A Different Thanksgiving

November 24, 2009 · 1 comment

Okay. I know.

What the hell is a clip of Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen doing on Poor Man’s Feast? No, this post is not going to be about herring or Aquavit. Or jaunty seafarers singing jaunty songs without (apparently) moving their lips.

This post is about Thanksgiving–the one that I know, the one that I have the clearest memories of. And Danny Kaye singing Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen (see above).

No matter how old I get or where Thanksgiving finds me (this year, in Florida with my cousins and my cousins’ babies), I invariably start to feel a little bit draggy for a few days before turkey day, and before I am jettisoned into a tryptophan-induced drooling stupor that makes me look like I’ve been hypnotized. I know where this comes from; for me, Thanksgiving was one of the smaller hints of normalcy that I had in my house growing up, and for the first fifteen years of my life (and no matter how big the cold front was that settled down into the space between my mother and father), it was spent the exact same way: my grandmother, who lived right across the street, would come over at around 7 am; she’d start roasting giblets for the gravy, and this is the smell that would yank me out of bed; by 9, the turkey (which was always far too big) was in the oven, and the countertop assembly of the side dishes — sweet potato with marshmallows, cranberry sauce (from a can, with the ridges embedded in the sides), asparagus — had begun. By 11, the mood was light, celebratory, even. And by noon, I was sitting in front of the little black and white television in my bedroom, watching Danny Kaye and Joseph Walsh on their way to the Salty Old Queen of the Sea. I’d sit there with my arm around my Airedale and together we’d sway idiotically back and forth while staring at the glow of post-War Hollywood and a back lot somewhere that had been marvelously transformed into nineteenth century Denmark. And it made me happy, for years.

When things started to go sour in my house, my grandmother was still there, roasting the giblets and the turkey and the sides, while the silence around us was so thick you could slice it like pate. Eventually, I’d spend the mornings at a friend’s house a few blocks away, and come home in time to eat; I’d miss Copenhagen and Danny Kaye and his infernal happiness, and it meant nothing to me. When my parents eventually divorced, I started spending every Thanksgiving with my father’s family: there were games and toys for the younger kids, tons of cousins, and constant laughter and a frenzy to get all the food doled out to everyone at mostly the same time. And it made me happy, for years.

We’re all older now; my aunt is 91 and my baby cousins are scattered around, and there are newish babies involved; their parents live in Virginia and in Florida, where Susan and I are spending our holiday this year, and we can’t wait to see everyone. But it’s hard, even at 46, to not want things to stay the same even though we know that they can’t. Not even on Thanksgiving. Just as Susan’s beloved childhood Christmases no longer involve Spike Jones and a turkey that has been cooked to the consistency of balsa wood, my Thanksgivings no longer involve Danny Kaye and my grandmother’s sweet potato pie with marshmallows, or a ton of cousins all growing up together more or less at the same time. And really, that’s totally okay.

Because wherever we are, we have new memories to make, and a lot to be thankful for.

Clara Elice’s Cornflake Marshmallow Sweet Potato Pie

At once cloying and irresistible, this is the Thanksgiving food of my youth. It’s fine to pick off the marshmallows (which must be full size, and store-bought) first, and then eat the rest of the pie. If it had been me making this 35 years ago, I would have added a pinch of cayenne, or maybe some curry. But my grandmother never knew from such things.
Serves 6-8
2 cups cornflakes
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, and divided
3 12 ounce cans unsweetened sweet potato
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 bag marshmallows
1. In a large bowl, mix the cornflakes together with half of the butter and toss well. Spoon into the bottom of a medium casserole, and set aside. Warm the sweet potato in a medium sauce pan set over a low flame. Fold in the butter and combine well.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Add the nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, juice, and brown sugar, and stir to combine well. Fold into the casserole, top with marshmallows, and bake until lightly golden. (Alternately, bake without marshmallows for 30 minutes, then top with marshmallows and return to oven until lightly golden.)

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