Every family has some gelatin-infused, cream of mushroom soup-soaked holiday culinary shame. What was yours? Today’s column in the Star…

I was invited by a favorite friend to join her intimate Thanksgiving dinner this year, which included lively conversation, abundant alcohol and — as is always the case at her house — incredible food.

A casual neighborhood dinner in the Napa Valley often includes cooking that would rival Michelin star restaurants elsewhere, with wine pairings that should make a French sommelier want to emigrate. Even everyday meals are thoughtfully conceived and executed with the finest ingredients. But on Thanksgiving, as we devoured a second helping of terrifically turkey-free dishes, the conversation turned to less lofty culinary offerings.

Hearing my hostess apologize for the plainness of her beautifully balsamic-blessed salad, I explained that Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house always meant green lemon-lime Jell-O salad with Miracle Whip, Pet Milk, pineapple chunks and chopped walnuts.

This resonated at the table and in later discussions; apparently every family has its own version of some gelatin-encased or cream-of-mushroom-soup-smothered secret culinary shame, the memory of which we hold exceedingly dear. The green gelatin salad seems ubiquitous, whether almonds take the place of the walnuts, grapes stand in for the pineapple, or shredded carrots find themselves improbably enshrined in a citrus Jell-O mold.

That orange color would have nicely complimented my grandmother’s autumnally-themed Thanksgiving décor: wicker horn-of-plenty stuffed with gourds and cornstalks, ceramic turkey salt-and-pepper shakers, and a fold-open paper turkey with tissue-paper-cutout body. Our “kids table” always included candles shaped like pilgrim couples which were never actually lit, because they were among her “good” candles.

My grandmother kicked-off holiday meals with a plate of symmetrically-placed celery sticks stuffed with peach-colored pimento cream cheese, which we kids regarded with horror. We preferred to raid the dish containing canned, pitted olives, placing one on each fingertip and slowly devouring all 10 — ignoring admonitions not to spoil our appetites.

A cheese ball with Ritz crackers might appear, accompanied by baby pickles and salted nuts. My uncle worked for Sunsweet, and he would occasionally contribute some exotic prune-themed amuse-bouche, such as his patented “prune chewie:” bacon wrapped around a prune stuffed with a nut; a combination that has been inexplicably overlooked by Martha Stewart.

Although Christmas dessert could include traditional pies and cakes, my favorite was always my late aunt’s persimmon cookies with brandy-flavored frosting. For most of my adult life, Auntie’s cookies arrived by mail, usually in a shoebox lined in foil, covered with Christmas wrap, and shoved inside a reused shipping box. In a post-9/11 world, I suspected that the cookies might have passed through multiple radioactive screening devices and been defiled by packs of bomb-sniffing dogs — their butter-based frosting reaching full toxicity — but I couldn’t stop eating them.

We weren’t fond of fruitcakes in my family (unless you count my crazy cousin), but I once made an authentic Christmas pudding with suet and candied fruit which we soaked in brandy and set on fire — my Great Britain-obsessed grandmother was delighted. She also sometimes made eggnog from scratch, which contained an unthinkable amount of fat, thinned by an unwise amount of alcohol.

I’m particularly particular about potatoes; heaping helpings of heavily buttered and gravied mashers have seen me through many emotional crises, including those precipitated by the aforementioned holiday gatherings. Apparently many families have major fights over side-dishes — a friend didn’t speak to her sister-in-law for years because she brought sweet potatoes when she was specifically assigned mashed potatoes (or was it vice versa?).

And speaking of sweet potatoes versus yams, the question is: to marshmallow or not to marshmallow? And don’t slivered almonds make a delightful garnish for frozen string beans? Or was it green bean casserole with dried onion rings and cream of mushroom soup with your people?

Of course, today’s health-conscious holiday diners would be horrified by such frozen, heavily-processed holiday fixings. But will their children look back with the same nostalgia on grandma’s gluten-free stuffing, low-fat cruelty-free skinless turkey breast and organic Brussels sprouts? Will they ever know the joy of eating snowman-shaped ice cream balls covered with shaved coconut, with plastic holly garnish and a candy-cane-striped birthday candle stuck in the middle? Or will they reach adulthood believing that Jell-O and aspic are the same thing?

My own holiday meal memories are not so much of the food itself, but of the struggles to get it on the table. I recall my grandmother cursing the stubborn tin molds restraining her gelatin salad, bathing them in warm water to coax the quivering green masses onto waiting leaves of iceberg lettuce. I recall my aunt’s annual tradition of clogging the garbage disposal with potato peelings, the endless arguments about whether the turkey was done and when to put the dinner rolls in the toaster oven. And of course, the fight to get the family to leave the television and come to the table.

My much-missed grandmother and aunt each left me some of their favorite recipes, including the persimmon cookies and the green Jell-O salad. But I would hesitate to make them for myself. Without the anger, joy, panic, laughter and affection whipped into the mix, they just wouldn’t taste the same.


Flashback: Black Thursday

November 14, 2012

This column originally ran in the St. Helena Star newspaper on November 23, 2011. Unfortunately, it’s even worse this year — stores are opening earlier Thursday than ever.

Ah, the relaxing, heartwarming holiday that is Thanksgiving. Friends and family having polished off a big breakfast, there are dishes to be washed, parades to be watched, and games to be cheered. Soon starts the ceremonial sacrifice of the big bird, and the stuffing, trussing and basting will begin in earnest. With all the breathing bodies, the oven continuously baking and the furnace cranked up (because great-grandma is always cold), the house takes on a sauna-like atmosphere. Children dash through the house with pitted olives on their fingertips to shouts of “You’ll spoil your dinner!” Potatoes are peeled, green beans steamed, cranberries sauced and gravy thickened. And eventually, finally, it’s time to attend the well-set table, where the slightly stained tablecloth is covered with strategically placed serving pieces. Candles are lit, wines and ciders are poured, grace is said, and a lovely leisurely meal unfolds, followed by pumpkin pie and perhaps an after-dinner drink or two. Then there are more dishes to be done, leftovers to be divided and stored, and place settings, platters and chairs to be returned to their original positions. And eventually, finally, the cooks and their well-sated friends and relations come to rest, enjoying a relaxing evening of comfort and companionship, for which we all give thanks.

But not for too long, because now it’s time to go shopping! Yes, you heard me correctly: for those Thanksgiving revelers who like a little greed with their gravy, Big Retail’s holiday sales start on Thursday this year. This hyped-up shopping frenzy was formerly held on “Black Friday,” referring to the date when major retailers were profitably “in the black” each year (as a small-town retailer, I’m still waiting). Now in a derby of the disgraceful, Toys R Us is leading the pack, opening Thanksgiving at 9 p.m., followed by Walmart at 10, and Target, Macy’s and Best Buy at midnight. Eager to squeeze every last shopping dollar out of the season, Big Retail is co-opting Thanksgiving with too-good-to-be-missed deals on items essential to the survival of the species, like HDTVs, Playstations and stand mixers. Shoppers often line up for hours before the doors open, so by the time you read this paper, you should already be in the queue.

This Thanksgiving Thursday creep has led to a Black Friday backlash, with many consumers, competitors and retail employees crying, “Enough!” But will shoppers stand on principle and risk missing 60 percent off on a Tommy Hilfiger quarter-zip sweater? Big Retail has tried to deflect criticism, claiming that customer feedback demanded earlier shopping on Thanksgiving. I, for one, am sick of all these dubious anonymous messages, whether from unidentified “guests” telling Target to carve up Thanksgiving, or from whichever deity told Herman Cain to run for president. A mysterious message from above to the head of programming at E! Television is the only plausible explanation for the Kardashians. In any event, one suspects that something is getting lost in translation. Because if you know a consumer who has just spent the day waiting hand-and-foot on their family preparing a fabulous holiday feast, who afterward wants to put on shoes and go Christmas shopping until dawn, please send them to Main Street (on Friday). Imagine the triumphant moment when you finally get everyone out of your kitchen, sink into your chair, grab a glass of wine and prepare to receive the collected affections of a grateful clan, only to glimpse their collective backsides as they sprint toward the mall. Seriously? This can’t wait until dawn Friday?

Retail employees bear the brunt of it, grateful to be working but unable to spend holidays with their families; parents with small kids who must forego cooking and celebrating for sleep in order to pull the 10 p.m. or 4 a.m. shift at minimum wage for some Big Box bozo. But perhaps their bosses really are just giving a desperate-for-doorbusters public what it wants. The National Retail Federation reports 22.3 million people shopped either in stores or online during Thanksgiving Day in 2010; nearly double the number from five years ago. And brick-and-mortar stores are pressured: 33.6 percent of Thanksgiving weekend customers shopped online last year. But is luring carb-loaded, gravy-soaked, slightly buzzed bargain hunters out into the freezing cold on Thanksgiving the answer? And how many shoppers have shortened their holidays and stood shivering in line, only to be denied discounts due to bait-and-switch tactics, fine print and inventory shortages? Bargains are great, and retailers deserve to make a buck. But luring cash-strapped consumers and job-strapped employees away from home on Thanksgiving constitutes avarice that would make a Big Banker blush. If you ask me, these Big Retail turkeys are just asking to be plucked.