It’s the season of gratitude. Despite all of the problems and challenges the year 2020 has thrown in our paths, there are so many things for which to still be grateful. If you are reading this, you are alive and have survived the last eight months in various states of business and personal shutdowns. Some have passed away as a result of this pandemic whether it was due to a direct result of the virus or all of the other negative consequences that result from shutting down the world for months. We will greatly miss and lovingly remember each of them this holiday season.
We are here. We are alive. And I hope we are relatively healthy. Despite the challenges, we have so much to be thankful for this year.
Thanksgiving 2020 will be the most unique holiday I have ever experienced. Most of the Thanksgivings I have lived through in the past 59 years have all been written from the same script.
As a child, my family spent Thanksgiving in the tiny town of Brooksville, Miss. It’s where my grandfather was born and where some of his family still lived. As a kid, the most vivid memories of those early Thanksgivings weren’t of the food but of leaves. I grew up in the Pine Belt of South Mississippi, and all we knew was pine straw. As my mother drove north towards Brooksville, somewhere around Shuqualak, the pine trees gave way to hardwoods. I spent most of the time at my great uncle’s house in Brooksville outside playing in the leaves. I’m sure the food was very good but frolicking in leaves seemed to take precedent at that age.
Times changed quickly. Thanksgivings eventually moved to my grandmother’s house around the time I was ten years old. The food took on an entirely different seriousness at that point. Leaves were the last thing on my mind.
The Thanksgiving meals I serve at my home today are basically the same meal and menu that my grandmother served in her home 50 years ago. When one finds something that works one sticks to it. Especially when it comes to entertaining and feeding large groups. The one difference between my grandmother’s meals and mine is that she made homemade rolls. If I could replicate her homemade rolls— and sometimes her biscuits— then I would do so. But I have never been able to achieve that pinnacle of quick bread preparation, so I figure it’s best to leave well enough alone and either bring some from the restaurant or purchase homemade rolls or biscuits that are sold in various retail outlets.
We always have roast turkey. Sometimes I’ll throw a baked or smoked ham in the mix. Thirty years ago, I fried the turkeys at the restaurant and then brought them home to be served for the Thanksgiving dinner. I mainly just roast them in my home oven these days. The gravy I make is a darker gravy. It’s not darker because there’s a dark roux involved, it’s because I use Kitchen Bouquet which is something that my grandmother always used to make her gravy look richer, a deeper brown, and not that weak yellow color.
There will always be a green bean casserole. Ours has caraway seeds and water chestnuts. The sweet potato casserole we make is topped with pecans and walnuts and another secret ingredient that I won’t give away here, but you can see in the recipe link attached to this column. I always challenge new guests who attend our Thanksgiving lunches to try and figure out the secret ingredient. To date, no one has ever guessed correctly. But the component makes a huge difference in the flavor profile and the lightness of the sweet potato topping.
As a kid we never served mashed potatoes at our Thanksgiving lunches. My wife’s family did and so now we now add mashed potatoes to the mix alongside the sweet potatoes.
We never dump cranberries out of a can, or use cranberry jelly out of a can, but use fresh cranberries to make a reduction that is served warm and is highly superior to any pre-packaged cranberry product.
Desserts vary. My grandmother always had some type of cake under glass in her home, and so the dessert served at Thanksgiving wasn’t much different than whatever she would have served if you came over to visit on a Wednesday afternoon. But it was always good. When we moved our Thanksgiving lunches to my mother’s house for several years, I think I brought dessert from the restaurant. It was probably pumpkin cheesecake or some type of apple pie with walnuts.
To me, the most important component at a Thanksgiving meal is the dressing. Seriously, I think the dressing is more important than the turkey. Actually, I could eat just dressing with gravy and skip the turkey. Though I never do. My mother made oyster dressing alongside cornbread dressing and it was pretty good, but I always opted for the original. I make a cornbread dressing that comes out very moist due to the fact it has a mushroom bechamel sauce I developed in the mix.
Again, this is one of the areas where my wife’s original family and my family parted ways. They were into stuffing. I don’t believe in stuffing a Turkey with anything other than a few root vegetables and some garlic. So, in addition to mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, we have dressing and stuffing. Though the stuffing I serve is made outside of the Turkey. Which renders the whole process null and void if you’re going to call it stuffing. But we do it, and it saves a lot of heated marital discussions back and forth.
I typically bring home a pumpkin cheesecake from the restaurant. It’s a feature dessert we do this time of year and it is perfect. But we are typically so full from such a huge spread the dessert is consumed several hours after lunch.
My favorite part of the Thanksgiving weekend are the Turkey sandwiches that I will consume in the three days after Thanksgiving. As I prefer dressing over turkey, I would almost rather have a leftover turkey sandwich than the more formal turkey entrée with gravy. My version is simple I use dark meat turkey— because that is most of what is leftover, bonus for me— toasted wheat bread with both sides slathered with mayonnaise. Then I add a liberal amount of salt and pepper, followed by a little lettuce, and that’s all. That is one of my top five perfect sandwiches ever. I don’t know why I don’t eat that more often throughout the year. The reason it tastes good is because it comes from a roasted turkey. Deli sliced turkeys are packed with water and don’t offer the same flavor. A leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich is miles ahead of a sliced deli meat Turkey sandwich from the grocery store or a deli.
The only Thanksgiving that has ever deviated from the typical St. John Thanksgiving was when we were on an extended trip through Europe when the kids were young. Our agreement going over there was, that for the entire six months, there would be no video games, and no American fast food while in Europe. On Thanksgiving 2011— four months into the trip— I gave them a one-meal pass on Thanksgiving and let them eat at the Hard Rock Café in Venice. We ate nachos and cheeseburgers for our Thanksgiving meal, we were all grateful. Amazingly enough, it’s one of my favorite Thanksgivings, ever.
In the end it’s really not about the food. For years I thought it was about the food. But it’s about the people. We have family over for Thanksgiving, but we also have friends over for Thanksgiving. Sometimes it’s friends that we don’t typically share a meal with throughout the rest of the year. That makes it even more special. The cast of characters changes occasionally but for the most part a Thanksgiving meal at the St. John house is one where each of us are surrounded by people we love, and people who love us. For that I am ever grateful.
My full Thanksgiving meal is available at the link below. Have a blessed Thanksgiving and let’s hope this may be a catalyst to start heading towards some sense of normalcy in the coming weeks. God bless you and your family and God bless the United States of America. Happy Thanksgiving from the St. Johns.