Remembrances from Thanksgiving

This year I find myself having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit. Maybe it’s because of the stress of the past several months which have taken a toll on our family, particularly me. Or maybe it’s just more realization that as we get older, there are so many changes in our lives that we have no control over. People, both family and friends, have passed out of our lives for various reasons, and many times we either cannot, or do not, get them back.

To compound these feelings of the holiday blues, this year there have been a number of serious illnesses and deaths of friends’ family members that have added to the remembrances of loss I’ve been feeling. This is also the first year our daughter is living in her own home with her new husband, and although we’re very happy for them, it’s still a bittersweet feeling having our only child married and starting her own family. And hosting the Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in her new home!

Thanksgiving was always a fun-filled time when we were all growing up. At least that’s how I remember it. There was always tons of food, and so many people crowded around the table. Everyone was happy, and getting along, making jokes with each other, as well as talking about plans for Christmas and visits to Santa Claus. It was definitely a simpler time, at least through my eyes as a youngster. As far as I knew, there were no worries about money, jobs, health issues, or any other number of problems that affect our families.

Or maybe as a child, we just didn’t notice those problems.

Unfortunately I only vaguely remember a few holidays spent with my family with my dad also there. Being only eight years old when he died wasn’t easy, because it robbed me of so many memories I’d never have the opportunity to make. I do have some fuzzy ones in which we were all seated at my grandmother’s huge ornate walnut dining table, with her and my mom and my aunts bringing in huge plates of food, and my grandfather bowing his head and saying his quick “grace” before we all dug in to eat. But they’re that…fuzzy.

I have much better memories of those later family holiday dinners at my mother’s house. The food was wonderful, but it wasn’t picture perfect, nor served in all matching china. And we weren’t all dressed up in our best clothes. We were comfortable, in our casual clothes, and my mom and my aunts were all still wearing their aprons when we sat down to eat. We “toasted” with iced tea and soda, while my two uncles grabbed food from the plates that were passed around, with Uncle Jay dropping almost as much on the floor as went on his plate (and since he was usually the only one wearing a tie, you can imagine food went on that, too!)! The television was on in the next room, and everyone was talking at the same time. And as soon as we kids finished eating, we got up and either played games, argued good-naturedly with each other, or watched a movie on tv.serving dinner

Those days were fun. We enjoyed being together, and never even thought about not being the “perfect” picture postcard family gathering. We were Just Plain Family.

As the years went by, things changed, as they always do. Children grew up and had children of their own, and holiday dinners weren’t the same, because my aunts and uncles now spent holidays with their grown children and THEIR children. The big family dinners continued for a while, just not at holidays. My husband and I continued Thanksgiving traditions at my mother’s as long as possible, and usually with my aunt and her grown children.

As the years fast forward, holidays become increasingly difficult because our special loved ones are living now only in our memories, and not seated at the table with us. Those memories of Thanksgivings past can sometimes hurt more than they can make us smile. In my dreams I imagine the ones who are already there getting together in heaven to still share a very special Thanksgiving dinner, probably in my mother’s heavenly mansion. With Uncle Jay still spilling food on his tie! And waiting for us to join them.
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I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I know many friends going through similar feelings. It’s normal, and it’s a part of life. We’re expected to automatically be happy because it’s the start of the holiday season. Many of us are almost forced to hide our feelings behind smiles that we make ourselves wear, because we think we’re the only ones feeling this way. But there are more out there than you know.

The next time you start feeling like that, don’t be embarrassed. If you’re having a tough time, you’re not the only one. If you’re hurting, you’re hurting. And it’s OK to feel that way. Call a close friend and talk about it. If you know someone who’s hurting, call them and welcome them into your home. You never know how significant a small gesture can be to someone this time of year. Nor do you know what new memories will be made.

What Are You Doing for Thanksgiving?

That’s a question we get asked every year, especially since the death of my mother several years ago. My husband’s family is mostly in the Midwest and Southwest, and what family I have left is scattered around as well. So we’ve adopted our friends here as our family. We make a few new traditions each year, and the last few years we’ve been welcomed at our daughter’s fiancé’s home for Thanksgiving dinner. This year our daughter and her new husband are hosting Thanksgiving for everyone in their first home!

So what are YOU doing for Thanksgiving? Maybe you’re just too tired to make a big fuss this year. Maybe a lot has happened in your life and you just can’t bring yourself to do what you normally do. It can be a bit stressful, to say the least! If this is the case this year, you may want to reconsider and think about having dinner at another family member’s home, or some of your friends’ homes. It’s not too late to make those plans, by the way! Or, maybe even making reservations at a favorite restaurant like we did one year! (But trust me, that wasn’t the same as having it at home and enjoying leftovers over the next few days!)

This year, especially if you’re just over-stressed, take a deep breath. Relax. And do things a bit differently. If you’re still in charge of dinner, look at that Thanksgiving menu, and ask yourself if you REALLY need all those dishes, or are you just having them because they’re a family tradition and no one really likes them anyway! (You know, like that Brussels sprouts and onion casserole Aunt Maggie used to make?) Instead take the time to enjoy the meaning of Thanksgiving and be thankful for friends and family, and all the other blessings you enjoy in your life! Count them. And even if it’s been a hard and stressful year, there ARE blessings to find! After all, shouldn’t Thanksgiving actually be all year around?

Whatever you decide, enjoy your holiday. Enjoy your friends and family. And let everything else fall into place!
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Grandmom’s Oyster Dressing

One of the traditions at our family Thanksgiving dinners, and Christmas as well, is actually a dish that not everyone likes. But it was always on every holiday dinner table when I was growing up, as well as our holiday dinner tables now.

Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is one of the greatest seafood areas in the country (yes, I will argue with anyone on that!), we always enjoyed a some of the best blue crabs, clams, oysters, and fresh fish I’ve ever had. One of the traditional Eastern Shore holiday side dishes was what we called Oyster Dressing, also known in other areas as Scalloped Oysters.

I’m not an oyster fan per se, but this dish is something I very much enjoy. Unfortunately my husband doesn’t share my enthusiasm for it, especially since he’s allergic to oysters, but I’m thankful our son-in-law loves oysters, so I can still make it and have someone join me in eating it!

Traditionally my aunt always made the dish, and would bring it to my mom’s house just about ready to bake, so it would be piping hot when served. Since it’s just oysters, crackers, butter, and milk, she’d always bring her own quart of milk to pour into it right before she stuck it in the oven. Because she had to make sure the liquid covered all the crackers thoroughly so it wouldn’t be too dry, she always used a glass casserole dish. When we were kids we used to be fascinated by her pouring the milk in and getting the texture just right. Why, I have no idea; it was just one of those things we did…we were kids! And we didn’t have to help cook!

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So for all of you who are curious, and sea food lovers, I’m happy to share the way we made this dish, and still do today. And please, use a round glass casserole dish…trust me, it’s easier!

Here’s all you need:

1 quart fresh oysters, rinsed and drained (check for any bits of broken shell!)
1 box of saltine crackers
softened butter
milk

Butter the bottom and sides of a round 1 1/2-2 quart glass casserole dish.
Crush some of the saltines and put in the bottom of the casserole dish, at least a 1 1/2 inch or so thick.
Place about 1/3 of the oysters on top of crackers, sprinkle with pepper, and dot with butter.
Repeat the process 2-3 times, ending with another layer of crackers, dotted with butter.
Cover with wax paper or saran wrap and refrigerate until ready to bake.
Just before putting in a pre-heated 350 degree oven, slowly pour in milk in a circular pattern until crackers are soaked. (We sometimes used a knife to cut through the crackers to be sure everything got soaked really well!0
Bake 40-55 minutes until done. During baking watch to see that it doesn’t dry out; if so, add a tiny bit more milk.

Serve hot! And if you have leftovers, cover and reheat in the oven or microwave.

Mom’s Cinnamon Buns

My mother was an excellent cook. She made all kinds of wonderful dishes and over the next several months I will share some of our family recipes. But by far her most memorable accomplishment were her cinnamon buns, which are even mentioned in my forthcoming book, “Memories in a Daughter’s Heart.” Yes, they were that good!

My mother perfected the art of making these wonderful buns, a mixture of sticky, gooey cinnamon sweetness rolled up in a soft doughy roll, and most delicious when just about ten minutes out of the oven. (Just long enough for the hot brown sugar and butter icing to firm up a bit and not burn your mouth!) She made them for every family dinner as far back as I can remember. When all of her brothers and sisters and their families got together and decided what everyone was bringing, there was no question when it came to my mother’s contribution! And usually, one pan wasn’t enough!sticky-buns-using-hot-roll-mix

I remember many dinners with my two favorite uncles joking each other about who was going to eat most of them. We kids loved it when Uncle Jay and Uncle Fowler would have a “contest” to see how many they could grab at one time! Yes, those were some wonderful times, and great memories! And of course, really good eating! And the calories? With these culinary delights, who cared?

Our daughter Ashley loved to help her grandmother make the cinnamon buns, and fortunately for our family, Ashley has now taken over my mother’s role of “cinnamon bun chef”. She makes them for every holiday meal, and I have to say hers are just as good as the ones my mother made. Probably because of the love and memories that are baked inside each pan. And now that Ashley is married and hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time, you can be assured that her grandmother’s cinnamon buns will be on the menu!P1060788

So that you can also enjoy part of my mother’s legacy, here is the recipe for her cinnamon buns. If you try it, let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear your feedback! And if you have questions, be sure to let us know and I’ll try to help!

My Mother’s Cinnamon Buns (Rachel’s Cinnamon Buns)

1 Box Pillsbury (or other brand) hot roll mix – make as directed but add 1/2 c. sugar. Knead well, and be sure to coat your hands with flour when kneading. Let dough raise in bowl until doubled in size. (Note: We put the bowl on top of our gas stove with waxed paper or a dish towel over the top.) **

When dough is raised, roll out on counter top, with dough about 1/4-3/8″ thick. Should be approximately 8″ wide and 18″ long. (I never measured, I just eyeball it! You’ll get the hang of it.)

After dough is rolled out, smear softened butter over the top of the dough, then heavily sprinkle with light brown sugar (we usually use the entire box!) and shake ground cinnamon over the top of it all. Roll the dough up jelly-roll fashion. Cut into rolls (about 1 1/2 – 2″ thick) and place in a buttered 9×14 glass baking dish. Dot top of each bun with butter, place waxed paper over the top, and let raise again until doubled in size.P1030731

Bake in pre-heated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool in pan no longer than one minute. Invert quickly (and carefully) onto serving plate, spooning the syrupy brown sugar over buns to get every last drop! And then enjoy, enjoy! If there are any left, be sure to wrap them up tightly in saran wrap or tin foil for the next day. (Note: they’re good for breakfast heated in a paper towel in the microwave for about 15 seconds)

** Many stores don’t carry hot roll mix any more. If you can’t find it, here’s a trick to make your own:
Combine – 4 c. flour, 1/3 c. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/4 c. instant nonfat dry milk.
To make the dough dissolve 1 pkg. yeast in 1 c. warm (120-125 degrees) water. Add to dry mix along with 1 egg, 2 tbl. soft butter, and an additional 1/4-1/2 c. sugar. Knead as directed above.