This Thanksgiving my sister-in-law requested I make Holiday Salad. “What is that?” I queried. One time we brought pie, another she asked us to bring turnip. I love turnip, and love making it. “Amy is making the turnip,” she said. Two years ago Kym cheerfully made pies, but she is in college now, and Liz wisely did not suggest I try my hand at pastry. Vegetable sides, salad, appetizers, sweet little amuse-bouche, these are my forte, these make me seek new flavor combinations, track down recipes, explore new tastes. “Uh, any kind of salad I want for the holiday?” I asked hopefully. This could be fun. I began thinking roasted pear, or maybe root vegetables and stinky cheese, or yes, strips of fig and fennel with a citrus vinaigrette.
“You know, Mom’s holiday salad, “ she said. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.” My gut had already suspected, and I turned to page 21 in Jane Smith’s cookbook, and there it was. Lemon-lime jello with whipped cream, cream cheese, canned pineapple and Maraschino cherries. “Can’t I make Jane’s cranberry sauce instead?” My mother–in-law wanted to make it this Thanksgiving, but is in a retirement home and cannot use the kitchen. Liz, however, had the cran sauce under control.
No was not an option I choose, though I did protest, “Liz, I have never made a jello salad in my life, I’d prefer to go to the grave proudly saying that.” I don’t think she heard, but perhaps that is because I did not say it aloud. Instead, I contemplated family Thanksgiving traditions.
For a number of years I hosted our family Thanksgiving every other year, and loved having everyone congregate in this state that has become home. The first year I did this I was in my late twenties. I printed and mailed invitations to family and included friends. My mother called. “We don’t really want your friends at dinner with us do we? Perhaps just dessert.” And so the tradition of a day after Thanksgiving dessert social was started. I won’t say she was right, and this Christmas we are opening the doors to anyone we think of asking, but the day after dessert event was perfect. Who can eat dessert after an excessive turkey dinner? Even if not cooking, there is a sense of stress waiting for that turkey button to pop, or the thermometer to read right. Many people have family obligations on Thanksgiving. Some even have to have turkey twice in one day. But the day after is a decompress day. Our day-after event, which moved from Tremont, to Somesville, to Otter Creek as I rented homes large enough to house us all, became a treasured mingling of family, friends, co-workers. T Day was over, everyone was mellow and relaxed. A few days before the holiday my mom and dad would arrive to help, and we moved tables, set up beds, bought groceries, and prepped for four-five days of meals, hikes, T-day dinner and the new tradition, a dessert social.
Expanding the guest list to include friends for dinner had not worked. My next effort was to change the menu. Ours included sausage and bacon stuffing, creamed cauliflower, asparagus, jellied (ugh) cranberry sauce. I found colonial recipes and native American feasts. “Oyster stuffing” I said to my sisters. Always tolerant they said, “sounds good, as long as you make regular stuffing, too.” Raw cranberries with grated orange rind replaced the jellied, and mom even called for that recipe months later. I made roasted squash with nuts and maple syrup instead of canned sweet potato. I was allowed these minor deviations, but not to change our mom’s admittedly delicious bread and bacon and sausage stuffing. I have made a small bird with oyster stuffing and have to say it is amazing. Better than mom’s stuffing? Well, actually, yes. Or perhaps equally good, just very different. But we have non-seafood eaters, and meat and potato guys, and mom’s stuffing is the consummate universal comfort food. I cannot imagine anyone not loving it, and so I learned how to make it. Rebellion quelled, I honored our family traditions because the holiday is not really about the food, but about us, our family, and the bond shared memories of stuffing or Holiday Salad engenders.
But, back to this Jello thing. My initial resistance was to a tradition that I have no history with and a tradition that includes Jello, which I have never liked and frequently ridiculed. It is, after all, pretty goofy stuff. I recall a Cosmopolitan article suggesting filling the tub with Jello for a romantic environment better than a waterbed. I have never slept on a waterbed, and a tub of Jello at room temp brings visions of crawling insects rather than joyous abandon. And Jello shooters, what are they? Some lethal way to consume alcohol without enjoying it. Other Jello recollections include tonsils out at age ten, and my husband’s oral surgery. And so being asked to make a Jello salad unleashed a torrent of not so appetizing memories.
However, since my sister-in-law is someone I met through marriage but love and respect and is now a friend, I said yes. Yes, I will make a Jello salad. I did not grow up with it, but my husband did, and his children. I have heard his grandchildren clamor for Holiday Salad, This salad is as deeply entrenched in my husband’s family, as sausage-bacon stuffing is in ours. I will not debate taste or nutritional value. On this day they are irrelevant. Holiday Salad and bacon stuffing are deeply satisfying ways to celebrate and share a sense of family.
As the Jello made it’s magic, the man of few words whipped the cream, spooned in the other ingredients, and the Holiday Salad was poured neatly into Jane’s special Holiday Salad mold. Yes, there is such a thing. I had never seen one, but then, I had never made Holiday Salad. It has an opening at top and bottom, is quite clever, but Liz had to show us, you tip the mold upside down, open the other side, and plop, it jiggles onto a plate.
I can still say I have never made a Jello salad, as I played only a small part in it, primarily supervision. But experimental salads and oyster stuffing can wait for another day. Family and tradition are forces to be reckoned with, and I would not have it any other way.