Every once in awhile, a book will show up unannounced on my doorstep, thoughtfully selected by my cousin for me. It sometimes arrives unexpectedly, and is always a welcome surprise. Earlier this year, one of her gifts was 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, and if you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it. The book traces the lives and food of five immigrant families newly arrived in the United States who, at different times, lived at 97 Orchard in New York City. The author uses the cultures that these families represent to detail the impact they have had on our food today. The result is a rich description of the food traditions brought to America, peppered with recipes.
This year as we approach Thanksgiving, a food-on-steroids holiday filled with family culinary traditions, of generations and in-laws skirmishing about what goes in the bird, and whether it’s blasphemy to deep-fry the turkey, I am reminded of this book. And I remember that tucked inside the annual friendly bantering, is a common thread of passion to preserve treasured family recipes and traditions that have been passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.
This country, perhaps like none other in the world, is a melting pot of cultures. Thanks to the diaspora of people from all corners of the world, our dinner table has been infused with a wide variety of dishes steeped in history and tradition going beyond the time this country was colonized. Over time, this infusion has given birth to the distinctive regional cuisines we now enjoy and show up at the Thanksgiving table. Point in case: all across the country this week, millions of menus in both restaurants and homes will feature a traditional Thanksgiving menu of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams and pumpkin pie. But a table in New England may look different from one in the South. For example, in Boston, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner isn’t complete without cranberry sauce and a mincemeat pie. But in New Orleans, where both French and Spanish settlers developed one of America’s strongest regional cuisines, the table may feature a Turducken, a Cajun creation that cooks a chicken inside a duck, which is cooked inside a turkey, and the stuffing may incorporate crawfish and Creole pork.
The interesting thing is, as new traditions continue to be born with every new family arriving in America, the archetypal Thanksgiving dinner of our American childhood is never lost. For example, one Thanksgiving, I enjoyed a tropical dish of brown sugar glazed plantains served as an alternative to candied yams, prepared by a Costa Rican host. I know a Guatemalan family who makes tamales with various fillings, including a sweet potato puree, for Thanksgiving. One of the beauties of Thanksgiving is that it’s a porous meal that can easily absorb and embrace all the cultures of this country without ever losing its intrinsic identity. Instead, it’s a reflection of who all are, and where we come from, as we gather together at the table to share our food with each other.
In this spirit, consider this an invitation to all of you to join me at a global Thanksgiving feast, potluck style. What dish will you share that brings a piece of your cultural heritage to our table?
My genealogy, on both sides of my family is strongly English with some Scottish mixed in. The dish I’ve chosen for this potluck feels representative of that lineage to me, and so I’d like to share this recipe for a simple dressing featuring oysters that my great-grandmother served at her Thanksgiving table every year. It’s one she got from another branch of the family, so it’s been around for several generations now. To this day, many members of my family wouldn’t consider having Thanksgiving without it, and as new spouses are added into the fold, this is a recipe they all request.
This year, I’ll be serving it for the first time. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Mamma’s Cornbread Stuffing
1 recipe cornbread
8 slices of bread
4 stalks celery
I medium yellow onion
2 -4 eggs (personal preference)
4-5 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
1 tablespoon sage
Salt and pepper to taste
1 container shucked oyster (optional)
- Rub cornbread between palms to make fine texture. Repeat with bread.
- Finely chop celery and onion and sautè in oil until tender.
- Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and blend with hands. Adjust liquid until thick and consistency of cornbread batter.
- Pour into 3-quart casserole dish. Press oysters into mixture at intervals.
- Bake at 350° F.