It’s an old family recipe…

Enjoy yourself a nice food coma... (Click to embiggen)
Enjoy yourself a nice food coma… (Click to embiggen)
I learned a lot of incredible recipes from my grandmothers and great-grandmothers as a kid. There are a few favorite old dishes that, for one reason or another, I never learned how to make before the only person in the family that knew it passed away. One of my great-grandmothers cooked sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving in heavy cream and molasses. They were incredibly delicious, but it was apparently a rather involved process. If she wasn’t attending the big Thanksgiving dinner, we didn’t get the creamy sweet potatoes. Her daughter, my Grandma B, didn’t like the creamy recipe. She preferred to just pour a bit of molasses and a bunch of mini-marshmallows on top and bake the sweet potatoes. Lots of people eat them that way, but they just don’t compare to the way Great-grandma made them.

My Grandma P. had all sorts of favorite old recipes, but most of them weren’t Thanksgiving fare (her chili was to die for!). But about ten years before she died, after she had let my Aunt Silly take over hosting the annual Thanksgiving dinner, Grandma brought this frozen cranberry salad which everyone loved. Really, really loved. And they begged her to make it again for Christmas. It became the dish she brought to all the holiday get-togethers from then on. For some reason, I never asked her to explain the recipe to me. I was a bit surprised, after Grandma died, when I found out none of my cousins, nor my aunt, nor Mom, had ever asked for the recipe. We had some discussions and realized that none of us agreed on all the ingredients we recalled being in it. It was frozen, it had cranberries, and orange slices, and Cool Whip mixed together, but also had layers. But some of us remember it having nuts, while some said it never did, and others remember coconut, while others thought it was marshmallows, and so on. I suspect it’s because Grandma had alway been an improvisational cook, so I bet she never made it exactly the same way, twice.

Over the years since, I experimented in an attempt to re-create it, and have come up with a process that gets something most of the family members agree is darn close. I know that Grandma probably made hers with canned cranberry sauce, but I always start with raw cranberries and mandarin oranges, cooking them down to make homemade cranberry sauce. In the tradition of none of us remembering it the same way, every year I intentionally do at least one different ingredient than the previous year. My sister keeps insisting Grandma’s had mini marshmallows (at least two cousins agree with her), while Mom and I are pretty sure it didn’t. But this year, for my sister, I’ve added mini marshmallows.

For the last fifteen years or so, Mom has made this thing she calls Mistake Salad. Originally she meant to follow a recipe she got from a magazine, but she skipped a major ingredient. But everyone liked what she made, so she’s kept doing it “wrong.” If you’ve ever heard the novelty song “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise,” this thing Mom makes is from a similar tradition. Except if there were a song about Mom’s, it would be called “Pistachio Pudding Pineapple Cottage Cheese Surprise.” And while that may not sound good, I assure you it is sinfully delicious.

Family holiday traditions are weird like that. Several years back my sister had Thanksgiving dinner plans go badly awry, and she wound up making spaghetti and meatballs, because that was what she had left that was fit to eat. Her oldest daughter (my niece) loved that Thanksgiving, and now spaghetti and meatballs is her favorite food to make for the holidays.

When I was young, the gravy served at big family meals was always so thick, it could have been served with a fork. After you spooned some onto your mashed potatoes and stuffing, he had to sort of mash it into the potatoes and the stuffing with your fork to get the flavor blended. A friend once explained that her family’s gravy was always thin and runny, so when you poured some on any part of your dinner, it flowed all over the plate, and everything got some gravy on it. For her, that’s the flavor of Thanksgiving: a bit of gravy on everything.

For me, it isn’t a holiday dinner if there isn’t a relish tray (at least two kinds of olives, pickles, other pickled vegetables). For my husband, the dinner needs a green bean casserole—specifically the kind made with cream of mushroom soup and French’s fried onions. And afterward there has to be pie. Unless I’m feeling up to make cherries jubilee (the kind with flaming brandy! Fruit, sugar, ice cream, and fire! How can you top that for a dessert?), then I can live without pie.

This year it’s just going to be the three of us at my Mom’s. So we’re only going to have part of a turkey, and only a couple of side dishes. Though I can tell from the messages I’ve been exchanging with her that both of us have picked up a few extra things besides what we discussed when divvy-ing up the menu. So we’ll probably wind up with enough food to feed a dozen. It may be more than filling, but it will also be fun.

So, what are you having?

7 thoughts on “It’s an old family recipe…

  1. Re Great-grandma’s sweet potato dish (and other “lost” recipes): couldn’t hurt to Google a combination of as many of the ingredients as you’re sure of, with “recipe” tagged on … and see what you come up with.

    (Personally I like my sweet potatoes spiced — e.g. in a chili — rather than sweetened, but that’s a matter of taste.)

    1. I make a mean savory root vegetable casserole with turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes. pecans, and goat cheese. So yeah, I like sweet potatoes with some spice, too.

  2. Your Grandma’s cranberry thing sounds like a thing my mom called cranberry wreath salad. No one ever believes there are marshmallows in. But it’s not frozen (except when mom started it too late), it’s just chilled until set. I’ll have to copy/send you the recipe and see what you think. Might trigger a memory if nothing else.

    We’re going basic this year, since it’s just us and Amy: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, rolls, pumpkin pie, apple pie, snicker doodles, pie crust cookies, molasses cookies, and maybe an apple crisp. At least at some point over the weekend. 😉 All the baked goods but the molasses cookies and apple crisp are done as of tonight.

  3. I’ve made Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie for an Oklahoma! wrap party, otherwise I don’t care much for them. I have just googled for recipes including cream, molasses, and sweet potatoes, and came up empty handed.

    No Thanksgiving for me–when you live in the UK, Thanksgiving is just another day, although the rapacious moguls of commerce want to make Black Friday a thing. Hope you enjoy.,

    1. Yeah, I almost used one of the meme’s that said, “For everyone outside the U.S., happen ordinary Thursday!”

      One of my late husband’s brothers hated sweet potatoes. Absolutely despised them. Then, one year my big Christmas present to his mother was I did all the work to make a big Christmas Eve dinner for the whole extended family, while she spent the day with the grandkids. I made my sweet potato & baked apple casserole. I had two big casserole dishes of it (along with a lot of other stuff for the dinner for 18 people). The sweet potato/apples kept getting passed around, and everytime it went by the brother he commented, “that smells so good… are you sure there are sweet potatoes?”

      He finally tried a very tiny amount…

      …and then asked for the casserole back, and took a much bigger helping (his wife and mother both had their eyes bugging out in shock)…

      …and then a little later he had another big helping…

      …after we adjourned to the other room to open presents, and I was putting leftovers into containers to send home with people, he came into the kitchen and finished off all the left over sweet potatoes.

      For the next few years when holiday dinners were being planned, he asked if I’d make the sweet potato thing again. He would also assert how normally he hated them, except when I made them.

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