When I was the youngest member of my family (besides my brother, who was an infant), I was fortunate to have a full complement of four living great-grandparents. My great-gramma Niemeyer was commander of the kitchen on the morning of our annual Thanksgiving Day feast and would chuckle and laugh as she put everyone to work.
My job, as the youngest, was to clamp a hand-cranked iron “meat wolf” to the corner of the kitchen work table and grind up the cranberry-orange relish. I’d carefully feed handfuls of whole cranberries into the hopper on top. As I turned the handle with my other hand, I could feel the “pops” of cranberries as the auger screw pushed them through the holes of the grinder.
Every few turns, I’d put in a slice of whole orange, peel and all. I’d catch the colorful, juicy product in a low glass baking dish and sprinkle it generously with scoops of sugar. (An extra bowl under the grinder was needed to catch the extra juice that unavoidably dripped out.)
The proportions of the mix were approximate, but a one-pound bag of cranberries would require about two large navel oranges and at least a cup and a half, maybe two, of sugar. When it was done, the dish would be covered in wax paper (today, plastic wrap) and set in the fridge to “mellow” for a few hours.
Gramma Niemeyer was a phenomenal baker. She would be whirling around the kitchen in her work-worn apron with frilly white ruffles, showing me how to use a flour sifter and rolling pin, while she produced a parade of apple, pumpkin, and mince pies. She would simultaneously entertain us with her expertise at reciting entertaining poems she had memorized, blazing through tongue-twisters (she must have known dozens of them), or telling us stories from her girlhood.
Back then, she was known far and wide as Clara MacDonald, who had red hair and rode a white horse. “If you ever see a red-haired girl on a white horse,” people would say, “make a wish and it will come true!“ (She was born in 1880 and lived to 106! Pretty lucky indeed!)
Of course, every kitchen activity was coordinated around The Bird. Anxious multi-generational consultations would occur in half-whispers as The Bird was inspected periodically:
“When do you think it will be done?” “Wiggle the drumstick.” “Is the top browning too fast?” “Should we put a tin foil tent over it?” “I basted it just 10 minutes ago.” “Don’t keep opening the oven; the heat will escape and it will take too long.”
My mom and dad were usually the first ones up in the morning. My mom would start to prepare the turkey by removing the package of giblets and neck, which would simmer together in a covered saucepan to make stock for the stuffing. The Bird would be rubbed inside with coarse salt. Butter and sprigs of fresh rosemary would be worked under the skin on the breast.
Back in those days, the stuffing (which always contained way too much celery for my young palate) was baked inside the turkey. These days, we usually roast The Bird empty. It cooks faster and is better from a food safety point of view.
Meanwhile, my dad would have made the morning coffee in an enormous blue enameled coffee pot on top of the white gas stove. When it was ready, he’d pour it into heavy white handleless Coast Guard mugs you could wrap both hands around. Then he’d look through several of Gramma Niemeyer’s cookbooks for recipes for coffee cake, but he’d never decide on just one to choose.
Instead, he’d riff on the different recipes he’d read and invent his own version he called “cowboy coffee cake.” It was dark and sweet, like old-fashioned Boston brown bread, had a crumble topping that smelled of molasses, and had a texture like cornbread (due, no doubt, to the fact that the recipe’s only liquid was fresh-brewed black “cowboy coffee,” a gritty beverage made by throwing handfuls of loose grounds into boiling water in the big enamel coffee pot). It was a fully caffeinated cake, to be sure!
While it baked, he’d chop cheese, onions, and red and green peppers for a big country breakfast of omelets, raw-fried potatoes, scrapple, bacon, and sausage. (I got the important job of using the box grater on the cheese and potatoes!) Sometimes he’d even make pancakes on the side.
The smells of breakfast would lure sleepy family members from their beds and pretty soon there’d be about a dozen of us rubbing elbows in the kitchen, doing the breakfast dishes, and getting ready to make the day’s big meal.
Easy Stuffing with Chopped Clams and Water Chestnuts
Start making stuffing about an hour and a half before the turkey will be done, using packaged bread crumbs. The Pepperidge Farms “herb seasoned” ones are the go-to in our house; I don’t know what Gramma Niemeyer would have said about this shortcut. You should follow the general order of the package instructions, but the following add-ins will really jazz it up!
First, double the butter to make it extra yummy! You can sauté the recommended amounts of onions and celery in the butter as you melt it, then stir it into the crumbs in a medium mixing bowl.
Then reserve the liquid from two 6.5-oz. cans of chopped clams. In place of the amount of chicken broth called for on the package, use the clam juice combined with some of the liquid the turkey neck and giblets have been simmering in.
Stir the diced chopped clams into the stuffing, along with two 5-oz. cans of drained water chestnuts, sliced to the size you prefer. Add salt & pepper to taste.
Transfer the mixture to a flat baking dish (don’t pack it down) and put it in the oven beside the turkey during its last hour. Partway through the hour you may wish to cover the stuffing with aluminum foil to make it super moist, like a steamed dumpling, but some folks like the top to get toasty. (Maybe you should split the stuffing between two baking dishes and try it each way.)
After the turkey comes out of the oven, we make gravy for the stuffing from the turkey pan drippings while the bird “rests” for a half hour before carving. The transformation of drippings to gravy occurs in a saucepan in about one minute, heated gently with a spoonful of a thickening agent like flour, cornstarch, or arrowroot powder gradually stirred in.
It’s best to serve the gravy in its own bowl or “gravy boat” at the table, so feasters can take the amount they like, and the stuffing doesn’t have time to get too soggy under the gravy.
Enjoy the whole day. Don’t stress out about food prep. Make it a whole family activity and get even the little kids involved, so they have memories to treasure! Let the day center on enjoying the company of the people who will be gathering in your kitchen and around your table, giving thanks, sharing stories, and remembering those who can’t be there!