We All Have That One Weird Thanksgiving Side Dish We Can’t Live Without
For better or for worse, the jello mold and the gelatinous cranberry sauce are iconic.
I think a lot about food in general, but especially during the holiday season. On Thanksgiving, for instance, my ideal menu would include turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, homemade cranberry sauce, and maple carrots; I typically pick at least one new recipe every year (maybe this year I’ll do rum pumpkin chiffon pie!) that I try out for the first time. But I also feel obligated to make a side dish or two from my husband’s childhood recipe collection... and I know I’m not the only one.
My husband, by the way, does none of the cooking, but he usually drops in an opinion or two about 24 hours before the Big Day. I have already dreamed about what I am going to make for months, made a meal plan, and shopped... and here he swoops in. As I am dragging all the bags into the kitchen and spreading all the ingredients out on the countertops, my husband will undoubtedly say: “Did you get the pearled onions or the creamed corn? Are we making cranberry sauce? Because I prefer the one in the can.”
I get the nostalgia of specific recipes — regional or otherwise — from our childhood. They are attached to our parents and grandparents' kitchens and being together. Every family seems to have at least one dish that’s dated, disgusting or just plain weird. Which makes me wonder why we are making these recipes in the first place? Are they so central to our core memories that Thanksgiving feels lost without them? But the bigger question is this: Do we actually like eating them?
Creamed corn is just corn, butter, and heavy cream. Fine, but it’s like baby food. My husband’s love for pearled onions I can almost get behind, but in cream sauce? No. It’s just too rich. Onions braised, YES! The jellied cranberry sauce that plops out like it’s been suction cupped inside with distinct ridges from the can’s markings? I’m sorry, husband, but: Gross. Especially considering that making cranberry relish is probably one of the easiest recipes in the world. Fresh cranberries, sugar, grated orange zest, and orange juice and then cook until it bubbles and thickens, done.
My mom believes every holiday table should be adorned with at least one Jell-O mold. A Jell-O mold can be many things, but typically it’s gelatin, fruit, sometimes carrots, other vegetables, or marshmallows. The Jell-O ingredients are always shaped into decorative molds such as a circle or square shape to set in the fridge.
Every holiday a Jell-O concoction appeared at the end of the table in some hyper-saturated wiggly splendor. Each sibling took turns wiggling the plate with roars of laughter. My mom would sigh, “Leave my Jell-O alone.” None of us ate it but we always scooped off the smallest portion onto our plates, trying to be polite. My mom would make audible noises as she bit into it. For her, it was a spiritual experience eating that cold, marshmallow-filled salad.
My father made a recipe using all the parts of the turkey. We referred to it as “stomach stuffing,” because it goes down like a rock and makes you feel pretty awful for days. It was a classic New England dish, from a man who grew up in a family that wasted nothing. Whatever bits were found in the gizzard when we brought home the turkey, he would boil down in a small pot on the back of the stove. Eventually, he folded that concoction into the bread stuffing mixture. It smelled delicious, and you wanted to like it, but you knew the consequences. My mom would make us kids regular stuffing, no liver parts included.
The side dish that I DO insist on making from my childhood is sweet potatoes with marshmallows. This decadent casserole is made by slicing sweet potatoes, drowning them in butter and brown sugar and topping it all with mini marshmallows. It’s a dish so sweet that even my kids are turned off by it. As a kid it was one of my favorites. And bizarrely I make it year after year and nobody touches it but me. Do we see a pattern here? I too have been seduced by the lure of side dishes from my childhood that will never taste as good. I am chasing a high here that will never be reached.
Why on Thanksgiving do we bring these old-fashioned, blatantly unhealthy side dishes to our table? Any other time of the year marshmallows are a S’mores-only delicacy. Last time I ate Jell-O in my regular day-to-day life was because of a hospital stay.
But when you marry someone, you also inherit their family recipes — whether you like them or not. Recipes are part of our family history and culture and each recipe carries a story of a grandparent or family member making them. When we commit to someone, we unknowingly make room for these recipes at our tables. I hate creamed corn and creamy pearled onions, but I will make them for my husband because I see how happy it makes him. Isn’t that what marriage is: Looking the other way at your partner’s childhood memories and giving them space in the family you are building together. My children will grow up with recipes and maybe learn to love them or not. Maybe one of them will actually be a huge creamed corn fan.
Katy Elliott is the Personal Stories Editor at Scary Mommy. She loves to cook, garden and chat with people about anything from your how much you love your kids to how much your kids drive you nuts. She’s a mom to two kids and lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.