The day before Thanksgiving finds me where it has for many years…in the kitchen. Looking at all the stacks of pots and pans takes me back to so many holidays before. In the early days of our marriage I spent the day before feasts trying to decipher a recipe I most likely found in Woman’s Day or Good Housekeeping. The holiday tables would be full of my mom’s and mother in law’s excellent cooking; their signature dishes center stage. My contribution was small and usually not very memorable.
As for my mom, the holiday dish she was best known for was her delicious pumpkin cake. We always joked that it served as our youngest daughter, Tracy’s, birthday cake as well as her Thanksgiving specialty. Moist and sweet and topped with a cream cheese icing that was to die for, mom’s pumpkin cake was the favorite of most of our clan. I think the recipe originally came from my aunt's sister. From there it was adopted and adapted by my grandmother. Knowing how much I liked it, pumpkin cake became something she always made when I visited. Eventually mom made the cake, her favorite too, and so it became a constant on our holiday table.
Mother in law, Katie, always made oyster dressing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I realized soon after the wedding that my new husband didn’t think it was a holiday without the smell of that dressing filling the house. Katie tried her best to teach me to make it, but my first solo attempt looked like a baking dish of tree moss. She helped me fine tune it by limiting the amount of sage she let me put into the mixing bowl. Over the years I got better at it, but to have good oyster dressing you had to have it in Katie’s kitchen.
The years have passed and today I’m in the kitchen alone recreating these two dishes in honor of the two women I loved dearly. I reluctantly learned to make mom’s pumpkin cake a few years ago when cooking became too frustrating for her. The last Thanksgiving of her life my daughter, Wendy, and I took all the ingredients to mom’s house to make the cake under her “supervision”. We encouraged her to stir a little and watch us as we put it together, and hoped she’d feel more included in the holidays. From that time on it fell to me to lovingly make the cake that still celebrates our many holidays together.
I finally mastered Katie’s oyster dressing, too. I’ve found shortcuts to make the outcome more predictable, and learned that sage is a spice best used sparingly. The smell of oyster dressing fills our home and brings back happy memories of holidays spent at Katie’s house.
I must have watched mom make her cake a hundred times. I still go thru the steps she took, even the ones I don’t understand, and the cake seems to be a winner every time. How I’d like to turn to her and ask, “Now, why are we boiling these raisins again?”. Didn’t occur to me when she was making it, but I’m not going to try to improve on perfection.
I didn’t even know I liked oysters till I had oyster dressing at my mother-in-law’s house the first time. I was nervous about trying it, but it was love at first bite. Digging into that casserole reminds me of heaps of buttered mashed potatoes, steaming pots of goulash and stuffed peppers. Kate was a quantity cooker, always prepared to feed her big family and all the friends they brought home. The food was hearty and plentiful, and her smile constant.
Snapping the big mixing bowl from my KitchenAid mixer I remember mom stirring cake batter till her shoulders ached. “I can have this done before I can find all the parts to my hand mixer…” she’d say. Chopping the onions and celery for oyster dressing I remember being in Kate’s kitchen before the holidays where she would have slices of bread drying on every kitchen surface to make dressing the next day. How lucky I am to have had such wonderful women in my life, and how fortunate I was to share a kitchen with them from time to time.
There are two important ingredients in these two dishes that were a constant then and still are today. They are thankfulness and love. I make them every year with that thought in mind. This year once again I will look around the table, smell the delicious dishes, and send up a prayer of gratitude for everyone who is there today and the loving faces we miss so much.
Life is Good