It was my job to set the table. The banquet cloth of embroidered linen went down, and the Sunday-best china came out of the breakfront, as did the real sterling and the crystal wine goblets; after I attained drinking age, I delighted in assembling an array of them. There were the relish dishes to compose of hearts of celery and carrot sticks and supercolossal olives, both black and pimento-stuffed. The cranberry sauce was wriggled out of the can into one of my grandmother’s cut crystal bowls that was used only once a year, for this purpose.
The turkey was the centerpiece of the meal, but there was always an array of side dishes that were equally representative of the culinary tastes of the times. There were Harvard beets; certainly they were canned, but my mother thickened their sauce with cornstarch and seasoned them to sweet-tart perfection. Sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows were a national cliché; we also had them, as well as, for some unknown reason, frozen green peas.
For me, the highlight was the rutabaga purée. I’m not sure where my mother got the recipe, but the orange turnips sometimes known as Swedes were cooked with potatoes to soften some of their harshness. They were seasoned with a drizzle of bacon fat from the coffee can that sat on the back of the stove, and then mashed through a sieve. I delighted in them, savoring their creamy texture and smoky, bacon-infused taste.
As happens, the decades flew by. Family guests at the table changed and eventually diminished until on some holidays it was Mom and I staring at each other across a table piled high with our annual feast. Certainly, there were guests, random friends stranded in town for the holiday, second cousins or foreign visitors with whom I wanted to share the holiday. Then, in 2000, Mom died and I became a Thanksgiving orphan.
Now, after a few years of wandering in the Thanksgiving wilderness, I have established my own holiday tradition. I journey to New Orleans, where I have become a regular at the table of my adopted family, the Costas. There, I have my turkey and the fixings. They even indulge me with a separate dish of cornbread stuffing, as I cannot eat the oyster dressing that is their holiday specialty.
One year, a side dish appeared: an orange and buff swirl of vegetable purées. The lighter purée looked familiar, and one taste confirmed my hopes: It was indeed rutabaga. It brought tears to my eyes. In a magnificent conjoining of traditions, the Costas’ side dish of my Thanksgiving present managed to include a nod at my Thanksgiving past. I savor it each year.
Recipe: Rutabaga-Potato Mash With Bacon