I'm one of those people for whom "The Holidays" are difficult. Something about the season makes old griefs resurface, like finding a container of leftovers that you had forgotten about in the back of the fridge. What was a faint memory is rediscovered anew, not pleasantly, barely recognizable now, upon examination; no longer nourishing, and best chucked into the bin. Don't get me wrong: friends, family, and faith do sustain, as well as dogged determination and a personal pledge to stay in the present moment as much as possible. And it's still hard.
There's no time like the holidays to see habitual patterns in action. People make travel plans, clean the house, decorate, and prepare to play out family dramas. Even resisting the holidays is a habitual pattern! Some traditions make the season bright, and others heap on the stress. But there's one fixture of the holidays that you'd better not mess with--the menu for the holiday meal.
Each of us carries a mental and emotional template for the ideal Thanksgiving (or Christmas) dinner. The template is based on whatever was served for Thanksgiving when you were a kid. In my family, we had turkey, bread dressing, green bean casserole with the canned fried onions on top, mashed potatoes, and canned, jellied cranberry sauce. Pumpkin pie with Cool Whip. (I know, I know.) Dinner rolls. Relish trays with radishes, celery sticks, and ripe olives. I married into a family that also included sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top and a fruit salad with coconut. That's just wrong. But only because I didn't grow up with it. My daughter married into a family that mixes cornbread stuffing with the cranberry sauce, and she just can't take it. 'Tis the season for her to learn to make Her Favorite Dressing that she grew up with.
Even the most tolerant, accepting, diversity-spouting, easy-going omnivore can become dogmatic and unbending over the issue of holiday food. There's no more treacherous time in a new relationship than to meet the other family during the holidays. Judgments are made over the canned vs. fresh berry debate, wondering just what other oddities lurk under the surface of this seemingly ideal partner and their family. The gravy could be a deal-breaker. We base these judgments on nothing more than preference and familiarity.
Preference and familiarity can be unconsciously restrictive, or they can be the departure point from which to sample that which is new and potentially enlivening or transformative. You don't have to make everything an issue of "right" or "wrong," when it's simply a case of "this is my preference" (and, wow, you prefer something else) or "this is what I know" (and, this new food, person, idea, is really interesting). As the poet Rumi wrote:
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
Through the many metamorphoses of my home life as an adult, I've always tried to include "the stranger" sometime during the holidays. We would host foreign graduate students, or a single friend far from family. Guests bring a dish or a wine they like. I intend to find a way to make the experience a pleasure for everyone, including me. In those moments, I can let go of my resistance to the holidays, and actually embrace them. There's an outward and visible sign of this inward and spiritual grace. Our holiday feast now includes both canned AND fresh cranberry sauces. Small progress is sometimes the most significant.
MaryBeth's bread dressing (learned from Mary Fran, MB's mom) My dad was from Philadelphia, and my mom was from Little Rock, and we ate this every Thanksgiving I can remember, in Oklahoma and Chicago: so I have no idea if this is a Yankee stuffing or a southern stuffing.
This is a recipe that you develop a "feel" for. Each successive approximation is better and more to your liking. It's also a magical recipe. You can make a little, or a lot, and it's always enough. I don't like it stuffed in the bird, so I make it in a dish. If you do stuff the bird, make sure to remove it immediately when you take the bird out of the oven.
large loaf of plain white bread
sage (dried or fresh)
fresh Italian parsley (not in the original--my addition)
salt and pepper
Start the day before by taking the loaf of bread out of the wrapping, and putting all of the slices in a big roasting pan on the counter. Rip the bread, crusts and all, into bite-sized pieces. Let the bread sit out like this overnight so it can get a little stale.
About an hour before the turkey is due to come out of the oven, chop a big onion and several ribs of celery. Saute in a pan with a little olive oil, salt and pepper until the onion is translucent and the celery is just starting to get tender.
When the onions and celery are done, dump that on top of the torn up, stale bread.
Add a good palmfull of poultry seasoning (2-3 Tablespoons). Add the sage (you'll need less if using dried herbs-- perhaps 2 Tablespoons dried or 1/2 cup of chopped fresh sage).
I like Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, so I chop up a bunch for 3/4 of a cup to a cup. Don't bother with dried parsley. Add the parsley to the bread mixture.
Add as much salt and pepper as you like. Easy on the salt, since the broth will probably have salt in it.
Add about 1/2 cup of light vegetable oil, drizzled over the top.
Begin to combine everything by hand. Slowly and gradually pour in about 1/2 cup of chicken broth. You want everything to be moist, but not soggy. The texture might not be completely uniform, and that's OK.
When it's well combined, put it into a baking dish that you can cover with a lid or with foil.
Put it into the oven at whatever temp you have the turkey baking at-- probably around 325. Leave it for an hour. It should look kind of crispy on top and golden brown.
I remember one year, my mom added chopped pecans before baking. Meh. You might be tempted to add some craisins, or dried apricots, or some such. Resist. Less is more.
If you like to stuff your turkey, you can skip the chicken broth, since the turkey juices will do the job. Be sure to remove ALL the stuffing immediately after you take the turkey out of the oven!
Serves 4-6. Calories? Fugeddaboudit.