Thanksgiving Through The Years

Posted by Robert on November 25th, 2014

Thanksgiving is almost the perfect holiday. The food is good, family members are gathered, friends are always invited, and football is on the tube all day long. When I look back at Thanksgivings through the decades of my life I have nothing but fond memories.


The Thanksgivings of my early youth were spent in a small town called Brooksville, Mississippi. It’s where my paternal great-grandparents and great uncles and aunts lived. It’s a blip on the map in northeast Mississippi, today most notable for an excellent bakery but not much more.

Brooksville was a magical place for me as a child. We would leave the pine-lined roads of South Mississippi and head north in my mother’s yellow Plymouth. Somewhere around Shuqualak and Electric Mills the landscape changed and the pine trees gave way to hardwoods. The colors were different, the weather was cooler, and there were leaves— not pine straw— on the ground.

Those Thanksgiving meals in Brooksville were true southern Thanksgiving meals— turkey, gravy, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, and sweet potatoes.

My only complaint was marshmallows. My great aunt put marshmallows on her sweet potatoes. I do not believe a marshmallow has any business being anywhere near a sweet potato. Before we move any farther through this column, let me clearly state Rule # 267 of Robert’s Rules For Food: Marshmallows should never, ever, ever be used on a sweet potato casserole.


The Thanksgivings of my teen years were spent at my mother’s house or my paternal grandmother’s house. These Thanksgiving dinners were the gold standard by which all other Thanksgiving meals will be judged. They were very formal and served with fine china, crystal stemware, and sterling silver flatware. The food was slightly tweaked from the earlier Thanksgiving meals, but we always ate in the formal dining room— turkey, gravy, cornbread dressing, oyster dressing, green been casserole, and sweet potatoes with nuts on top (as sweet potatoes should be served).


In my 20s, and after I had opened my first restaurant, I began to fry turkeys in the restaurant and take them to the house where we would usually serve a smoked turkey and a fried turkey. All of the other components were the same. My mother baked her sweet potatoes in orange halves (topped with nuts of course), and I liked eating them that way, but it made it too obvious when one went back for seconds.

It was sometime during this period— maybe it was because of the smoked turkey, I’m not sure— that my love for turkey sandwiches blossomed.

I like turkey and gravy for Thanksgiving lunch but it doesn’t excite me. It’s nothing that I’m really looking forward to eating. On the other hand, dressing and gravy is awesome. I would almost always eat dressing and gravy over turkey and gravy any day. Though what really excites me are the turkey sandwiches for the next few days.

For at least 30 years in a row I have eaten a turkey sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread with mayonnaise, lettuce, salt and pepper for the meal immediately following the big Thanksgiving spread. I love that. A turkey sandwich tastes differently in the immediate days after Thanksgiving. It’s the perfect after-meal food and goes well with a football game.


Most of the Thanksgivings in my 30s were spent at my home trying to recreate those Thanksgiving meals of my youth. Two things changed, however, my wife started making the sweet potatoes and cranberries.

I don’t know the origins of the sweet potato recipe, but I know it has become a staple in our holiday meals. The cranberry recipe came from a friend named Kevin Lowrey.

The sweet potato casserole is so good that we use it at one of our restaurants as a dessert. The cranberry recipe makes use of fresh cranberries instead of canned and is served warm. During those early Thanksgiving meals in Brooksville I remember a jiggly plate of cranberry jelly that was almost in the shape of the can from which it came. At my mother and grandmother’s houses they used cranberry sauce, which was a little more refined, but I never liked either. Cooking fresh cranberries and reducing them with port wine, brown sugar and orange juice makes a dish that I love to eat with turkey.


The good folks at Viking gave me a full set of grilling appliances when I was writing and testing my grilling cookbook. Included in the lot was the Viking version of the Big Green Egg. As one would expect, this smoker isn’t green but stainless. It is the best way to cook or smoke a turkey. The ceramic walls are so thick and they retain heat like no other cooking appliance.

The menu was the same but with addition of a green bean casserole that I created for my second cookbook that makes use of water chestnuts, caraway seeds, Swiss cheese and bacon. It’s the best, because of those ingredients, but also because there isn’t a can of cream of mushroom soup in sight. I make a homemade mushroom béchamel sauce instead.

As my children grow older I am sure that we will end up eating Thanksgiving meals in their homes. They will tweak the meals they serve just as we have tweaked the menus of our parents and grandparents. As long as neither of my kids marries a marshmallow-loving sweet potato person all will be fine.


Jill’s Sweet Potatoes

4 cups                        Sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled and mashed

3 cups                        Sugar

4                         Eggs, beaten

1 cup                        Heavy cream

3 sticks            Butter, divided

1 tsp                        Cinnamon

1 tsp                        Nutmeg

1 cup                        Rice Krispies

1 cup                        Pecans, chopped

1 cup                        Walnuts, chopped

1 cup                        Brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 13 x 9 casserole dish. Combine hot sweet potatoes, sugar, eggs, cream, half of the butter, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl; mix thoroughly. Add sweet potato mixture to greased casserole dish.

Combine Rice Krispies, pecans, walnuts and remaining butter and brown sugar into a bowl. Mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture.

Bake 40-45 minutes or until center is hot. Yield:10-12 servings

The Ultimate Green Bean Casserole

1 qt                        Chicken Broth

4 cans                   Green Beans, drained (14.5 oz cans)

1 /4 cup                Bacon, diced

1 cup                     Onion, medium dice

2 tsp                      Caraway seeds (optional)

1 1 /2 tsp              Salt

1 tsp                       pepper

2 cups                    Mushroom Béchamel Sauce

4oz can                  Sliced Water Chestnuts, drained  (optional)

1 cup                      Swiss Cheese, shredded

6 oz can                French’s Fried Onions, divided

Preheat oven to 350.

In a large saucepot, bring chicken broth to a boil. Place green beans in the broth and simmer 10 minutes. Drain the green beans.

Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, render bacon until it just becomes crisp. Drain excess bacon grease from the skillet and add the diced onions. Cook over medium heat for five minutes. Stir in caraway seeds, salt, pepper and Mushroom Béchamel Sauce. Remove mixture from the heat and fold in the green beans, water chestnuts, cheese and half of the canned, fried onions.  Place mixture in a three-quart baking dish and bake 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining fried onions over the top of the casserole and return to the oven an additional 12-14 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving. Serves six to eight.

Mushroom Bechamel

2 tsp               Olive oil, light

2 Tbl                Onion, minced

1 Tbl                Shallot, minced

1 Tbl                Celery, minced

1/2 tsp            Salt

1/4 tsp            Garlic, granulated

1 /8 tsp            Thyme, dry

3 oz                   Mushrooms, cleaned, sliced (1 cups)

1 cup                  Chicken broth

3 Tbl cup          Butter

1/4 cup             Flour

1/3 cup             Whipping cream

Heat oil in a three-quart saucepot over low heat. Add onions, shallots, celery, and salt. Cook vegetables until tender. Add mushrooms and increase heat to medium. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken broth, garlic and thyme. Bring back to a simmer and cook 10 more minutes.

In a separate skillet, make a light-blonde roux by melting butter and stirring in flour. Add to simmering broth mixture. Cook three to four minutes and add cream. Freezes well.

Yield: three cups


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