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.

—Debra J. Dickerson

Like Emily Y.'s trouper of a mother-in-law, my Austrian oma cooked the full Thanksgiving dinner until she was in her 90s. Though she didn't immigrate to the United States until she was 25, she quickly embraced this very American holiday. It's always been the big one in my family: We're Jewish but not especially religious, so we don't really do much for the Jewish holidays and celebrating Christmas is out of the question. Oma had a slew of dishes that she cooked every year—a delectable sweet potato soufflé, a rich stuffing with wild rice and sausage. Each year the dishes would taste slightly different, because although my grandmother followed recipes, she was wonderfully imprecise and would only ever think of them as rough guidelines. If the stuffing tasted especially fantastic one year and you'd ask her what she did differently, she'd say with a giggle, "I have no idea!"

Oma died last year at age 96, on the Monday before Thanksgiving. My mother was determined to have Thanksgiving as usual. She and my father woke up early and they prepared the turkey and all of Oma's traditional sides. We all missed her very much, but thought that she would have liked that we cooked the meal she created, and she would have hated to think that we wouldn't carry on with our lives. Like Oma, my mother thinks that children (even when they're pushing 30) should just relax on Thanksgiving, so she did not accept any offers of help with the meal. Unlike Oma, my mother is extremely meticulous, so I bet that the sweet potato soufflé will taste almost identical to the way it did last year. But maybe my mom will throw in an extra dash of cinnamon, in rakish remembrance of her charming mother.

—Jessica Grose

My mom always does the turkey, waking up alone and early to get the big bird in the oven, and later, my dad carves it. My two brothers watch football or go on a jog while the four girls divvy up the rest of the cooking with my mom. Yes, it splits along old-fashioned gender lines, but I'd rather have old-fashioned good pie than gender-neutral goop, on Thanksgiving at least.

My sister Clare, who is both my very best friend and deepest rival, also happens to be an excellent cook. She is particularly good at flashy desserts, and usually Thanksgiving is her big annual showcase. Last year she started a job in Doha, Qatar, and couldn't be home for Thanksgiving, so I ended up cooking more than my usual share. My mom commented about how tasty one of my dishes was, and, in a moment I may never live down, as a supposedly secure adult woman of 25, I turned to her with a wild look in my eyes, and said, "Well, since Clare's not here, it's my year to shine!"

This year Clare is again in Doha, and my two married sisters have other Thanksgiving obligations, so my mom and I are cooking alone. It's going to be a smaller gathering than other years, so we're feeling a little more experimental, e-mailing recipes back and forth that we want to try—there's less pressure to reproduce the usual traditions, and maybe it'll be less diminished-feeling if it's not a simulacrum of our usual. So I suppose it'll be my moment to shine again, but there's no fun in victory if you don't get to make your sisters taste the Brussels sprouts that toppled their reign.

—Noreen Malone

My mother may never forgive me for sharing her secret to a delectable Thanksgiving: the grocery store's Thanksgiving package. For a reasonable price, we get a turkey, the traditional sides, and a couple of pies; the turkey is already cooked and just needs to spend an hour or so in the oven. We supplement with family favorites and are happy feasters.

It wasn't always this way. Throughout my childhood, my mother, a marvelous cook, woke up at dawn on Thanksgiving to bend the turkey to her will. My father's responsibility was to take my brothers and me into Philadelphia to watch the parade—more to get us out of our mother's way than to sate our appetite for local marching bands, I've always suspected. But after my father died and life interrupted in other complicated ways, Thanksgiving became more of a chore than a delight for my mother. Worst of all, we moved to house with a truly terrible oven, whose temperature frequently varied from the readout, making it impossible to gauge how long a turkey would have to cook. Each holiday, my mother became more stressed, taking some of the joy out of the holiday. Then, one magical Thanksgiving, she took the plunge and ordered a Genuardi's holiday dinner. The stress dissipated, and no one mourned the more elaborate to-do. It was beautiful.

This is the first year that my older brother and his fiancée will be hosting Thanksgiving, and I expect my dear soon-to-be-sister-in-law will be outdoing herself (with a free-range turkey!). It will be delicious, I have no doubt. But part of me has come to treasure those low-key holiday feasts. Maybe one day we'll pick up another boxed dinner from Genuardi's.

—Victoria Bosch

My mother makes Thanksgiving without a fuss. She is a good cook who doesn't insist that any particular thing in the kitchen must be just so. I miss her over the holiday, which we go to my in-laws for, but I don't long for her squash or worry when my mother-in-law cooks the turkey for a shorter time at a higher temperature. Holiday meals are capacious: There is plenty of room to improvise. My own contribution, apple pie, isn't a family recipe. My mother doesn't make pie. When a friend taught me how after college, my mother's role was to marvel at the accomplishment. It's the gift of cooking freedom, of quietly making sure the meal comes off while passing along the credit.

—Emily Bazelon

My mom and I did our Thanksgiving bonding over pies. Thousands and thousands of pies, over the years. My parents owned a mom-and-pop grocery store, one with a reputation for the best meat (nothing prepackaged on Styrofoam trays and swaddled in cellophane) and homemade pies in town. So naturally, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving were the busiest days of the year.

Every year, the store sold about 1,200 pies—enough to serve, in theory, about one-fourth of our small town. And we did so with a bakery that was smaller than many of today's household kitchens. To pull off this feat, the bakery staff worked through the night on Tuesday, took a break for breakfast, and went right through until early afternoon on Wednesday. My mom didn't work in the bakery, but every year she oversaw the Thanksgiving production process and innovated through the years to improve the process and match the pies to their orders while also placating the last-minute shoppers who forgot to place an order.

Starting in high school, I got to join the all-night baking crew. As I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I looked forward to this out-of-the-ordinary shift (it didn't hurt that my mom called me off school on Wednesday) and did whatever I could to help—counting pies, boxing the cooled pies and matching them to orders, doing dishes, whatever was needed. It was during these crazy nights that I got to see my mom at her best. The business was always a joint venture between my parents—my dad ran the meat department, my mom oversaw the clerks, they did the accounting together—but the Thanksgiving baking was always her show.

By the time Thanksgiving itself rolled around, we were all exhausted. And my mom couldn't bear the thought of touching a pumpkin pie. She sometimes rallied and still put out a tasty Thanksgiving dinner, but as my brother and I got older, we frequently broke with tradition. One year, it was game hens. Another, steak. Now that my brother and I have our own families, we've returned to the tradition of a Thanksgiving feast. My mom is more than happy to let me play hostess, though she does just as much work as I do. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

—Rachael Larimore

The Thanksgiving of my youth bore some resemblance to the immigrant version Chang Rae Lee described in last week's New Yorker, only instead of Koreans in New Rochelle, it involved Israelis in Queens. My mother had no idea how to cook a turkey. In fact, she was faintly repulsed by the idea; it struck her as the equivalent of cooking a large dog or a horse. Instead she found a biggish chicken to roast and made some brisket just in case. Then she'd put it on the table and … what? We would just stare at each other, because in Jewish holidays there are rituals—you light candles, eat challah, say certain prayers. But in this case we had no idea what to do or say, and yet we felt if we did not somehow sit around the table and try something, they would revoke our green cards and ship us back home. One year out of sheer confusion and boredom, we brought out the dreidels.

In the typical fashion of immigrant child, I waited a few years and then took over. Not with the cooking—a large turkey was still beyond my 9-year-old self. But with the rituals. I dutifully read from my grade-school textbooks the story of the pilgrims and Indians, as they were then called. I made everyone at the table try to pronounce the word Mayflower in a way that sounded more like how my teacher said it. This was something like telling the story of Moses at Passover—it involves a hero, some suffering, and the founding of the nation. It still felt a little strange and suspiciously Christian to us, but at least we had something to do every year.

—Hanna Rosin

My mother, who was at home dying of cancer last fall, would have given thanks to have died before Thanksgiving—not because she didn't love Thanksgiving, but because the holiday had always also been fraught with stress for her as the chief operating officer of the kitchen. This time she couldn't possibly be part of the preparations, which came as a huge relief, but she also couldn't bear the thought of being utterly peripheral to them. The end hadn't arrived by Thursday, so she spent the day with just my sister, away from smells that nauseated her and from familiar commotion that she feared she would haunt from her hospital bed upstairs. At home with my husband and kids, we struggled on our own, but the challenge of the gravy acquired new, well, gravity.

My mother made a fine turkey, delicious stuffing, the unfancy pumpkin pie I like best, but her talent for gravy-making was astonishing. I had her instructions on a card, and some part of me aspired to match her skill. But another part of me didn't, and never will. This year, like last year, as I stand at the stove, miming her well-remembered whisking motions and worrying the liquid just doesn't look or taste right, I will miss her more than I can say.

—Ann Hulbert

My mother died on Christmas of 2008 so last Thanksgiving was my family's first without her. (I wrote about the strange intensities of grief in the aftermath of her death in Slate.) I was dreading the holiday, because I associated Thanksgiving with the start of her final decline. And I knew about what psychologists call "anniversary reactions"—the upswellings of acute grief on meaningful anniversaries or holiday. Making it worse, my mom was a great cook. She and my dad went all-out on Thanksgiving—sharing the labor, preparing the days before—and usually I'd arrive home on Thanksgiving morning to find cranberry sauce cooling in white ceramic-ware on the kitchen table, and several kinds of pie; she had been a pastry cook at one point and her cheesecake rivaled Junior's. But her apple pie was the thing I loved. It had a delicate, flaky crust. I wasn't sure what kind of Thanksgiving we were going to have; my younger brothers and I are not very good cooks, and I couldn't imagine my dad doing all the cooking.

But before our mother died, she left all of us a recipe book, in which she and my dad had written out their recipes and instructions. So I found myself deciding to make the apple pie, and going through the pie-making step by step, following her words, while my brothers also pitched in to help our dad cook vegetables and mashed potatoes. Along the way, my mother had left out one crucial piece of information, and, absorbed in my task, in that moment, I actually raised my head to call out to her, as if she were just lingering upstairs. This was bittersweet. But making the pie made me feel that she was still connected to that day. It was not as good as hers by any stretch, but the crust was decent and the apples were nicely tart. After my youngest brother ended up spontaneously making a maple-upside-down-cake, we ended up with as much dessert as ever—and what could have been a bitter day ended up with a note of sweetness I hadn't expected. This must sound sentimental, but what astonished me, frankly—I'm not much of a foodie—was just how powerfully the act of cooking connected us all and made the holiday seem truly full of thanksgiving, rather than merely replete with loss.

—Meghan O'Rourke

It's funny to be coming from a reasonably blank slate and going into such a huge wealth of possible future tradition. I have four kids. It's hard to imagine then grown up enough to cook their own turkeys (or, in three cases, even open their own popsicles), but they will be. They will be Noreen, coming home to compete with one another over the Brussels sprouts (which I grew because I like to grow food, not in order to be insufferable about), or maybe Jess, counting on me to smoke the turkey well into my second century (sounds good), and eventually Ann, but I think I won't go there. They will never be Emily Y., I hope. (What IS a dried fruit compote? Seriously, someone asked you to bring that? I'm not sure if you eat it, or use it as a centerpiece.)

Or, if I keep pretending this is just another meal, they will be me, shrugging off any family obligations and scattered all over the place, with no intention of coming anywhere near me and my can of cranberry sauce. That is not the goal. This is the year they're all finally old enough to be more than just trouble in the kitchen. The youngest is 4, and I feel like I can breathe again, and certainly cook without balancing someone on my hip. It's probably time to start traditions—to teach Sam pie crust, maybe, and give Lily the job I always had: the rolls (I always did roll a mean Pillsbury crescent). And to listen to them. They want stuffing, the same stuffing I made last year, not some foofy stuffing from a magazine, the stuffing from the bag of cornbread crumbs just like my mom makes. They want to make turkeys to decorate the table. They want to say what they're thankful for; they don't find that cheesy at all. Maybe it's time to at least play at having a real Thanksgiving—the kind you'd actually want to come home for someday. I may have to spring it on my husband, though. I think he's planning to clean the basement.

—KJ Dell'Antonia