On Thanksgiving morning, five of us bumped into each other in our kitchen, as we prepared an elaborate dinner. Janet, my mother-in-law, made creamed onions, a casserole combining several jars of onions, cubes of bread, a cream sauce, and some cheese. I had never seen that dish before it was served to me at the first Christmas after our marriage. It is a traditional dish in my wife’s family, which has evolved over many decades. “Know your onions” used to mean that we should understand the differences among local varieties of onion. But interstate commerce, made possible by big capital and better methods of preservation, has standardized onions across America, as it has potatoes, apples, and most fruits and vegetables. Our daily foods have changed in ways we can no longer grasp.
When Janet married into a family which had generations of connection with Wisconsin, she began to scout that the offerings of antiques and foods along the journey from northern Illinois to northwestern Wisconsin. For years, she, and now her daughters’ families, have bought cheese at one store in Tomah, an intersection in the center of the state, which specializes in fine aged cheddar. I love the onions, but the younger generation is less interested, and that tradition is likely to disappear.
My son Sam and daughter-in-law Katie brought squashes and wild rice for a vegetarian “salad” (they couldn’t agree on what to call it). They haven’t eaten meat for years. So they developed together a daily menu of foods I had never known and rarely eat except with them. Among the many traits they share are an appreciation for good raw foods prepared by hand and the willingness to spend time every day shopping and making dinner. Some of these dishes are so good, I have looked at Katie’s food blog to copy the recipe.
Many people, vegetarian or not, feel they can’t spare the time that such attention to healthy, tasty food requires. But Katie and Sam also have busy professional lives, often climb rocks and mountains, and generally do just as much as anyone else. Although they may not think about it this way, I would say they have swapped television for eating. According to Nielson, Americans average over 35 hours a week of TV, more than 5 hours a day. Instead they entertain each other in the kitchen and have learned much more about food than if they had been watching the Food Network.
My wife Liz made the turkey. It was probably the first turkey she made this year. She only cooks big birds on the biggest family holidays, and never orders turkey in a restaurant. The lengthy prelude that a turkey requires is as much a family ritual as the final presentation of the platter of fragrant meat, the moment when preparation ends and eating begins. Turkey is a symbol of the celebration of family and family history, made possible by national holidays, repeated every year through our mutual desire to be together. We are hardly a “traditional family”, in the mythological sense often given to that phrase, but we are bound by our traditions.
My contribution to the Thanksgiving meal was a cranberry bread, mostly according to the recipe printed on the bag of cranberries. Liz’s sister Pat makes a cranberry bread at family gatherings that I can’t get enough of. I connect cranberries with Maine, where I spent 27 years, and with Sam, who remains the only person I know who likes raw cranberry juice and is proud of it. Katie suggested that I don’t chop the cranberries, as the recipe suggests, with the result of bursts of cranberry scattered through the bread.
No family gathering brings everyone together. Someone we all remember has died, everyone is connected to more than one family, distances are no longer manageable without expense and planning. But I thought of Pat while I made the bread. Sharing recipes is like sharing love: it makes everyone happy today and in the future.
I did make another contribution to this holiday’s events. Although my own family paid little attention to Jewish holidays, like Passover and Hanukkah, Liz and I incorporated Jewish holidays into our new family’s invented practices. She probably had never seen a latke before she met me, and maybe never heard the word. On Friday, Liz made plate after plate of potato pancakes, onto which we all spooned apple sauce that had just come off the stove. The food processor eliminates the hardest task; latkes are no harder to make than hash browns. The only difference lies in the histories of the families who make them.
Family foods change gradually with each generation. Cooking and talking, bumping into one another constantly, checking each other’s dishes, cleaning up and making a mess again – it brings us all together with a common purpose and a shared understanding of who our family is, what we believe in, and what we want to eat.
For that I am thankful.
Jacksonville ILPublished in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 3, 2013