Thanksgiving always has been about more than turkey or pilgrims. It's about family, friends and the love that permeates the burnt orange rim of the sweet potatoes, the cranberry-splashed relishes and glistening pies. So when we asked readers to share their favorite Thanksgiving side dishes, we knew we'd get more than teaspoons and quarter-cup measures. We'd get stories too.
Those aren't just any peas, after all, they're the glossy green legumes the Lapum family has tossed with butter and salted nuts for half a century — ever since Ina Rae Lapum was a young teacher at Hayward High. Lapum and her husband are celebrating their 53rd anniversary today, and preparing for a Brentwood-style Thanksgiving feast that, of course, includes Peas and Peanuts. Their now-grown sons wouldn't have it any other way.
And family is what it's all about — well, that and culinary creativity.
"Thanksgiving is the Holy Grail of holidays for my three sisters and me," says San Ramon resident Lorraine Kalajakis. "Every year we look forward to putting on great music (and) strapping on our matching aprons. But what really gives us the most joy and fuels our sister cook-a-palooza is melding our beloved traditional dishes with new recipes that may or may not become a new tradition. We always strive to add new or improved recipes to the mix, ensuring that each Thanksgiving feast has a special something-something."
Some traditions you don't mess with — Kalajakis' mother's Buttermilk Pie, for example, and her cornbread stuffing with sausage. But the family added pomegranate and persimmon salsas 19 years ago, and they've been tweaking the recipes ever since, adding a dash of lime here, a sprinkling of cilantro there, and enough jalapeño for kick.
For others, the tradition doesn't just involve the recipe. It involves utensils. For the Fraze family of Danville, pumpkin pie has always been made in "The Pan" — a deep, Mirro brand aluminum pan with a lip wide enough to accommodate the family's flaky, tender, no-roll pie crust.
"My mom received the pie pan as a wedding gift in the 1940s," says Nancy Fraze. "It was always washed by hand and carefully dried to protect the surface. However, with repeated use, the bottom's surface became a blurred patina of knife cuts from many years' celebrations. It was an important rite of passage when she passed 'The Pan" to me about 10 years ago."
Others savor the stories and people behind the recipes. Sweet potatoes with praline topping were responsible for Nellie Beatty's friend's engagement.
"She was dating her future husband (and) invited him over for dinner," says the Antioch mother of six. "This dish helped him decide to propose to her!"
St. Mary's College staffer Jeanne Abate makes Cranberry Festival Salad, a molded gelatin side dish with merry hues that evoke every fall and winter holiday, using the original recipe her 91-year-old mother clipped from a newspaper as a newlywed.
Clayton resident Elaine Evans has such fond recollections of her mother's savory, wild rice and oyster side dish, that these days she can't resist tossing togther chopped parsley, sauteed onions, celery and mushrooms, and smoked oysters from Trader Joe's whenever she makes wild rice for her Thanksgiving table.
It's simply not Thanksgiving for the Anderson family if there isn't an exceptionally large casserole of their creamy, cheesy Spinach Bake — Mary Anderson's mother's recipe from the 1960s — on the table.
"I did once make something else in an effort to try something new," the San Bruno resident says, "only to have everyone ask me what happened to the spinach! Both my boys could eat half of it by themselves."
Some families end up loving their side dishes so much, they bring them out for other occasions too. Marian Briones' Maple Ginger Yams, for example, are sublime with barbecued chicken and ribs. Last weekend, the Fremont resident brought them to her annual tailgate party at Candlestick Park to accompany the turkey she deep fried on the spot.
"From Harley Chick," she says with a laugh, "to Martha Stewart."
Still others will dip into those beloved side dishes next Thursday, and conjure up memories of faraway friends.
"My husband and I, both California natives and longtime Bay Area residents, were exiled to Omaha, Nebraska," says Jo Moran. "Far from home and with no family, we were 'adopted' by our wonderful neighbors, Tim and Cheryl, and Cheryl's parents, Nate and Joan. We shared every holiday with them for 10 years, from fireworks and barbecues on the Fourth of July to fondue by a crackling fire on a snowy Christmas Eve."
And every Thanksgiving turkey was accompanied by Joan's Baked Apricots.
"So sweet," says Jo, "it could be dessert, but delicious alongside turkey and dressing. Now back in California after retiring, we approach Thanksgiving with a certain amount of sadness. We will miss our 'Omaha family,' but will be with them in spirit as we savor the apricots and the memories they bring."
Contact Jackie Burrell at email@example.com.