Never Be Ashamed of Your Family's Casserole
The holidays will be different this year. Our series, "The One Dish," collects stories about what we're doing for Thanksgiving that will make us feel right at home.
I've never thought of my husband as giving much of a crap about what people think of him, but I could tell he was nervous about bringing his mom's squash casserole to Thanksgiving. It broke my heart. We'd been together for 10 years by then, and early on, I'd drafted him over to my holiday encampment of friends with whom I'd been celebrating since the late '90s. Even after our primary host passed away at the age of 77 in 2008, our crew maintained that dinner as a sacred thing, replicating her dishes as best we could and establishing our own traditions. There was always room for newcomers; that was the point. And if they happened to come bearing a dish we'd never seen before, even better. Every tradition starts with a first time, and Douglas' family's Eastern Carolina squash casserole easily communed with the collard greens, marshmallow-dappled yams, whipped rutabagas, sweet potato pie, and banana pudding on the table. I'd grown up with none of this, and now can't imagine Thanksgiving without it.
One year our friends who'd taken on hosting duties for a few years after her passing broke the news that they were moving across the country. We gathered around their table one last teary time, and then around October of the next year, Douglas and I admitted to ourselves that for the first time ever, we were without plans for Thanksgiving and had some decisions to make. Do we don the hosting mantle? Stressful, because we were already on the hook for a massive annual Kentucky Derby party and New Year's Eve extravaganza. Do we travel to see relatives? See: stress—plus we were already locked in for a Christmas visit. To me, Thanksgiving is an essentially New York holiday spent with members of my chosen family and on that I could not compromise. So we accepted an invitation to eat with a couple of friends who were taking in strays. All good except for one thing: the host (an old friend) is a well-known restaurant critic, and also in attendance would be an ex of mine who, god love him, is a big ol' snob about plenty of things and certainly about food he thinks is lowbrow.
We learn, we grow, we have holidays with our exes who we genuinely still like, but some truths are immutable. The squash casserole hit the table and he regarded it with a gimlet eye. "Is that really...a potato chip crust?" Without needing to look, I put my hand on Douglas' thigh, suddenly tense, and I squeezed. "Damn right it is," I said. "He called his mom to get the recipe and she laughed and said there isn't one—you just make it." She'd walked him through, step by step as he took notes. Yes, you have to cook down the onions and the crookneck squash until it's mush, and you almost burn it. Yes, a sharper cheddar is fine if you like that, but just make sure it melts right. No fancy potato chips, it has to to be plain old Lays. One of the blessings of aging is the increased ability to slough off other people's opinions of your tastes or take them on as an indictment of your worth as a person like you might when you're younger. I like what I like and I love who I love and I'm gonna stand up for it. If after you've given it a fair shot it's not to your liking, so be it—more for me.
The dish started around the table with the restaurant critic, who I've dined with many times. He checks his profession at the door when friends are cooking, but still, I get a kick from studying his reactions, and he was nodding a silent, blissed-out yes at the first bite. I don't need someone's imprimatur to enjoy something, but this felt good, and I could tell that Douglas noticed, too. He did once again as the dish reached the ex and pretty much parked there after a hesitant first bite—and another and another. I suspect he may have needed that nod, too.