by Chrysa Smith

My mom and I have been reminiscing about the matriarchs of our family (God bless their souls).

There was my shy grandmother Mary, in heels and an apron–always remembered for a rotisserie chicken in the oven and baked potatoes on top of the stove. Clare, with her perfume, jade jewelry, Lily of the Valley, cheesecake and great flea market finds (I believe she was the original trash to treasure queen). And Pauline–a round lady with rosy cheeks and a fancy for singing, dancing, making pierogies, eating chocolates and orange creamsicles. They made Sundays and special occasions fun. They arrived (and often left) with a large purse in one hand; a shopping bag full of goodies, including Polish treats like Kruscik (deep-fried, powdered sugar coated cookies) and kielbasa(smoked sausage) in the other. And their philosophic advice (especially Pauline), despite the world disaster du jour, was generally—forget about it and have another piece of candy.

Any wonder I grew up embracing food? Any wonder I’ve been horrified when invited to home parties that have served up less than a half-dozen side dishes and whole portions of doggie bags to enjoy again another day? So, here we sit, heads bowed in Thanksgiving, with tables full of food. The Thanksgiving table isn’t as large as it once was; not as many family members to feed. But the inner drive to have more than enough food is always on the table with me.

This day, it will be the turkey, but even more interesting are the variety of side dishes–that little something on the side that makes a rather dull bird come to life. And that’s where little fluttering images of Mary, Pauline, Clare sit on top of my apron, invisibly guiding me through the traditional Thanksgiving sides that are part of my genetic inheritance—-all while my culinarily curious side experiments with new dishes. So here goes this year’s menu:

  • Stuffing—sausage and bread, with a little celery. My tweaks? Chicken/apple sausage instead of pork; oh, and I leave out the gizzards, giblets and other body parts that the cooks who have come before me seemed to believe added extra flavor
  • Cranberry Sauce—As a girl, I used to marvel at sliced, jellied cranberry sauce with the can ridges on the side. But my nutritional side has searched for a bit less sugar, so this year? Cranberry relish, compliments of Whole Foods. For my college boy? A bit of the marvelous,canned, jellied variety that’s more dessert than side dish.
  • Sweet Potatoes–Sauteed in butter, is how I remember them, but I’ve done casseroles, mashed and baked, sliced with nutmeg and pepper. This year I’m trying sweet potato/apple/almond cakes—-from the Wegman’s ‘Menu’ magazine
  • Mashed Potatoes—My favorite food; with butter, milk and a tad bit of Philly cream cheese and salt—-sometimes roasted garlic—yum. No changes needed here.
  • Pearl Onions—-I’m the only one who likes these any more, but they really are good when creamed (What’s a little extra fat on this day?) Unlike the ladies of yore, no peeling—a bag of Birds Eye does just as well.
  • Real Veggies—Yep, we need carrots or green beans or both, for color and nutritional value—balancing out all of the starch.
  • Parsnips, turnips, rutabagas? forget about it—save those root veggies for the four legged creatures that dine directly from the earth and let’s move on to dessert.
  • Chocolate—-I can pass on the apple and pumpkin pie (but I have some on hand for others). This year, chocolate takes top billing, with wrapped chocolate turkeys set atop the plate as a fun place setting.
  • Bread-Pudding: Still in the thinking stage, but what’s more comforting than more carbs with sugar? Maybe chocolate–maybe carmel, cinnamon or some other highly caloric treat.
Funny, but pearl onions, stuffing and sweet potatoes rarely make it onto my table at other times of year. Maybe fall is the perfect time or maybe it’s Thanksgiving tradition. Whatever the case, whatever the sides, whoever the guests, may your Thanksgiving meal be a grand gastronomic event with great conversations, emotions and memories to savor—-on the side.

What are your favorite Thanksgiving sides? Are there dishes that only make it to the table on this holiday?