They say the older one gets; the faster time seems to move forward. I don’t know who “they” are, but “they” are spot on. It seems as if we were just bringing in the new year a few weeks ago and it’s almost Thanksgiving.
For the 18 years I have written this column, there are a few annual “constants.” Every year in January, I compile a list of my top 10 dining experiences from the previous year. I will always write about the opening of shrimp season and the peak crab harvest in August. Almost every other column has something to do with my childhood and growing up in the south, and it’s inevitable that I will almost always misjudge the calendar and neglect to write about Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is probably the most important food holiday of the year, and I always seem to miss the timing of it. Different newspapers run this column on different days of the week. I have always somehow missed the timing the pre-Thanksgiving piece, and usually end up writing a column about leftovers. Not this year. I am writing about Thanksgiving three weeks early.
We associate food with most of our major holidays— Easter brunch, Fourth of July barbeque, Christmas morning breakfast— but none are bigger than Thanksgiving. It’s the granddaddy of all eating holidays.
The Thanksgivings of my youth were spent in the small town of Brooksville, Mississippi, just south of Starkville. My father’s father grew up there, and what was left of his family celebrated Thanksgiving in a big way. The clearest memories of those early Thanksgivings were not of food, but of hardwood trees. As a child of the Piney Woods, I can remember riding in the back seat of my mother’s car, looking out the window, and realizing— somewhere around Shuqualak or Electric Mills— that the landscape changed from pines to hardwood. My cousins were probably baffled by my fascination of playing in the leaves in the yard of the old St. John house, but when one is surrounded by pine straw 24-7-365, piles of hardwood leaves are a welcome sight.
Those Brooksville Thanksgiving spreads were massive, and when those relatives eventually died off, my Hattiesburg grandmother— and then mother— picked up the Thanksgiving feeding responsibilities. The menus at all of those meals were almost identical. Every year. Year in and year out. As with most Thanksgivings, turkey and dressing were the stars of the show. But they weren’t that unique to us, as my grandmother served turkey and dressing during Sunday lunches throughout the year.
We never ate mashed potatoes, we ate sweet potatoes, and we never put marshmallows on top of our sweet potatoes. Ever. Period. End of story. Marshmallows do not belong on sweet potatoes. It’s in the Bible somewhere— in one of those Old Testament chapters with a lot of begats in it: “Thou shalt not put marshmallows on thy sweet potatoes, lest there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.” St. John Thanksgiving sweet potato casseroles always had some type of nut mixture on them to give it some crunch. So let it be written, so let it be done.
My mother made a green bean casserole that had water chestnuts and caraway seeds that was very good. Seriously, ion the world of green-bean casseroles, it sits at the pinnacle atop all others. We never ate corn or macaroni and cheese, but always had some type of asparagus dish. In later years, my wife learned a cranberry recipe from a friend, and we moved away from the canned cranberry sauce to a warm, homemade compote using fresh cranberries. It is excellent.
I can’t remember what was served for desserts in my childhood years, but once I started hosting and cooking Thanksgiving meals in the 1990s, I served pumpkin cheesecake, and still do today.
I have eaten the same Thanksgiving meal for 56 years. I like it that way, and I plan to keep it that way. The only deviation from the typical St. John Thanksgiving meal was in 2011, when my wife, two children and I were in the middle of a six-month trek through Europe. We were four months into the journey, and the kids had not complained about my rule of “No American fast food while in Europe.” We found ourselves in Venice on Thanksgiving Day, and I let them eat burgers and nachos at the Hard Rock Café. To be honest, I was a little grateful to be eating that, too. For the record, there wasn’t a marshmallow in sight.