A Modern Woman's Thanksgiving

Editor's note: While we were planning our Thanksgiving coverage, Serious Eats community member Karen Resta happened to email and offered the following essay on what the day means to her. It's a nice take on Thanksgiving as approached by three generations of American women. —Adam

I am a modern American woman and my Thanksgiving foods reflect that. The Thanksgiving foods of my mother and grandmother were also reflective of their own ways of being modern women of their times, though for each of them the approach to Thanksgiving was fearsome—for time spent in the kitchen was not pleasurable in any way either one could find.

My Grandmother's Kitchen

part of a Serious ThanksgivingThere was no turkey on my grandmother's Thanksgiving table regardless of the annual hype about the bird's vital importance for the day in the attractive pictures sketched in women's magazines and in the "women's pages" of the newspapers (where all news about food could be found). Instead, there was a fresh ham, glazed with brown sugar and mustard, crackling still intact—because hams were easier to procure and easier to cook. There were browned Maine cull potatoes from the neighbor's farm up the road, home-canned beans from the garden, and cornbread, which forgave a less-than-perfect baker more easily than yeast rolls would.

And there was her crowning glory, and glory it was for a woman who truly feared cooking. It was made only on holidays. It was worried over, fussed over, shown only the greatest care, and set to chill in the icebox (as electric refrigerators were still a thing of the future). At dinnertime, as my grandmother carried it to the table, the gloried mold of Jell-O Ginger Ale Salad gleamed, shimmered, and wobbled with pride. It sparkled brightly—its base of golden ginger ale blended with walnuts, celery, mixed canned fruit dotted here and there with the decadence of maraschino cherries floating among tiny bits of crystallized ginger and lemon-flavored Jell-O. After being set smack dab in the center of the table, it was ever-so-delicately cut into portions as those around the table murmured their hushed exclamations over it—as if it were a diamond tiara somehow come upon by quite mysterious means.

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My Mother's Kitchen

After many Thanksgiving Jell-O salads, my mother grew up and those at her own holiday table awaited the display of her skills in the womanly art of cooking. Ellen, however, did not want to learn to cook. She hated cooking. To her it was dreary and unfulfilling. To her the idea of knowing how to cook seemed an absolutely treacherous proposition, which would lead only to the dead-end job of housewife. And that did not interest her in the least. What Ellen wanted was a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. Those magical tokens held promises of far-flung freedoms the likes of which her mother had never ever dared dream.

It's tempting for me to say my mother's Thanksgiving dinners were made solely with the help of Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book, but that would be inaccurate. But as she pursued other tasks firmly outside the kitchen, my mother's Thanksgiving dinners were put on the table with the ample and helpful hands of Kraft Foods and Pepperidge Farm, along with many other such corporate assistants.

And what a help they were! Butterball Turkeys self-basted; Pepperidge Farm Stuffing was seasoned, diced, and ready-to-go; Hungry Jack Instant Mashed Potatoes were already peeled and almost-cooked; Birdseye Frozen Petit Peas already hulled and cleaned; Green Giant Cream Corn grated off the cob and cooked down to softness; Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce shiny and ready to be slid out onto a plate—no messy boiling and sticky pots to clean. The crisp nontaste of iceberg lettuce chopped up with out-of-season green peppers, watery cucumbers, and hard yet red tomatoes all tossed in the bright-orange sheen of Catalina dressing completed Ellen's Thanksgiving tableau. In the depths of my soul I know that the taste of my childhood is unquestionably and forever ensconced in a bottle of Kraft Catalina Salad Dressing. The only character missing from the vast spread on my mother's Thanksgiving table in all that food (The Green Giant, Hungry Jack, the Pillsbury Doughboy) was Sam I Am from Green Eggs and Ham. For I do not like green eggs and ham.

My Kitchen

Today, I am a modern American woman and my Thanksgiving meal will be different. It will be made with foods shipped fresh from every corner of the earth, so as to make one imagine the settlers making peace with the "Indians" at tables of bounty. It will be smaller, for I am not so very hungry, for I eat very well every day, and eat pretty much whatever I wish—whatever pleases me. I have learned how to cook many things my mother and her mother had never heard ofand my own time spent in the kitchen, the shared kitchen of our histories, became that of the career of an executive chef.

There is much to be thankful for as this day is soon upon us, in many ways. Take it from a modern American woman.

Footnote: A few days after I first wrote this, at 4:45 PM on a sunny Florida afternoon the modern American woman who was my mother passed away after a bout of pneumonia in the nursing home where she lived. She had a full life in many ways, and she never went hungry during her lifetime for food. I am thankful for who my mother was, and though we were not as close as some mothers and daughters her presence will be in memory at my Thanksgiving this year, whether I follow the recipes she used or not.


My Thanksgiving 2007 Menu

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