Creating new Thanksgiving rituals: Memory-making and the power of letting go
Most people think the job of a food writer is to taste and critique. But for me, the job is more about listening, talking and sharing ideas.
That's how a simple interview about Thanksgiving brunch recently unspooled into a more than hourlong talk, meandering through thoughts on vaccines, family traditions and how the holiday can be fraught for perfectionists.
The conversation was with Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins, who's part restaurant entrepreneur, part philosopher. Our talks always run long, and I have no desire to cut them short even when my deadlines say I should. Eventually, we run out of steam and say goodbye until next time.
Anyway, Linton creates Thanksgiving dinner like a chef would, with an eye toward repurposing the leftovers. He flavors the dressing — or stuffing, depending on where you live — keeping in mind how it will taste in a cheesy, savory breakfast strata.
It's a comforting dish to serve the morning after the main event, even if Linton spends his brunch eating over the stove while everyone else sits down at the table. If you've ever cooked for a living, you'll recognize the impulse.
Regardless of whether he sits or stands, Thanksgiving brunch is a ritual in Linton's family, he said. "Creating those rituals and hanging onto them is so important. You're getting into memory-making, and that's powerful."
But Linton, as he does, had me thinking. Does memory-making have to revolve around the ritual? That's a good question for those who can't make it home this year or who've lost a family member.
Is the ritual of a certain dish necessary to anchor us to the familiar, particularly at a time when the world is such a tumultuous place?
The power of letting go
The idea of holding onto family heirloom recipes is romantic. But, as a person whose most commonly uttered kitchen advice is "stop touching it," I also believe in the power of letting go.
We're fairly accomplished cooks in my family, most of us with deep wells of confidence that can get us into and out of some real kitchen predicaments. If we're sick of turkey, we'll try tackling a goose — not literally. Or maybe we'll serve a platter of grilled sausages and a rack of lamb with some oysters to boot. We can handle that, right?
But there's a certain family recipe that none of us could master.
My maternal grandmother Gladys Coverstone used to make buttercream candies, inexplicably called Jets.
No matter how hard we tried to recreate her recipe after her death, nothing could replace her Jets. Truth be told, I think my mother was a little intimidated by the half-block of paraffin wax required to pull it off.
Our Jets were no substitute for the real thing, so we eventually let go.
But letting go created space for more memories. Now we eat pumpkin trifle and pies and laugh about the boxes of Christmas cookies that disappear like magic at the hands of my ravenous teenage nephews.
Sometimes we even let go of the turkey tradition, which other families might choose to do this year considering the rising cost of poultry.
A very rogue Thanksgiving
For Thanksgivings past, we've had chicken, duck and I think a couple of Cornish game hens. At least 15 years ago, we decided to go completely rogue, skipping any kind of poultry that year. My dad planned to grill a rack of lamb and a bunch of sausages, but first we'd have to shuck the oysters. We went all out that year.
I don't remember if the mashed potatoes were lumpy, or if we had any at all. I do remember my dad and I, competitive to the bone, racing to see who could shuck the most oysters the fastest. It's a wonder there were no emergency room visits.
We were quick, but my beloved grandfather Clarence Leon Lunsford, who's also no longer with us, was quicker. He ate those oysters faster than we could work, and then tapped his fingers, laughing and calling for more. I'm not sure any made it to the table.
I wonder what would have happened to those memories if we had told him to wait for dinner. The laughter was more important than the schedule.
Clarence left us in 2011. About a month ago, Clarence's wife of 70 years and my last remaining grandparent, Mary Ann Lunsford, died at 98 years old.
This fall, my family has had to settle estates and empty hospice rooms and say goodbye to friends who are family before a long-distance move. Letting go might just be the theme of the year. Fortunately, we are well-versed in that.
Most years, we circulate Thanksgiving menus a month in advance. This year, no one knows what we'll eat. But we'll be fed, and it will be fine.
When he's standing over the stove eating straight from the skillet, Linton isn't hiding from his family. He's enjoying a moment that every chef who cooks without recipes understands.
At Holeman & Finch, one of Linton's restaurants, he tells his cooks they should strive in each plate to recreate the satisfaction of eating a dish you completely nailed straight out of the pan.
Of course, any dish could also turn out to be mediocre, especially if you're cooking off the cuff.
I'd argue that, if it does, brunch would not be ruined. You could put on another pot of coffee, slap together some biscuits and leftover ham, slather on some cranberry sauce and heat up some gravy.
It would be fine, and memories would be made. That's the power of letting go.
Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and a correspondent for The American South.
Reach me: email@example.com