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Streetwise - Thanksgiving Traditions

by Frank Dunnigan
November 2015

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Most of us have a certain image of Thanksgiving that we instantly conjure up at the very mention of the holiday—something along the lines of Norman Rockwell’s classic painting. In reality, though, most of us who are older than twenty-something have likely experienced a variety of different Thanksgiving celebrations and traditions that reflect changing times, changes in family composition, and changes in our geographic proximity to loved ones.

My father came from a small family, and my very first Thanksgiving recollections involve sitting at my grandmother’s big dining room table on 21st Avenue in the Sunset District. It was a cozy group for a couple of years—just my parents, my widowed grandmother, my bachelor uncle and myself. In retrospect, this grandmother cooked only three things that I can remember: corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, a “nice” leg of lamb in the middle of the year, and Thanksgiving turkey. Her stuffing recipe remains memorable, though, as she saved numerous scraps of leftover biscuits, corn muffins, French bread, raisin bread, crusts of wheat bread, and everything else imaginable, and then put the combination through her mother’s ancient cast iron meat grinder before adding in celery, onions, and parsley. She always served canned Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce in a small crystal dish (never used for anything else) that had once belonged to her mother. Grandma was not a big fan of pie, so dessert was invariably a jelly roll from The Different Bakery on Taraval, near the old Parkside Theatre.

The Different Bakery at 925 Taraval Street near 19th Avenue., Feb 1951 - WNP collection

After Grandma Dunnigan’s passing in 1960, my other grandmother included us in her celebration, and it was a much larger, more convivial crowd at her house since the dinner table now included Mom’s three siblings and their spouses, plus my five first cousins, along with Dad’s brother and his new wife added to the mix. Mom’s mother, Kitty, was a great cook, and while the turkey dressing involved packaged seasoned bread crumbs rather than the variety of breads used by my other grandmother, the dessert category was much improved with several homemade pies—apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat—all cooling on the counter when we arrived. Mom inherited that crystal dish from her mother-in-law, and even though her own mother’s tradition included whole cranberry sauce made from scratch, Mom brought along the jellied Ocean Spray in her mother-in-law’s small dish. And while Grandma Dunnigan always enforced a stern “no snacks” policy (“you don’t want to spoil your dinner”), Kitty would allow a small dish of pitted black olives to be placed on the coffee table (family photos from that time usually show at least one grandchild clowning around with an olive on the tip of each finger of the right hand), along with a plate of celery sticks filled with Kraft cheese from a jar. Adults were permitted one glass of Christian Brothers Chateau LaSalle wine and kids one glass of root beer before dinner.

Unfortunately, both my grandmothers were partial to frozen peas and carrots, boiled to death and served with a pat of butter. Mashed potatoes were a standard feature (with one grandmother preferring lumps and the other insisting on lump-free), as the base for gallons of brown turkey gravy. Sometime in the late 1960s, Mom began to bring along Mandarin Orange Salad—a tasty combination of fruit segments, orange Jell-O and orange sherbet that she picked up in a 1967 cookbook issued by the St. Cecilia’s Mother’s Club. Nearly fifty years later, this salad remains a staple on MY Thanksgiving table. Sweet potatoes were always on the menu, and while I enjoy them with minimal accompaniments (butter, salt, pepper), they sometimes appeared with grotesque 1960s-era additions such as Kahlua, ground up oatmeal cookies, or tiny marshmallows (the recipe called for white ones, but we once sat down to a sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows in the pastel colors of Easter—just a bit unnerving!). Several times, the whole sweet potatoes were overlooked, remaining in the oven, completely forgotten and slowly turning into charcoal, until kitchen clean-up time.

Depending on the year, the guest list might have included some of Kitty’s siblings and their spouses—who were Mom’s aunts and uncles—or a few of Kitty’s own first cousins that she had grown up with in Colorado, along with some of their children. I quickly learned what “second cousin once removed” meant and knew that there was one named Carmel, the mother of five, whom I liked very much. With an occasional annual change involving a couple of cast members, this remained my traditional Thanksgiving celebration throughout my grammar school and high school years.

By the time I was in college in the 1970s, all my grandparents were gone, and Mom’s sister Margaret took over as Thanksgiving hostess at her Stonestown apartment on Buckingham Way—as our family’s Thanksgiving celebration evolved into a new semi-permanent routine for the next twenty or so years. My aunt, who never married, had clearly learned a good deal about cooking from all her years living at home. She replicated my grandmother’s favorite dishes very well, though sadly, she resorted to frozen pies for dessert and Cool Whip instead of Grandma’s freshly whipped cream with just the right amount of sugar and vanilla.

Ad for Stonestown Apartments by Stoneson Brothers, 1951. - San Francisco Chronicle

My aunt often included a few neighbors and long-time family friends as guests, and the meals that she turned out from that small apartment kitchen were excellent. One change in the menu was that we were finally able to get away from the very sweet wines that my grandmother liked, in favor of something a bit drier like a Gewürztraminer or Grey Riesling. Mom continued to bring along Grandmother Dunnigan’s small cranberry dish to our annual dinners at Stonestown, still serving up the jellied Ocean Spray, sliced along the imprinted lines from the sides of the can.

Relaxing afterwards in the big living room that overlooked Lake Merced, there was a pleasant mix of football replays on television, gossiping about relatives who were celebrating elsewhere, and the quiet background music of Aunt Margaret’s many Ray Coniff albums. Clean-up was something else, though, as those apartments lacked dishwashers back then, so the process often stretched out across the entire holiday weekend, as we returned for leftovers on Friday and Saturday nights. One year I made the unbelievable suggestion that we might consider using sturdy paper plates, but the look that I received from the adults told me that was something that was never going to happen—and it never did! Even today, I remain shocked at my own youthful naiveté on this matter.

Sadly, Aunt Margaret died unexpectedly in 1992, and Mom quickly picked up the mantle of Thanksgiving hostess for the first time at age 78. Although she had decades of experience as a cook, she had never progressed beyond the role of “helper” on Thanksgiving, but with a few helpers of her own, she put on masterful performances for the next decade.

Ad for Lick Market, 545-547 Clement Street, November 21, 1930. G.B. Ansaldi, proprietor. - Richmond Banner, November 21, 1930

Always a fan of “tom” vs. “hen” turkeys, Mom would visit Petrini’s at Stonestown early in November, with a request for the biggest bird available. The butchers were always very nice and tried to accommodate her, bring out one after another for her to inspect, but one year after she had picked out a whopper of almost thirty pounds, the butcher finally said to her, “Lady, are you sure you’ll even be able to get this one in and out of your oven?” Once she thought about it, it made far more sense to roast two fifteen-pound turkeys.

With a combination of cousins from both sides of the family and some long-time friends, we enjoyed an annual meal that combined elements from various past Thanksgivings. The ever-present frozen peas and carrots finally gave way to some green beans prepared with onion, olive oil, and vinegar, plus alternate side dishes like creamed spinach, corn soufflé, and pickled baby carrots. My cousin Kathy brought along two homemade lemon meringue pies that first year, and those quickly became a family favorite—light, refreshing, and a palate-cleansing end to the meal. Just as in my early childhood, the same dish that held the jellied Ocean Spray cranberry sauce was sitting on the table in front of me every single year.

After Mom’s passing in 2002, I began to host Thanksgiving at my house, with most of the same cousins and family friends. Always conscious of tradition, many of the dishes still remain the same as in the past. One change that I implemented early on was to cook the stuffed turkey(s) one day in advance, and then carve the meat, arranging it on platters, and transferring the stuffing into casserole dishes—all to be refrigerated and then reheated the next day. With this main portion of the meal already complete, preparing numerous side dishes and desserts on Thanksgiving Day itself became much easier by freeing up oven and counter space and reducing last-minute carving and clean-up.

My own guest list still includes cousins and long-time family friends, and varies just a bit over the years. It’s sometimes a toss-up if I will play host by celebrating at home or else join my long-time friend Linda and her children and grandchildren, giving thanks in Sonoma County. Occasionally, I’ve ventured to Washington, DC, Colorado, or Houston to spend the holiday with cousins there. In each place, I always manage to learn a few new things—such as golden raisins in the turkey dressing, homemade cranberry sauce that included generous quantities of fresh orange peel and bourbon, corn chowder as a soup course, pumpkin bread, and the Southern-inspired tradition of baked ham as a side dish. And guess what’s been packed in my suitcase during those travel years? Grandma’s little dish has more frequent flyer miles than some of my relatives.

This year, my old University of San Francisco classmate, Debbie, a good friend since the early 1970s, will be joining in, as she will be staying with me while on an extended vacation from her home in Florida. She has mentioned the homemade rolls that her great-auntie Carmen taught her to make in the late 1950s when she was growing up out on 46th Avenue and Quintara, and I am definitely looking forward to learning her recipe secrets and adding those to the table. And while I plan to serve both standard and cornbread dressing, along with some pumpkin-raisin Bundt cake alongside the apple and the pumpkin pies (the mincemeat pie went by the wayside a decade or so ago), the jellied Ocean Spray cranberry sauce in that same small dish will still be making its appearance, just as it has at my family’s table for the past 100-plus years.

Thanksgiving remains the quintessential American holiday—steeped in tradition no matter where we gather or what new changes might be introduced. It is a movable feast—the one day we come together with those we love and care about, expressing gratitude for all the blessings we have enjoyed over the past year.


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