This time of year my mind wanders in meetings and at book talks and it always goes to the same place every single time. Recipes. It’s Thanksgiving and I start to fantasize about a new pumpkin mousse with a little caramel brittle on top. Or maybe it’s a chestnut pumpkin soup served in individually hollowed out pumpkins that takes my fancy. What actually happens every year is that my kids lobby for the same foods they loved when they were six years old. It doesn’t matter a whit that all of our palettes have deepened and developed over the years. Come November they clamor for those cheddar carrots and that sage apple stuffing. Truth is I am not immune either. This year I am bringing back an old cranberry Jell-O salad from my own childhood. In the 1970s those Jell-O salads were ubiquitous and this one graced our Thanksgiving table year after year. My kids made so many jokes about it that a few years ago I took it out of the rotation. But then I missed it. Two years in a row. So this year it is coming back and I may call it a gelee to see if that shuts down the snickers. Maybe I will amp it up with a little sauternes and serve it in those fancy bowls that look like fat spoons. But the cranberries, pecans, raspberries and celery will all still be there too. The thing is, it tastes good.
My mother was a wonderful baker. When she threw a dinner party, which was often, either for the Club Ladies, or a holiday celebration, or just Sunday dinner after church, there were always her signature and delicious pies. There would usually be a cherry crumb for me next to a traditional apple cause those were so beautiful, and something with meringue, chocolate or lemon chiffon perhaps. Lorraine’s Pies were legendary. And as a result of countless hours spent rolling out pie dough together and getting the “ feel” of the dough, mine are not bad either. But the best thing she taught me about food was something so basic it is hard to believe it must be learned. She taught me that dinner parties worked when the food tastes good. What a concept. I was throwing a party back when we lived in St Louis. It was the first party in our new house and I was especially proud and also a little nervous. The guest list included a mix of old and new friends and I wanted the menu to impress those new folks at our table. So I called my mom to discuss the menu. I had cookbooks spread out all over the dining room table. I was thinking of a complicated but beautiful looking Beef Wellington. I imagined four or five tiny vegetable bites, soup shooters and maybe a soufflé for dessert. I told my mother all of this and described the dishes for each course as I explained about the food. My mom was quiet for a second when I finished and then she said. “That sounds like a lot of uncertain work. Why don’t you just make stuff that you know tastes good?”
It was an actual honest to God revelation. What after all makes people happy? I was pretty sure it wasn’t those famcy little square plates that were so impossoble to balance. Stuff that tastes good indeed.
We wound up with fried chicken that everyone could eat with their hands, finger food mashed potatoes served inside small original skins, homemade biscuits with apple butter and corn pudding as the only thing that actually required a spoon. It tasted good and everybody had a ball. Naturally there was pie for dessert. Lots and lots of pie.
On this chilly Sunday I am surrounded once again by old recipes and cookbooks. There will be probably be something new on our Thanksgiving table this year and a bunch of old as well. We will take our annual woodsy walk with the dogs ( counting guests I think there may be twenty-four paws in our house this year) and the day after we will play laser tag and ride go-carts. New memories will get made. They always do. But there will be one unbreakable rule. The food — this food is gonna taste good.