My grandma Thelma had an interesting view on recipes. She didn’t really follow them. Her organization in the kitchen was somewhat of a puzzle. Recipes were written on the back of envelopes, or on any scrap paper she could find at the time. One would think her cooking would taste horrible, but surprisingly not. There were a few bombs, but she had her signature recipes — prune cake (It tastes better than it sounds) and cranberry salad to name a few — that were constant stars on the holiday table. Sure, there were green beans, turkey, dressing, rolls and mashed potatoes as well. But all I remember is the bright, glistening cranberry salad in the large bowl. It was the jewel of every holiday in the Parsell household. It was so popular she brought the dessert to church potlucks, and others wanted the recipe. She wrote it down, but forgot a few necessary steps. Her church friend ended up with cranberry Jell-O soup.
Luckily, my mother got the correct recipe and the tradition continues, even after my grandma’s passing in 2002. The famous cranberry salad is non-negotiable, so is homemade pumpkin pie. Oh, and the sweet potato casserole is a must. Now my mother’s style is more organized; she plans, organizes and then plans some more. So far, we have only forgotten the rolls once. We ate them with dessert, I think. During the holidays, I think my mom turns into a star chef. She learned from her mother and grandmothers, who also had favorite recipes we still make today. One of our favorite family stories is when my brother — he was probably a toddler, maybe older — said, “Mommy, your the best cooker in the world.” Matt also liked to hum while he ate, letting everyone know how much he appreciated his food. If he lived in West Virginia, he would probably request his favorite, potato salad. He can eat my mom’s recipe by the gallon. Forget spooning it in a bowl; he eats it straight from the serving dish. One year, he called from Tennessee requesting the recipe for pumpkin pie. Mom was happy to repeat it over the phone. I don’t know if she was more happy her son could actually cook or excited to pass on a recipe.
We are like most families in southern West Virginia. Our recipes are handed down from former generations and learned at the hands of our mothers and grandmothers. My mom didn’t grow up with celebrity chefs or the Food Network. Instead, she relied on the Betty Crocker Cookbook, church cookbooks and family and friends recipes. Even I left my signature on those old cookbooks. I circled my favorite recipes in black permanent marker. Or marked the ones I planned to make when I grew up and had my own kitchen. I also wrote on the back of my mom’s recipe cards. Apparently I was an early food critic.
I am still somewhat of a food critic around the holidays. Not that I go around circling recipes, but I pressure my mom into cooking all of our favorites. I am a traditionalist at heart, despite the influx of new ways to make dressing. My mom and I talk about switching things up. Those celebrity chefs on the Food Network are very persuasive, almost to the point of giving up my beloved side dishes. However, we have yet to modernize our Thanksgiving dinner. We have tried a few new things over the years. Nothing too drastic. I don’t want to get carried away. My mom rolls her eyes at me a lot during the holidays. My traditionalist view can be unwavering, often stubborn. I promise it isn’t about the food. I would be grateful sitting around eating pizza, as long as my family is together. My stubborn attitude about traditions are centered around the memories associated with the sights, smells and sounds of Thanksgiving.
The truth is that I don’t want to forget those dishes and recipes of my childhood. When my mom sets down the crystal bowl full of cranberry salad, it is almost like my grandma in the kitchen again. And when the pumpkin pie is cut and my dad takes a huge piece, I remember the first time he put Cool Whip on my small slice.
I am grateful for those memories. Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and Martha Stewart can’t create that extra touch with their recipes. Only family can bring gratitude and memories to the dinner table.
Jamie Parsell is the Lifestyle editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at email@example.com or follower her on Twitter @BDTParsell.