Thanksgiving Dinner: We’re Hungry for Tradition

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My mother was a good cook who didn’t own a cookbook. One year she wrote out what might loosely be called “recipes” for some of her standards, including her Thanksgiving menu, to give to her children. Her handwriting brings her back to me along with the food. My favorite instruction in these pages is: Cook till done.

I’m a first-generation American, the child of Jewish parents who each, as teenagers with their families, fled from Vienna in 1938 and settled in New York City. When my father turned 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and returned to Europe to fight the Nazis. He met my mother after the war, and within a few months they were married by a judge in a city office. Having no notion of bridal finery, she wore a light-green suit. Her engagement ring was no diamond but a pearl; his wedding ring was silver. My father went to college on the GI Bill and worked nights at the Rheingold beer factory in Brooklyn. They had two kids and then moved upstate, to Albany, where my father had found a job in his field, and where I was born.

When I was three, they bought a tiny house in a town that was still rural but going toward suburban. That tiny house sat on two acres of land — and for them, this more than anything represented an American dream fulfilled.

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Along with Viennese and Hungarian dishes, my mother made American classics like meatloaf, and we loved the occasional pancake dinner. When it came to Thanksgiving, she did it her way — with perfect simplicity. Her stuffing “recipe” was white bread (nothing special — just packaged, sliced loaves), eggs, a little flour as needed, a little water as needed, salt, parsley. And of course the turkey essence that it absorbed. My sister and I have made it this way forever, and our families would be scandalized if we ever deviated from the One, True Stuffing.

My husband is a first-generation American on one side (his mother is from Argentina), but the other side goes back a long way in this country. His Iowa-born uncle, who was also his stepfather (it’s a long story), took up cooking after his retirement. He was the gourmet-cookbook kind of cook: In the face of complicated techniques, unusual ingredients, hours of preparation, and mountains of mess, he was undaunted — though we prudently steered clear of the Alexandria, Va., kitchen when he was in it.

One Thanksgiving, deciding to get creative, he replaced the classic turkey and bread stuffing with a roast goose stuffed with prunes stuffed with liver pâté — stuffing within a stuffing (and goose within goose, come to think of it). Along with his remarkable sautéed chestnuts, this was a meal we will never forget. It was as singular as my mother’s Thanksgiving feast was ritual.

There will be just four at our Thanksgiving table this year — our older son and his wife will join us, but our younger son is too far away and other relatives and friends are staying put. In a time of corona and mad politics loose in the land, my mother’s simple — you might even call it innocent — stuffing will represent the eternal verities.

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