Tradition, On the Side

For many, it's not the turkey that makes Thanksgiving but the dishes they must serve with it.

November 19, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

It would seem odd to go turkeyless on Thanksgiving, but we'd make do. My mother-in-law's rolls, though, are another matter. If they went missing at the holiday table, a mass revolt would ensue.

As she has accumulated grandchildren, Ann Waldron, a 78-year-old biographer and mystery writer, has also gained a young cult following for her yeasty rolls.

Last year, as the turkey roasted and a pleasing chaos enveloped our home, the grandkids gathered around Ann, who instructed them in the art of baking Mildred Allen's Fool-Proof Rolls, named for the member of her childhood church in Birmingham, Ala., who, long ago, reluctantly divulged the recipe.

"I regard this recipe with a kind of holy reverence," my mother-in-law wrote in a family cookbook. So do her grandchildren.

Even if they come prepackaged or aren't among the most delicious items on the table, Thanksgiving must-haves form a kind of culinary DNA. On this day, sauerkraut, macaroni and cheese, hominy, cranberry sauce and other unflashy offerings are elevated to edible emblems of cultural and personal identity.

Because some must-haves aren't typical Thanksgiving fare, they also can distinguish one family's holiday ritual from another's. Chocolate cake was always on Lucy Shaw's Thanksgiving menu along with more traditional sweet potato pie.

Why? "I just love chocolate cake," says the 92-year-old Shaw, who became an accomplished baker of cakes and pies while rearing eight children in Baltimore.

Thanksgiving food traditions, whether unique to a certain family or universal, have a way of connecting different generations. At an early age, Anna Smith, 60, learned to make corn-bread-sausage stuffing from her mother, a cook in a private Baltimore home. This year, Smith's 34-year-old daughter, Kanda Taylor, will prepare the same dressing at the first Thanksgiving in her own home, where at least 25 guests are expected. It probably won't be long before her two young daughters also help with the stuffing.

Picking greens

A Thanksgiving recipe may represent a way of life that has more to do with one family's history than the Pilgrims' experience. As a child, Mary Winters, 71, picked greens for Thanksgiving supper in a field near her grandmother's St. Mary's County home where her family gathered for the holiday.

"My grandmother used to do most of the cooking," says Winters, who learned the art by watching her closely and then experimenting on her own.

Today, Winters, a caterer who lives in West Baltimore, also cooks greens at Thanksgiving. She has turned the cheap and ample staple into something out of the ordinary by preparing the greens in a way "nobody would ever think of making them," Winters says. On one occasion, a family friend "came back for three helpings," she says.

She gets her greens, a mix of collards, curly kale and turnip tops, at the Hollins Street Market and flavors them with smoked turkey breast and apple cider. Winters also layers sliced green peppers and onions into her big pot of well-scrubbed greens, which are prepared the day before Thanksgiving. "The flavor goes through and makes them taste better the next day," Winters says.

A taste from Germany

Tish and Dick Weise each grew up in German households in Baltimore where sauerkraut was part of the Thanksgiving feast, as was the occasional double-stuffed turkey, with oyster dressing in front and chestnut-and-sausage dressing in back.

As a boy, Weise assumed sauerkraut "was a very American thing." It wasn't until later that he realized the cabbage dish had come from Germany before its assimilation into greater Baltimore's Thanksgiving repertoire.

When the Weises, who live in Catonsville, married, there was no question that sauerkraut would also appear on the couple's holiday table. Like that of their mothers, the Weises' sauerkraut was seasoned with pork or sausage and fresh apples or caraway seeds.

The Weises made "large quantities" of sauerkraut, "as it was just as good the day after - or however long it lasted," says Tish Weise, who is 68.

Some things have changed, though. Growing up, "We always used fresh sauerkraut" from Hollins Market, Dick Weise, 71, says. Today, they buy vacuum packs of sauerkraut at the grocery store.

Sweetened corn bread

Lucy Hoopes follows a family recipe for corn-bread dressing - with one departure. "My father, who was born in Jackson, Tenn., in 1894, always insisted real Southern corn bread didn't have sugar in it," says Hoopes, the mother of three grown children and grandmother of 11. "I, however, prefer it sweetened and have for many years preferred the packaged mix. It suits my taste and is less time-consuming."

For Hoopes, Thanksgiving Day "always begins with putting the giblets on to simmer in salted and peppered water with celery leaves and onions. That water will be used to moisten the corn-bread dressing. I put lots of chopped onions and celery into the crumbled-up corn bread, add sage, salt and pepper, and moisten it with pot liquor from the giblets."

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