I’m halfway done with two other posts, but am just too scatterbrained the last few days to finish them coherently. Instead, I’ll confess some of the strange, perhaps even distasteful holiday foods to which I am secretly devoted. I got to thinking about the subject while planning my Thanksgiving menu. Every year, the holiday season causes some of my funny obsessions to rear their embarrassing heads. What are these dishes of shame, these celebratory foodstuffs I anticipate each year?
Well, for one, Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. I adore that wiggly, ridged log of delightful sweet-tartness. I’m fond of cranberries generally, particularly in more respectable preparations, but that blue and white can holds a special place in my heart for reasons that go deeper than nostalgia. For one, the rich, butter-laden holiday plate needs a bright flavor note just to keep the palate awake. Of course, a well-made whole berry sauce can fill that role as well, but there’s just something about that jelly texture that enthralls me. And of course, the whole point of cooking a turkey is to have leftover turkey sandwiches. My mom and I prefer ours on whole-grain bread with spicy honey mustard, a layer of cornbread dressing, and a thick slab of gelatinous cranberry goodness.
Even more humiliating, I love green bean casserole. Yes, the kind with the cream of mushroom soup and French’s French-fried onions. Lord knows why. I learned to make béchamel specifically to use it instead of Campbell’s cream of what ever in those kinds of old-fashioned recipes, and yet, I can’t bring myself to tart up green bean casserole. It tastes perfect already, soft and creamy and salty, laden with those addictive crispy onion bits. Actually, those may be the secret of my devotion to green bean casserole. I have to buy the big can when I make it so I have plenty to munch on. They look funny, the coat the roof of your mouth, and yet, as I write this, I’ve developed a craving so intense my stomach just rumbled a little. I don’t have the excuse of nostalgia on this one either. Since basically everyone in the world but me things this stuff is gross, I didn’t really grow up with it. My grandmother makes it now, but I don’t know that anyone but me eats it.
Now that I think about it, there are a couple holiday dishes that my grandmother makes just for me. There is, of course, the separate, for Martha only deviled eggs without sweet pickle relish that have been prepared since I was six or seven and expressed an aversion to the condiment. There is also ambrosia salad, a peculiar Southern specialty of which I am inordinately fond. Ambrosia is a concoction of (I think) mandarin oranges, canned pineapple, coconut, pecans, and miniature marshmallows. It possibly also contains Cool Whip. Most things in Tennessee that contain fruit are dressed with the substance. I do know that the marshmallows sort of melt into the mixture which, again because this is Tennessee, is served as a side dish rather than as a dessert. It rocks. I also love the various Jell-O salads, often laden with, you guessed it, Cool Whip, pudding mix, or sour cream, that often grace the festive Southern table.
To move on to a rather less universal holiday food, I guess I should also confess how much I miss Evil Prunehilda’s holiday coleslaw. Prunehilda was the nickname my family gave to my maternal step-grandmother. We haven’t seen her since my grandfather died seven years ago, and she is not at all missed. Prunehilda, who’s real name was Janice, was a deeply unpleasant woman. She had a puckery, alum-sucking sort of mouth and a penchant for malevolence. We had dinner at their house on Christmas Eve every year, and every year she made coleslaw. Unlike the slaw I make, it had no jicama or buttermilk dressing, no exciting play of flavor and texture. Everything was chipped into fine pieces with a food processor and dressed, I presume, in the most classically boring fashion with mayonnaise and sugar. In fact, it resembled nothing so much the slaw sold in foam tubs at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I thought it was great and it was her only redeeming quality.
I guess I should also confess one holiday food I gorge-risingly loathe: giblet gravy. Typically, I’m a great gravy devotee, but the stuff that shows up on Thanksgiving bears little resemblance to that excellent sauce. I think it may also be a weird Southern thing. It is thin, brownish-grey, and liberally floating with grainy bits of turkey innards and hard-boiled eggs. Eggs. In gravy. I can’t imagine what purpose the sliced eggs are supposed to serve. It looks like a punishment, but I can’t attest to the taste. I’ve never been able to convince myself to eat it.
“Heavens,” I say, “I’m just so full of green bean casserole and ambrosia I couldn’t possibly find room for even a single chunk of giblet. Darn.” It’s an excuse, but not a terrible one. It’s rooted in the shameful truth.