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When I was freshly married, my husband and I considered ourselves major kitchen hotshots. We were both interested in food, and our competitive personalities led to constant culinary one-upmanship, usually involving exotic spices and strange ingredients. Before children came into the picture, limiting our repertoire to chicken fingers and carrot sticks, we would boldly attempt any recipe we stumbled across—the more complicated, the better. And so, for my first Thanksgiving as a newlywed, I resolved to shake up my family’s boring Southern-accented menu.
Every year, we ate the same thing: turkey, giblet gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, “congealed salad” made with cream cheese and cranberry Jell-O, garlic cheese grits, rolls and pumpkin pie. Dullsville.
I invited as many relatives as my house would hold and mapped out my meal. Turkey burnished with a spicy chipotle glaze, chili-and-chestnut stuffing, oyster dressing, mashed sweet potatoes with scallions and ancho chilies. Cranberry relish with pomegranate seeds. Jalapeno cornbread. Every dish was packed with spices and unexpected add-ons, and a disproportionate amount of heat. “Look, people,” I was saying to my family, “there’s a fabulous world of food—taste and learn!”
Did I mention I was only 24?
And then there was dessert: Pumpkin cheesecake with dark-chocolate ganache and a sour cherry compote made with cherries I had picked in an orchard that summer and frozen. Naturally, the pits would stay in for the almond flavor they imparted while cooking. Let the eater beware!
My first whiff of looming disaster came when one of us—possibly me, but I swear it was my husband—accidentally left our freezer door cracked open. Upon returning from our final shopping trip the day before the holiday, we discovered that the bag of cherries had thawed and leaked crimson red juice down the front of the fridge and across the floor. The kitchen looked like a crime scene, and the time it took to clean threw my carefully plotted schedule off track. We were still running behind on Thanksgiving morning when we welcomed our first guest, one of my brothers, who sniffed unenthusiastically and said, “What is that smell?”
It was my chipotle glaze burning, of course, and frantic efforts to scrape off the blackened bits led me to neglect my (dry, overcooked) oyster dressing, the start of a domino effect that resulted in overprocessed cranberry mush, undercooked cornbread and bitter anchos in the (slightly crunchy) mashed sweet potatoes. The runny pumpkin cheesecake that just wouldn’t set was the least of it. Who was I kidding? We were way too inexperienced to serve a couple dozen people extremely ambitious food they didn’t like or want in the first place. My family members, bless them, put on brave faces, but their unfinished plates and exaggerated air of cheerfulness told all.
The next day, when the rest of America went to the mall, we all went to my mother’s house, where she served a proper Thanksgiving dinner as consolation (fortunately, she’d bought a turkey on sale). We all ate it gratefully, including me.
Nowadays, I’m a more organized and somewhat less adventurous cook who could probably manage that early menu—and make it taste good, too. But I have no plans to. I’m more than happy to get together with my extended family and eat the same Thanksgiving foods we’ve eaten all our lives.
Get the recipe for Garlic Cheese Grits
Do you stick with classic dishes on Thanksgiving? Chime in below!