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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Cheeseburgers for Thanksgiving

November 1, 2016

There are six major holidays that receive focus in my family: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mardi Gras, Easter, the Fourth of July, and Halloween.

Halloween is always a fun opportunity to take my son and his friends to haunted houses in the area. Christmas— my favorite holiday for 55 years— is filled with two days of family traditions, meals, church services, strict order of events on Christmas morning, and friends and relatives. Mardi Gras is a big deal in our area, personally and professionally. The Fourth of July is laid back and relaxed and usually spent with my brother and his family at their farm.

Thanksgiving has been an ever-changing holiday for the St. Johns.

As a kid my family travelled to the northern part of Mississippi to eat with cousins, aunts, and uncles at Thanksgiving. For a period we spent most Thanksgivings in town at my grandmother’s. We occasionally visit my wife’s family in North Louisiana, and have spent a few Thanksgiving holidays in Memphis when my brother and his family lived up there. Football games have played a key role in several Thanksgivings over the years as the annual Battle of the Golden Egg between Mississippi State and Ole Miss has been held on that date several times throughout the years.

But the most unique and interesting Thanksgiving I ever spent was in Venice, Italy.

I have written often— during and after— of the six-month journey my wife and two kids made across the European continent in 2011. While visiting over 82 cites in 17 countries we had one hard and fast rule with our kids: No American fast food. Period.

The kids were 10 and 14 and accepted the rule without objection. There was a small incident just outside of Athens, Greece when we passed a McDonald’s after a harrowing experience in a cruise ship port, but I held firm. We all ate as the locals eat throughout the entire trip, and it was a wonderful and life-changing experience.

On Thanksgiving, which is obviously not celebrated in Europe, we found ourselves on the Northern Italian leg of the journey that had taken us throughout the boot for the previous 10 weeks. Our friends the Murpheys had flown over to spend the Thanksgiving holidays with us, and we were operating on a full schedule to give them maximum impact during the short time they were going to be there.

We drove down from Lake Como to Venice to show the Murpheys as much of that city as we could in a few days. I booked a guided tour for their family, and my wife, 14-year old daughter, 10-year old son, and I re-visited a few of the old Venetian haunts we had come to love weeks earlier. While walking along the canals, we passed a Hard Rock Café. The kids knew better than to ask, but they gave us that look. You know the look. My son skillfully worked his mom, while my daughter threw her best puppy-dog eye pouty face in my direction. It worked. We caved. Though technically the Hard Rock Café is not American fast food. It is an American chain restaurant.

We had spent the past four months eating wiener schnitzel in Germany and Austria, herring in Denmark, baked beans for breakfast in Sweden, barbequed goat in Greece, whole fish cooked over a spit in Albania, roasted lamb in Turkey, and wonderful pastas throughout Italy. France and Spain were on the horizon in the days ahead, but in that moment we sat down and ate an all-American— though unorthodox— Thanksgiving meal. While Tom Petty and Bob Dylan blared in the background, we ate chicken wings instead of the typical turkey and dressing. We traded nachos for sweet potatoes, and we all four ordered cheeseburgers instead of the classic holiday sliced ham. About the only thing “typical” that we ate that day was apple cobbler for dessert.

The kids were happy. My wife and I were happy, too. We had submerged ourselves in the culture of other countries on a thorough and fast-paced trek across the continent. My children had seen sights that it had taken me 50 years to get around to visiting. We submersed ourselves in the culinary traditions of our neighbors across the globe and they had been troopers the entire time. They had earned this meal, and the fact that it was on an American holiday that typically brings families together meant all that much more to my wife and me.

I have written often about the memorable holiday meals spent at my grandmother’s dining table. Those were so impactful to my core being that I still spend a few column inches a year recalling details of those meals. I would give several fingers and toes and most of my net worth to eat just one more meal with my long-departed family members at that table. Yet as special as those times were, I don’t know if they surpass that Thanksgiving meal in an American chain restaurant in Italy.

On a long and stressful trip such as that the members of the traveling party develop a bunker mentality. It is hard to make all of the logistics work when the schedule is that packed and the pace is that frantic. One really doesn’t quite understand the scope of a broad-range trip like that until months, even years, afterwards. It was life changing and unforgettable.

That Thanksgiving meal gave us an opportunity to let out a long sigh of relief and helped us remember what we left back home. On a holiday where we are all reminded to be thankful, we were grateful— maybe more grateful than ever— for the opportunity to experience other cultures, to have so much quality time to spend with each other, and for the principles, traditions, and freedoms forever on display in our home country. We were, and still are, truly blessed.


Pasta Roberto

I developed this for a friend’s birthday hosted at my home. It works well with large groups of all ages.

I brought it in as a potential menu item during the initial recipe-testing phase of Tabella. It didn’t have a name, but – as a joke— I listed the temporary, tongue-in-cheek title as “Pasta Roberto,” assuming that we would find a better name before we opened.

As we were getting the restaurant ready to open in the weeks before the launch, I cooked it often for the manager and staff lunches. They called it Pasta Roberto, too. We never came up with an official name and it still on the menu as Pasta Roberto.

1 lb.                  Dry fusilli pasta
1 gallon           Water
¼ cup              Kosher salt
2 TB                 Extra virgin olive oil
½ lb.                Italian sausage links, roasted or grilled, quartered and sliced
¼ cup              Shallot, minced
½ lb.                Cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
½ cup              Red bell peppers, cut into matchsticks
2 TB                 Dry white wine
¾ cup              Parmigianino Reggiano, grated
¾ cup              Marinara
¾ cup              Alfredo

Cook fusilli according to the directions on the package.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the sausage, mushrooms and red bell peppers and cook, stirring frequently, about 6-8 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and allow the wine to cook out completely, about 2-3 minutes.

Fold in the marinara and Alfredo and stir until hot. Add the hot fusilli pasta and the cheese and combine thoroughly.

Divide among six serving bowls.

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