One of my great pleasures is perusing old cookbooks to see how people ate and entertained in other eras. Illustrations showing how to cut paper anklet frills to adorn the shins of roast fowl; the development and rise of Pyrex in the church casserole, covered-dish years of American dominion, the origins of “country captain,” a chicken-and-currant curry from down South — all of this is delightful to me. I have never been able to come up with a physical or geographical “Happy Place” when urged to visualize myself in mine by a yoga or meditation teacher; but between the pages of “The American Heritage Cookbook” (1964) — on the daybed, on a quiet afternoon when no neighbor’s yard man has cranked up a leaf blower and I have an iced tea on a coaster by my elbow — “The American Heritage Cookbook” is my Happy Place.
And those little booklets of recipes published 100 years ago by King Arthur Flour or Kraft. I just love those. The things they used to do with Jell-O, frankfurters, and mayonnaise! Toothpicks these days don’t get no respect, but in 1955, a party wasn’t a party without a centerpiece of cheese or sausage bites stuck on toothpicks, fashioned to look like a 3-D pineapple or a pig. The recipes can be pretty comical, of course, but my main purpose in reading them isn’t the chuckles. It’s the time-travel element.
I have a favorite history-of-Christmas cookbook that explains how mincemeat pies — today a little dessert made of chopped fruit and nuts and, by the way, scrumptious, if you haven’t tried them — began in medieval times as beef minced with lard and preserved with expensive, show-offy spices from the Orient. I have many, many early-20th-century cookbooks that illuminate how “cocktails” came into fashion in the 20th century, when the word could refer to any sort of festive, single-serving first-course mixture, from a beverage of clam broth and tomato juice to shrimp suspended in a fluted dome of aspic.
Remember aspic? Actually, I don’t remember aspic, myself. I’m too young. But I do like to think about it.
November and December are peak old-recipe months. Thanksgiving isn’t what it used to be. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, we hosted raucous mass gatherings — 30 or 40 people packed into our not-so-large house, Frank Sinatra, barely out of his teens himself, singing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” on the stereo, and, after the big meal, general chaos. The grown-ups would sing around the piano, crowding cross-legged on the floor and bending the back of the couch to beat on pots with spoons, keeping time. There would be loud arguments about physics or the Palestine Liberation Organization. No one has parties like that anymore. Alger Hiss came to one of these Thanksgivings. I have no idea why. Why was Alger Hiss in my living room, eating baked ham off a lap plate?
I learned how to use my grandmother’s hand-crank meat grinder, which screwed like a vise to the wood laundry shelf by the back door, to make cranberry sauce with orange peel and candied ginger when I was very little, around 8; I still do this, and have never used a recipe, but just learned how by old-fashioned osmosis. I boil the ground ingredients a bit, not enough to make a jam but enough to take the edge of bitterness off, and it turns out a clear, jewel color more beautiful than rubies. I started baking pies for Thanksgiving by the time I was 12, and wrested control over most of the actual holiday cooking by 16 — a sort of Thanksgiving coup d’état, in which, by strong-arming the rest of the family, I got to finalize the menu myself, because I was willing to do the work myself.
I’m an over-doer. Parsimony, in my eyes, is the deadly sin. And so the menu for these feasts was excessive, with four or five different types of dessert and a spread of appetizers that covered the entire marble slab of our six-foot-long kitchen table. Our menu, 30 years ago, would invariably include: oysters Rattray, roasted in the broiler under a lump of secret-recipe sorrel and Pernod sauce (the most delicious single dish on earth, in my opinion, but you need the briniest, best, big oysters, which are Shinnecock oysters, again, in my opinion, but in this I am correct); roast turkey, of course, plus also a Hatfield ham special-ordered from the Bridgehampton I.G.A. and baked with a molasses glaze involving dry mustard and oranges (for which I never wrote down a recipe, either, but could tell you how to do it); and my great-grandmother Florence Huntting Edwards’s chocolate sundae pie (a boiled-vanilla-custard pie topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings about which I could write an entire book). I baked biscuits to go with the ham, and, because too much is never enough, I always made two types of deviled eggs — one with horseradish, the other with sweet gherkins. We always had smoked bluefish on the appetizer buffet, too, and of course cheese, sometimes a two-pound half-wheel of Stilton.
The menu has changed not much, but a little, since I had kids of my own. I don’t bake a Hatfield ham any longer, because I have the dread alpha-gal meat allergy. And even I, excessive as I am in my over-providing, wouldn’t want to eat deviled eggs before the hefty main plate anymore. Around 20 years ago I started making an annual habit of harvesting cranberries on Napeague for the cranberry sauce, and I like to make extra to save and eat in darkest winter with goose or baked chicken. Did you know that cranberries have natural preservative powers? One of my oldest Ladies Village Improvement Society cookbooks has a Huntting relative’s recipe for cranberry sauce that would keep in a crock in the pantry for an entire year.
Life is scattered at the moment. Family ties, friendships, the old classmates and more-distant cousins who used to drive in from New Jersey and who we marked time with, another year gone by, another Thanksgiving, another last rose in the garden, another first frost. . . . Am I the only one who feels as if the center did not hold? We used to have so much time to be in other people’s kitchens, eating other people’s appetizer spreads. What became of all that time?
My Thanksgiving rituals and traditions got thrown off when I lived in Canada. The Rattrays of Edwards Lane were no longer penciled in automatically as a Thanksgiving option, and our guest list thinned and thinned, dwindling down to nothing. In Canada, they eat their turkey and mashed potatoes on the second Monday in October, but they aren’t especially particular about the date; it’s less of a big deal: If you can’t “do Thanksgiving” on the holiday itself, you do “do Thanksgiving” on another day that’s handy-by. (Some Canadians, citing a meal of thankgiving shared by the explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew near Baffin Island in 1578, say that this most American of holidays is actually Canadian, I kid you not!) Since I moved home with my kids from Nova Scotia seven years ago, we’ve been a bit disoriented. Once, not knowing who to eat with, we booked a stay in a hotel on Sixth Avenue, watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from the window of our room, and ate Thanksgiving dinner in, of all places, Sardi’s. Another year, we went to the Grafton Inn in Vermont and sledded, alone, down a hill behind the general store before supper. All of that was wacky fun, but a bit lonely.
This Thanksgiving, we are doing something new: Seven Rattrays, old and young, have registered for the three-mile run/walk Turkey Trot morning in Montauk. I’ll be walking. I’ve ordered the customary bird from Mecox Dairy, and have found a source for sorrel for the oyster sauce (sorrel being an annual problem), and even made stuffing cubes already from homemade sourdough bread, which The New York Times recommends cubing ahead and keeping in the freezer. I have no idea who will show up, if anyone, or if my kids and I will have to fight our way through my stovetop excesses alone. Alger Hiss died in 1996.