Becoming Thanksgiving



When I was a single person living in New York I was what we called a Thanksgiving orphan. Not willing to travel long distance to my parent’s home in Chicago or, later, Florida for both Thanksgiving and Christmas I stayed back in the city, hoping someone would take me in for the Thanksgiving meal. Someone always did.

I collected quite a few different Thanksgiving experiences over the two and a half decades I was a holiday orphan. While I was glad to have a place to go, I was always acutely aware that I was a kind of interloper on other people’s traditions. I missed my mother’s stuffing and my grandmother’s pumpkin pie and most especially I missed the turkey soup that we ate on Friday from the turkey carcass that was simmered on the stove all night long after we packed up the leftovers on Thursday night. Sometimes I was given a few slices of turkey to take home for a sandwich, but mostly I missed that ritual as well.

I did make Thanksgiving dinner once for my maternal grandfather and aunt while living in New York. By then my grandfather was a frail eighty-seven and I was keen to have him visit me in New York before it was too late. He had never been to the city and I wanted him to see where his own father and uncle landed as immigrants from Scotland a century before. He liked to tell the story that after the two brothers were processed at Ellis Island, they set foot in lower Manhattan and one brother turned to the other and said, “Let’s step aside for a moment and wait for the throngs to pass.” They moved to rural Ohio.

In my small, New York Kitchen I turned out a Thanksgiving meal for the three of us that would have easily served eight or more. It was the first time I got to put my own stamp on the meal but I mostly stuck with our family traditions. Except for that pumpkin pie. Whatever made me decide to make a pie from a New York Times recipe I’ll never know, but my aunt took one bite, put down her fork, turned to me and said with infinite disdain, “This is not your grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe.” Families do not take kindly to change when it comes to holiday meals.

After that, I carried on for nearly another decade as a Thanksgiving orphan wondering if I would ever have my own traditions during the holidays. (There is nothing that makes you feel more acutely alone than sharing other people’s customs.) I kept my grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe (written in my aunt’s hand) at the ready.

My husband and I got married at the advanced age of forty-six. One of the first things we realized was that we were no longer hostage to other people’s holiday celebrations. As newlyweds we felt duty-bound to partake in each of our family’s Thanksgiving once and then we cut loose. (Well, we moved to Brussels where we had the excuse of not celebrating Thanksgiving at all, but it established the pattern.)

By the time we returned to the States three years later, we were free to create our own holidays. The first Thanksgiving in our house we invited both sets of parents. Just as when I made the Thanksgiving meal in New York, I mostly stuck to my family recipes (including my grandmother’s pumpkin pie). But little by little, I started to make changes over the years until one year I realized that my Thanksgiving menu was entirely my own. That’s when it hit me that my husband and I were truly a family.


I love our little family of two. I’ve honed our Thanksgiving menu to reflect our shared experiences with only a slight nod to our family traditions. From my husband’s side I make his sister-in-law’s pecan pie. I have substituted a stuffed pumpkin (see my post from October 30) for traditional stuffing which comes from Dorie Greenspan’s excellent cookbook, Around My French Table—meaning my penchant for French cuisine has a place at my table with the added benefit that the turkey cooks faster without stuffing.  (And because the pumpkin is stuffed with bread, it still works in a turkey sandwich.)


Green bean casserole is not a thing at our table. If you need your yearly fix of that peculiarly American creation, you will have to go elsewhere. A sauté of sliced Brussels sprouts with shallots and golden raisins are my green vegetable and instead of traditional cranberry sauce I make a confit of cranberries courtesy of the British cookbook author, Delia Smith. Of course, mashed potatoes and gravy are still de rigueur but I have happily eliminated the sweet potato casserole owing to the orange of the stuffed pumpkin.

In other words, our Thanksgiving meal is not entirely traditional—but then, neither is our family. And we are happy with that.


As for my grandmother’s pumpkin pie, well, I’m sorry to say it has been replaced with a less sweet version that, ahem, also comes from the Times. (My aunt has been dead now for twenty years so there is no risk of recrimination.)

I still make turkey soup, though. It simmers on the stove all night long filling the house with the smells of Thanksgivings past. That’s the way I keep my childhood traditions. The apple never really falls that far from the tree.

 Grandma Barclay’s Golden Pumpkin Pie

For those of you who like your pumpkin pie on the sweet side, here’s my grandmother’s original pumpkin pie recipe which I believe she copied off a can of Libby’s brand puréed pumpkin. I think I’ll make it this year for my mother since it’s bound to be her last. Besides, it is also her birthday. It would be nice to share the memory of her mother by way of her pumpkin pie.


1 1/2 cups pumpkin (canned and strained) (15oz can)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp flour
2 eggs well beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4  tsp  nutmeg
1/4  tsp  ginger
1/2  tsp salt
1/4 cup light corn syrup
3/4 cup evaporated milk
3/4 cup water


Preheat oven to 425°

Heat pumpkin in a small sauce pan for 10 minutes over medium heat until just warmed through.

Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Stir in pumpkin with a wooden spoon.  Add remaining ingredients and beat with egg beater until smooth.
Pour into prepared uncooked 10-inch pie shell and bake at 425° For 45 minutes or until set.

NOTE:  This filling is really for a 10-inch pie shell so make sure you have made enough pastry. You can make this in a 9-inch shell but you will have filling left over.
















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