Thanksgiving potlucks: Pass the roles


Americans like to believe the first Thanksgiving was a joint effort of Indians and Pilgrims, but that probably wasn't the case.

The notion of Thanksgiving as a potluck meal actually has its roots in the Depression, says Charles Camp, a folklorist with the Maryland Arts Council who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Potluck dinners were actively promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal relief agencies," he says, as a way to encourage the holiday celebration for households that could no longer afford the entire spread singlehandedly.

If that sounds familiar in these economically troubled times, it should come as no surprise that potluck Thanksgiving is thriving.

Increasingly the host cooks turkey and gravy and guests bring the fixings, according to dozens of people interviewed.

This is in contrast, many said, to their childhood memories of the traditional dinner, prepared by one person -- usually their mother or an aunt.

Randie Schwarz, who lives far from her family and hosts a small gathering of friends, learned how difficult preparing the feast alone can be.

"One year, I decided to do the whole meal myself, and it was a fiasco," the Dallas-area resident says. "It took a week, and I was in the grocery store several times in the middle of the night looking for forgotten ingredients. Never again."

Before the Depression -- and before Americans started moving around so much -- it wasn't strictly a one-cook affair, Mr. Camp says. More likely, it was a one-cook-in-charge affair -- not potluck, but still a group effort.

The family matriarch would call upon her daughters to peel potatoes, chop onions, roll the pastry dough -- while she determined the menu and supervised the entire operation, he says.

World War II and increased mobility changed that.

"The notion of family cooperation to produce a meal like this, under the control of a single woman, really makes practical sense only when families are relatively close to each other," Mr. Camp says.

Today, much about the holiday remains the same, he says, but the players have changed. Once strictly family affairs, Thanksgiving gatherings have grown to include friends whose families are distant.

The food and the way people celebrate are touchstones for a holiday that underscores the importance of families, Mr. Camp says.

Turkey, stuffing and potatoes still dominate the menu, according to those interviewed, who were about evenly divided on whether the potatoes should be white or sweet. The vegetable, they say, is inevitably green beans or broccoli.

Pecan pie was the leading choice for dessert, then pumpkin and apple.

But even people like Ms. Schwarz, who live far from relatives and invite only friends, are telling the world how much family means at Thanksgiving, Mr. Camp says.

Just look what happens when it comes time to carve the turkey. People create the absent relationships, he says, when they designate who does what.

Then there's the Thanksgiving moment, which is instantly recognizable no matter who's gathered for dinner. "When people are sitting around the tables, not eating, looking at it as a display of bounty . . . that's the moment of Thanksgiving," he says.

As for that first Thanksgiving in 1621, Mr. Camp scoffs at the notion that Pilgrims and Indians sat down at a table together admiring each other's food.

"That's a revisionist view," he says. "In fact, almost everything we know about the attitudes of American Indians and Pilgrims is [that] they viewed each other's diets with alarm and disgust.

"The idea of everyone's sitting down and trying the next person's casserole and saying, 'Mm, boy, that's good,' didn't happen."

Sausage-pecan corn bread stuffing

Makes 24 servings

1 pound breakfast sausage

1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter or margarine

2 medium onions, minced

1 to 2 cups pecans or walnuts, chopped

2 (1-pound) packages corn bread stuffing mix

2 1/2 to 5 cups water or water and chicken broth

Cook sausage in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring to break into small pieces. Pour off fat and drain sausage on paper towel. Add butter to pan and saute onions. Add nuts, stuffing mix and sausage; toss gently. Add water or broth a little at a time, tossing gently to moisten. If you are going to bake the stuffing apart from the bird, use more liquid and at least some broth for flavor. If stuffing the bird, leave the dressing relatively dry.

Turkey gravy

Makes 24 servings

4 to 6 tablespoons pan grease, oil or margarine

1 onion, minced

1 to 2 carrots, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

10 to 12 tablespoons flour

8 cups liquid (use pan juices plus chicken broth)

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon soy sauce

salt and pepper to taste

After removing turkey from the roasting pan to rest, pour the pan liquids into a large, heatproof bowl. Pour off the fat.

Measure fat or oil back into roasting pan over medium heat. Gently saute onion, carrots and garlic until soft. Add flour and whisk until well blended with oil. Add pan juices and broth to the flour mixture slowly, stirring constantly. Add remaining ingredients.

Potatoes Anna

Makes 12 servings

4 pounds potatoes, sliced ( 1/4 inch or thinner)

4 tablespoons oil

4 to 8 tablespoons butter or margarine (divided use)

salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons chives, minced (divided use)

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (divided use)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Soak sliced potatoes in ice water for 10 minutes. Drain and dry well with paper towels. In a large, ovenproof skillet or casserole, heat the oil and 3 tablespoons butter; do not brown. Place the potatoes into the hot butter in overlapping spirals until the base of the pan is filled. Shake the pan vigorously to prevent the potatoes from sticking. Sprinkle with salt, 1/3 of the Parmesan and 1/3 of the chives.

Before adding the next layer of overlapping slices, shake the pan to be sure the bottom layer is coated with butter. Repeat twice , each time sprinkling with salt, Parmesan and chives and dotting with butter, shaking the pan constantly to prevent the bottom layer from sticking, and to distribute the butter.

Cover and bake for 1 hour. If taking to someone's house and using a casserole, reheat in the oven or on stovetop before serving. To present potatoes in full splendor, invert the skillet onto an ovenproof serving platter or dish and allow the top layer to brown for 10 to 15 minutes.

Green beans with almonds

Makes 12 servings

3 pounds green beans, trimmed

4 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/2 cup sliced almonds


Steam beans or plunge into lightly salted boiling water until barely tender, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile heat the butter over medium-low heat and add the almonds; cook, stirring, until barely browned. Drain the beans and mix with the almonds and butter. Salt to taste.

Creamed onions

Makes 12 servings

2 pint boxes pearl onions, peeled

6 tablespoons butter or margarine

6 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk

2/3 cup chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon paprika

salt and black pepper to taste

Boil onions until just barely tender, about 15 minutes. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt butter. Add flour and stir until well blended. Meanwhile, bring milk just to a boil; add all at once to butter-flour mixture. Whisk until smooth and thick. Add onions. If taking somewhere else, stop at this point. Then, reheat onions and sauce over low heat; mix in remaining ingredients.

Apple-cinnamon sauce

Makes 2 cups

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups apple juice

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until light brown and bubbly. Meanwhile, combine chicken bouillon granules, cornstarch, sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Gradually blend in apple juice. Add the apple juice mixture to the browned butter in the pan. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until thickened. Serve over sliced turkey.

La madeleine pumpkin pie

Makes 8 servings

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 (1-pound) can solid-pack pumpkin

1/4 cup corn syrup

1 cup heavy cream plus some for garnish (if desired)

2 eggs

1 (10-inch) unbaked pie shell

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. In another bowl, combine pumpkin and corn syrup. Mix into dry ingredients. Add cream and eggs; mix until well combined. Pour the mixture in an unbaked, 10-inch pie shell. Bake 45 minutes. Cool and decorate with fresh whipped cream.

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