When I was younger, Thanksgiving didn’t matter much to me — it was just another family get-together where I could play with my cousins and nibble on biscuits. Yes, biscuits — I definitely didn’t even touch the turkey, or my Grandma’s stuffing, or the sweet potatoes, which for some reason my family serves topped with pineapple rings. I much preferred the holiday that follows close on Thanksgiving’s heels — Christmas — for the presents from Santa (whose sled we watched for from my brother’s room), and Grandma’s rainbow cookies, and the fact that sometimes my parents hosted, so we didn’t have to drive to New Jersey or Brooklyn or Staten Island.
As I’ve grown older, Christmas’s sheen has faded — when I was eight, I announced to my mother that I “knew the truth about Santa.” I’ve also grown out of the biscuit diet and graduated from the kids’ table, which is still referred to as the kids‘ table though it is now occupied by my brother and all of my male cousins, most of whom are older than me and all of whom are over the age of 18. I now prefer Thanksgiving over all other holidays because at Thanksgiving, there is no gift-giving to distract from the two best parts of any family get-together: the food and the crazy.
The Martin Thanksgiving is dominated by my father’s four sisters, Mary Ellen, Joan, Alice, and Nancy. Though they deny this, when they are all together they basically just shriek at each other in Brooklyn accents (also denied) about what the kids and each other are and are not doing to help. There are also a number of stipulations surrounding Thanksgiving: one arrives at Thanksgiving at 2:00 PM the latest, dinner is served at precisely 3:00 PM (an Italian-American holdover), dessert is at 5:00 PM. The menu may not ever include any stuffing other than Grandma’s stuffing, which contains no nuts, fruit, or sausage. Grandma’s stuffing is also technically not stuffing but dressing, since we don’t cook it in the turkey cavity. Actually, we do not cook a whole turkey at all, but rather several turkey breasts. There are extra rules if Thanksgiving is hosted at Aunt Alice’s house — there shall be no pigs in a blanket, though we all love them, because they take up too much room in the oven. Ditto biscuits, which have been replaced by rolls. At any family event, the men must sit downstairs if they want to watch football, or anything really, because they turn the volume too high. This is a holdover from the days when my Grandma used to host Thanksgiving, when she simply could not take the noise and would holler at her grandkids for horsing around and shrieking in the indoor porch of her old Brooklyn apartment. Grandma was obeyed because she was Grandma and because sometimes Thanksgiving fell on her birthday.
I first realized how much I love Thanksgiving, and particularly my family’s brand of Thanksgiving, three years ago, when I spent my fall semester in Italy. Though the Italian administrators at my program in Padova put together a lovely meal for us American students, replete with a truly massive and perfectly cooked turkey, there was no fresh cranberry sauce and no Grandma’s stuffing, and there certainly wasn’t any shrieking in Brooklyn accents or birthday cake for Grandma. I Skyped with my family that day, but it paled in comparison to the real deal.
This year I am in a similar predicament — I leave for Italy tomorrow, just three days before Thanksgiving. I was feeling bummed about missing my favorite holiday about a month ago, so my Aunt Nancy said she would make a turkey breast and stuffing and cranberry sauce a few weeks before I left, so that I at least wouldn’t have to miss out on the food. But for the Martins, for whom things must be done the right way, that simple Thanksgiving-esque meal wasn’t going to cut it and quickly morphed into a full Thanksgiving family event, held on Veteran’s day, to be followed by a second full Thanksgiving dinner on the real day. And it would be called “Fake Thanksgiving.”
Fake Thanksgiving was lovely and filled with all of the things that I love about the holiday: the stuffing that tastes exactly the same each year, even though Grandma isn’t the one cooking it any longer, the rigid schedule, and the Brooklyn-tinged shrieking and laughs. It was the perfect family get-together during my last few days in America.
Since my aunts are very particular about the territory of the kitchen, I am only permitted to cook things that they don’t already make themselves, and I must prepare the dish the night before, NOT in the kitchen where the turkey breasts are being basted and potatoes being mashed. I would never be permitted to take over the stuffing, for example, because my Aunt Alice has perfected the mixture of white bread, onions, celery, bell pepper, spices, and chicken broth. This year, I made Brussels sprouts with pancetta and pearl onions, adapting a recipe from Fine Cooking. The recipes for the stuffing and Brussels sprouts are below some photo outtakes here. If you’re still looking for a dish to bring to real Thanksgiving, maybe one of these will help round out your menu!
Grandma’s stuffing, as transcribed by my Aunt Mary Ellen
1 bunch of celery (no hearts), coarsely diced
6 large onions, coarsely diced
1 green pepper, coarsely diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
3/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 cup chicken broth
1 large loaf bread (Arnolds or Pepperidge farm), cubed
2 tablespoons oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 scant teaspoon pepper
Dice celery, onions, green pepper and chop parsley fine. Put in large (spaghetti-size)
pot with oil and cover. Let simmer until onion and celery are soft in consistency and
transparent. Do not brown them.
Add oregano, salt and pepper. Add chicken broth and cook for five minutes. Cut up bread
in small cubes and set aside.
Mash vegetables with potato masher. Add parsley/Add cubed bread and continue to
mash. Place in baking dish and dot with butter. Cook until top is lightly browned and
Brussels sprouts with pancetta and pearl onions, adapted from Fine Cooking
4 oz. finely cubed pancetta
2 1/2 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
1/4 cup dry white wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook the pancetta in the olive oil in a medium dutch oven or large skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until crisp, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta to a paper-toweled plate to drain.
Add the Brussels sprouts to the skillet and cook, undisturbed, until lightly charred on one side, about 2 minutes. You will probably have to do this in batches — you should cook them in a single layer. Once they are all charred, return all sprouts to the pot and add the butter, wine, and onions. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sprouts and onions are tender when pierced with a fork and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the pancetta and season to taste with salt and pepper.