVE Thanksgiving and the Thanksgiving story, generally speaking it didn’t work out so well for the Native Americans. Generally speaking, I’m hoping that none of last year’s guests come back this year to steal land, spread disease, or in any other way wipe out the other guests.
Waldorf Salad Recipe
- 1/2 cup chopped, slightly toasted walnuts
- 1/2 cup celery, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup red seedless grapes, sliced (or a 1/4 cup of raisins)
- 1 sweet apple, cored and chopped
- 3 Tbsp mayonnaise
- 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise (or yogurt) and the lemon juice. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper. Mix in the apple, celery, grapes, and walnuts. Serve on a bed of fresh lettuce.
Yield: Serves 2.