How the Thanksgiving cooking is passed down from mother to daughter.

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Nov. 23 2010 10:07 AM

Cooking My Mother's Gravy

It's not always easy for mothers to give up directing the Thanksgiving meal.

Mother and daughter preparing turkey. Click image to expand.
A mother and daughter cook together on Thanksgiving.

Earlier this month, our own Dear Prudence answered a letter from a 24-year-old woman whose mother was having a difficult time with the idea that her daughter wanted to host Thanksgiving. "Perhaps your suggestion stung and made her feel as if you're thinking it's time for her to start shuffling off the stage, since there's a new matriarch in town," Prudie wrote to that "Disgruntled Daughter."

That letter and the response got us thinking about our own mothers, and the way that they passed down Thanksgiving traditions to us—or in some cases, the way they held onto those traditions with clenched fists. We asked XX Factor writers to contribute their mother/daughter reminiscences below, from mothers who wouldn't let their daughters get near the green beans to mothers who were more than happy to relinquish making the mashed potatoes. Some daughters remember their departed mothers fondly by making their prized apple pie, and other daughters have created new family rituals of their own. Read the stories from our contributors below, and add your own to the comments.

There was always a cadre of elderly women—grandmothers and great aunts—who took care of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. This freed up my mother, sister, and me for less noble pursuits. A favorite Thanksgiving was the time we went to a magic trick store and bought a lifelike rubber rat. We brought it home, hid it under the cooked turkey, and waited excitedly for the moment when my rather tightly wound paternal grandfather, with whom my mother had certain differences of political opinion, would start to carve the bird.

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Over the course of the past decade, that grandfather, as well as all those grandmothers and great aunts, graduated from their 80s into their 90s, moved into nursing homes, and, one by one, passed away. When it was just the five of us, Thanksgiving stopped feeling like such a family affair. For a few years my family squatted at the house of a close friend, where we had great food and way too much to drink, and the holiday felt like the kind of raucous dinner party we might have any other weekend of the year.

This year my sister is too pregnant to travel back to Chicago, so my parents and younger brother are coming to Brooklyn. My sister, my mom and I will be taking on the cooking of the meal for the first time ever, in my sister's petite Brooklyn kitchen. These days it's harder to rally around a task the way we once were able, for example, to rally around the mission of scaring the shit out of my grandfather. There's a strong possibility that tears will be shed, and a decent chance that the turkey will be ruined. But this will be the last Thanksgiving before my sister has her baby. And I imagine that the birth of my nephew, the first member of the next generation of my family, might finally force us all to grow up a little.

—Julia Felsenthal

For the first 20 years of my life, Thanksgiving was the sole provenance of the older generation. My mom, who was a home-economics major back when there was such a thing, was more than capable in the kitchen, and she annually whipped up turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, something involving green beans, and a dessert (or three) without any interference from the kids. The four of us occupied ourselves with the TV. When the parades got boring, we occupied ourselves with each other, dog-piling on the couch for a few moments of tenderness before someone started kicking and the situation devolved into a rousing wrestling match, which got more dangerous and more fun every year. This is how things worked until two years ago, when my mother flipped the script by announcing that she was inviting several other families over for Thanksgiving and, as she wasn't prepared to cook solo for two dozen people, would need some help in the kitchen from her daughters. My sisters and I exchanged aggrieved glances—what, work? During vacation?—but dutifully showed up in the kitchen on Wednesday morning, ready to stir something.

I'd never been a huge fan of Thanksgiving food before. Turkey is my least favorite meat and none of the traditional desserts involve chocolate, so I'd never had the slightest interest in whatever it was my mom was doing in the kitchen. But that Wednesday I discovered that there was a lot going on in the kitchen. As I searched the spice cabinet for sage (who knew stuffing had sage?) my mom told my sisters and me where various recipes had come from. She and my grandmother told stories about Thanksgivings that had preceded us. (Wait, my mom had a life before her children arrived?) Somewhere between the green-bean casserole and the broccoli salad, I realized I was enjoying myself. The next year, my sisters and I sort of assumed without being asked that we would help in the kitchen. I knew where the sage was. Now, I look forward to Wednesday even more than Thursday, to the girls collected in the kitchen for a common purpose. The stuffing tastes better when you know what's in it, we don't have to suffer through any parades, and the wrestling match has been moved to Christmas decorating day.

—Meredith Simons

I've never cooked the Thanksgiving turkey. I've also never been skiing. Since I'm in my 50s, I'm starting to think that it may be too late to try either of these activities without inflicting serious damage. At this point, I may be the Prince Charles of turkeys. That is, the women ahead of me have held on to these duties for so long, that by the time it's my turn, I'll be too old, and the crown will pass to the next generation. My grandmother always made the turkey, and she lived until 90. Then, when I married, I started attending my husband's family's Thanksgiving. It's held at the home of my wonderful in-laws.

My mother-in-law grew up partly in Pennsylvania Dutch country and always serves a sauerkraut side dish, and now Thanksgiving wouldn't be Thanksgiving to me without it. My mother-in-law is 91, and she is making the turkey again this year. Usually I am asked to bring nothing, but sadly, my father-in-law died just before Thanksgiving, so my mother-in-law is allowing more of us to pitch in, and I'm making a dried-fruit compote. I've spent two days looking at recipes and they're sending me into a panic because the compote has to live up to my mother-in-law's standards. So: vanilla extract or not, added sugar or not, cinnamon in powdered or stick form?

—Emily Yoffe

My mom doesn't accept much help in the kitchen, holidays or Mondays—not because she doesn't trust others to get it right, but because she just doesn't know how to slow down. Never did. And accept help? She's as likely to do that as she is to ask for it; i.e., not at all. She reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who systematically gets his appendages hacked off in battle but still won't call it a day. Make no mistake, having grown up as one of five girls in an inner-city, working-class home, I'm no stranger to hard work. But there was never a time when we did more work than she did. Ever. Even at 83, I'm not sure it's even possible to outwork my mom. As she's aged, all we can manage is guerrilla warfare.

If I ask, if I beg, to peel the potatoes so she can sit for a minute, I know she'll ignore me, so I just bogart. What can she do but sputter while I give her a gentle hip-check, respectfully snatch the bowl, then hold it rudely over her head while making faces? Sometimes my sisters and I have to get our Sherlock on, now that Mom is hip to us: "Look! Nilla Wafers and a wire whip: Anyone seen a whole lotta bananas? Damn, she'll be whipping meringue forever. Battle stations."

Having employed schoolyard-bully tactics to part her from the gravy that needs stirring or the greens that need washing, she finally gets that we won't stop. Too dignified to wrestle us for the turkey baster, she'll finally sit for a minute while any child young enough to come near her with a stinky diaper or a loose button is waylaid and tended to by someone under 60. Oh yeah, she's bitchin' about the bum rush in her well-mannered, church-lady way, but it doesn't take long for her to settle down, especially when a cute toddler is sent in with a little stool to put her feet up on. Who could say no?

Mom won't admit it, but she enjoys what little down time we force her to take, and those breaks make holiday-meal prep much more fun than they were growing up. Back then, it was all work and actually pretty serious, albeit with a huge payoff of family approval when the spuds hit the table. Now we have fun the whole time. Mom drinks tea and offers one-liners like "What you want that pot to do besides boil?" and we make fun of her idiosyncrasies. We torture her by feigning, for instance, an intent to perform a task—gasp!—while sitting. "Can't do nothin' right sittin' down," is so deeply ingrained in us, we are physically incapable of performing any household task, especially cooking, while comfortable. That schtick just never gets old for us; all Mom can do is blush and stick to her guns. All the same, tired old family stories get told while we place things out of her reach and, now that she's taking breaks, Mom tells us some new ones; we had an early holiday this weekend and, on one of Mom's breaks, I learned that her mother had a birthmark shaped like the number two on her face, and that my father had a pet monkey on Okinawa after the fighting. It used to scratch his head and whisper in his ear.

So, Thanksgiving has gone from Mom-as-a-whirlwind-of-activity with her girls as scullery maids and sous chefs, to Mom and her girls having more fun, more family, before dinner than at any other point.