Seattle Times columnist Bethany Jean Clement shares her family’s admittedly odd holiday tradition.
My family’s holiday dinners are always the same. Traditions aren’t unusual, of course, among those of us who are fortunate enough to have friends and relatives we can stand to gather together (and a place to gather them). But for a nondenominational bunch, my people are especially dogmatic about it.
There will be no Christmas goose, ham, standing rib roast, or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, no feast of local seafood. Christmas dinner is an exact replication of Thanksgiving, a month later: turkey and all the sides. No one’s sure how this happened — it’s just the way we like it. Thanksgiving’s so nice, we make it twice.
The devotion to the bird and its attendant side dishes was, for a long time, so thoroughgoing that any variations were regarded as heretical.
The sweet potatoes wore a toasty-broiled blanket of mini-marshmallows, a gift from some innovative relative in the 1950s, and this was the way the sweet potatoes were, and the kids especially loved it. My mother, over strong protests, unilaterally started serving a gingery sweet-potato puree at some point; I think she just thought it was time for us to grow up. I made a simple but, in context, massively experimental butternut squash soup in lieu of sweet potatoes one time, and only one time. Everyone ate it politely, and some even said it was good, but we all recognized it as exactly what it was: an impediment (and a somewhat filling one) to getting to the main event of the table of favorites, with the same people saying please-pass-the-[insert-their-very-favorite-here], Christmas after Thanksgiving, year after year.
Cranberry sauce with corrugations from the can sat on the table for many years, more symbol than food, untouched by human hands, possibly handed down from the same ancestral ’50s chef. (My mother and brother are, at least apocryphally, allergic.) This was eventually supplanted by a cranberry conserve with pecans, a recipe clipped by Mom from a now-unknown (and possibly defunct) magazine. Even if it only gets partially eaten, it still has to be there.
Certain parties insist that there must be dinner rolls (parties who almost certainly have dinner rolls at only these two dinners every year). Other nonnegotiables besides the bird include oyster dressing (a family recipe from at least a few generations back), mashed potatoes and gravy. Well into adulthood, I thought gravy was very difficult to make; that point in the Thanksgiving-and-Christmas dinner preparation always occasioned outcry in the kitchen, usually between my mother and her sister, as all the cousins well-meaningly crowded in.
Turns out that the moment of gravy was just the apex of the process, and that if the kitchen was physically cleared of helpful (that is, hungry) hordes and only my mother or my aunt made the gravy, all was well. (My mother and my aunt are identical twins, and their single-mindedness can extend to picking up the phone before it rings when the other is calling, sensing from afar when something is wrong, and a general level of both love and annoyance that’s pretty much paranormal.)
Now, sometimes, my cousin’s husband will calmly stir the gravy into being, talking about his latest adventures in making electronica. Or another cousin’s in-laws will bring sweet potatoes made with lemon and lime with goat cheese on top, which everybody surprisingly, absolutely loves.
Campaigns are mounted for the return of shrimp cocktail, now accompanied by sparkling wine (because why not?). My brother made a round of Vieux Carrés a year or two ago (apropos of nothing; we’re all Washingtonians) that, he should be reminded, should be revived. The pumpkin pie and the pumpkin cheesecake (because another cousin doesn’t like pumpkin pie, and also, why not?) were joined by an excellent molasses spice cake from a Renee Erickson recipe at Thanksgiving this year.
At the table itself, we’re not much for ceremony. A few Thanksgivings, we went around and each said what we were grateful for, but that starchy exercise seems to have fallen thankfully by the wayside. Politics are discussed freely; with everyone’s knees jerking the same way, there’s little danger of any spirited debate. The occasional random guest seems amazed by this — that there’s not that one great-uncle who might be inclined to stump for Trump (that is, not anymore — rest his soul). The occasional random guest seems to really like it.
This last year, we lost our champion eater — always the first to be seated, always the last to still be eating, our funny and kind head of the table. While I was sitting on my aunt’s couch at Thanksgiving, someone came up behind me and just put their hand on my head, a gesture of love and familiarity and benediction. My heart thought, instantly, “Dad!” It wasn’t — it won’t ever be again — but we’re lucky to have had him, and to still have each other. And in his honor, what we can do is eat another turkey.
Note: My father devoted the lion’s share of his career to helping Seattle’s homeless acquire shelter and get fed. Homelessness here is up 21 percent since 2014. If you can, please consider making a donation to the Downtown Emergency Service Center (desc.org) or The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy (ffn.seattletimes.com).