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Holiday Kitchen Secrets

by Cheryl Wray 8 days ago in cuisine · updated 8 days ago

When asked how to make their beloved holiday treats, my grandmothers always shied away from answers. There, apparently, were no real recipes for divinity or dressing.

Holiday Kitchen Secrets
Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

Just a pinch.

A cup or so.

A handful of that.

Whatever looks about right.

After-Thanksgiving dinner table discussions at my in-laws’ house invariably settles into one familiar conversation.

“Gan Gan, how do you make your dressing? Someone else has to learn how to make it before you’re gone. Are you going to teach us?”

The questions are always asked—by me, a cousin, my husband, a first-time visitor who has become infatuated with the dish—every single holiday.

Gan Gan (my husband’s grandmother) laughs.

“There’s not a recipe,” she says. “I just know how I make it.”

Gan Gan’s dressing is a wonderful concoction of cornbread, shredded chicken, saltine crackers, vegetables, spices (but no sage) of imagined variety.

But it’s all only imagined; she’s told us what’s in there, but without the evidence of a transcribed recipe, I can’t actually verify that for you.

She uses words and phrases like the above "just a pinch"..."a cup or so"..."a handful of that"..."whatever looks about right"...to explain how to make her beloved dishes (the angels-made-it-it's-so-delicious dressing, but also vegetable casseroles and pies and brownies). She laughs as she says that it's the best way to make them; no need to write them down, "they're all up here," she chuckles as she pats the side of her head with her finger.

And so it goes in the South.

If you were blessed enough to be raised by a Southern mother, grandmother, or aunt—or fed by an armada of church ladies--you know what I’m talking about.

Southern women own the best recipes in the world—for banana pudding, macaroni and cheese, shrimp n’ grits, hoppin john, chicken fried steak, biscuits, divinity—but none of those recipes are on paper.

They’re all recorded for posterity in these ladies’ heads, and in the “here’s what you do” lessons they’ve tried to give to their children, grandchildren, and greats beyond that.

It’s the same way with my Mom’s sweet potato pie.

My favorite Thanksgiving dessert is a heavenly blend of sweet potatoes and sugar and butter and vanilla (I think) that’s better than any pumpkin ever dreamed of being.

But Mom doesn’t look at a recipe card or in a cookbook when she stays up late the night before Thanksgiving whipping it up.

She just makes it—with those pinches, handfuls, and dashes.

I’ve watched Gan Gan make her dressing, and I’ve watched Mom make that pie.

A few days after Thanksgiving a few years ago, I tried to replicate the dressing. Gan Gan had explained her process to me and I thought I had it figured it; I took notes of everything she told me, but without a recipe card written in Gan Gan's own hand it really was a crap shoot in the dark.

My end result turned out okay; "not bad," my husband said when he tasted it. But I could tell that he was reminiscing of his childhood holidays; the look on his face evidenced that, as he swirled my dressing in his mouth, he was caught in a time warp where the dressing tasted like it was really supposed to taste.

Mine was a little too dry, and not flavorful enough, and the accompanying gravy (also a treasured Gan Gan secret) wasn’t quite right. My notes from my lesson with Gan Gan got it close, but it wasn't quite Gan Gan’s.

And that, I think, is the point.

It will always be Gan Gan’s dressing. And Mom’s sweet potato pie. And Miss Jane’s rolls. And Gran’s divinity.

(Miss Jane's rolls, you ask? Fluffy white yeast rolls made by a 1oo-year-old member of my church that will make you moan in ways unfit for church. And Gran's divinity? My late grandmother's exuisite Christmas confection, it relied on mystery ingredients and the just-right amount of Texas humidity and temperature.)

Gan Gan is getting up in years and each holiday we fear that it could be the last we have with her. And, so, this Thanksgiving I will say an extra prayer of gratitude that we get to eat her dressing once more.

And I'll sit her down yet again, attempting to figure out the perfect instructions to make it on my own. I've become a bearer of my own cooking secrets in recent years (I make a mean red velvet cake, and my macaoni and cheese is grandchild-approved), so this could be the year that the dressing becomes part of my own repertoire--something I can sneakily and mysteriously evade explaining to my children and grandchildren.

In the meantime, I will do what all Southern sons and daughters, grandaughters and grandsons, nieces and nephews do around the holiday dinner table.

I'll pack my plate high, sit across from Gan Gan (if I can snag the right seat), and "mmm...mmm" as I proclaim, "This is the best part of the day. This is the highlight of my Thanksgiving."

I'll look across the table and see her sly smile.

And I won't even hold it against her that the recipe just lives in her head.

The moment is worth the secret.

cuisine

Cheryl Wray

I'm a trained journalist who now dreams of writing fiction.

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