It’s a dish that our late grandmother had perfected and made often, and each mouthful of celery, green onion and diced eggs with notes of relish is a nod to our childhood.
The potato salad is a required presence. I can say with utmost confidence that if there was no potato salad on the table, people would start asking questions.
“Was there an awful potato accident? An onion shortage?? Don’t tell me you ran out of bowls.”
It’s pretty serious. It’s always the first of the leftovers to be polished off.
Growing up, I never thought potato salad was an odd dish to serve at Thanksgiving. But I now realize that it’s not exactly a common staple like cranberry sauce or stuffing.
Children don’t find the words “potato salad” to circle in Thanksgiving word searches like “pilgrim” and “cornucopia,” for example.
And TV commercials that show a supposed standard American Thanksgiving spread don’t include a mountain of cold potatoes on the table. Hmm. Odd.
(They don’t include gumbo, either. WTF is Campbell Soup’s problem???)
Over the years, we’ve added a dish here and there (Whole Foods “field harvest” rice with cranberries? Yes please!), Banana Pudding (another nod to our grandmother…and mmmmm)…but pretty much, our dishes are locked in.
This poses a problem for guests who come to dinner, because while their (outside) food contributions are certainly appreciated, please don’t get offended when nobody touches your stuffed bell peppers.
It’s not you. We’re just too close-knit to embrace change so recklessly.
This year, however, THIS year, we shook it up. We added a whole new dish to Thanksgiving.
From inside our very own ranks!! It bumped out the sweet potatoes!!!!
It was all my twin sister Joy’s idea, and any food request from the family vegetarian who
eat the turkey gets Priority One in our house.
Joy decided that we should make baked mac and cheese.
“Mac and Cheese?” we said, frowning, ignoring completely that Mac and Cheese falls under the top 50 classic American Thanksgiving dinner sides.
Joy didn’t help her case when she said the recipe calls for Ritz cracker crumbs on top.
“Who wants to eat crackers for Thanksgiving???” we said. “Pigeons in the park eat crackers!!”
“No, it’s DELICIOUS,” Joy insisted, after having just eaten some at a “friendsgiving” Thanksgiving potluck the week before.
Since Joy was flying to New Orleans for the holiday, and I live here, I was instructed to not only buy the ingredients but make the mac and cheese dish.
It took me forever.
You may remember, I’m a terrible cook.
But even after I made the noodles and cheese look passable, Joy’s vegetarian dreams were ruined once I put the dish in the oven, on a rack above the t-u-r-k-e-y (circle it, kids).
"The MAC AND CHEESE IS GOING TO SMELL LIKE MEAT!” Joy yelled.
(She was busy chopping the ingredients for the potato salad.)
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” I asked. “There’s no place else to put it.”
It was Thanksgiving morning.
“The turkey will only take 25 more minutes,” my mom said.
But, lunch was happening in 40 minutes and there was no time to wait.
“GREAT,” Joy said dramatically, then asked if we could put aluminum foil over it like a hat to keep out the “bird smell.”
Once all the food was cooked and the table was all set, the Mac and Cheese looked like any other new person at a table of regulars.
It stood out like a sore thumb.
We all stared at it. The thick orangey rectangle, without its own flowery serving platter.
“What kind of utensil do we use for it?” my mom asked.
We each took a little square, nibbling at it, skeptical of its merits at the table.
“Give me just a little slice…no, that’s too big,” my dad said passing his plate to me. He got one square inch.
“Interesting.” He said after tasting it.
It wasn’t bad, the Mac and Cheese (pats chef on own back). But we probably won’t make it again. We're too ingrained in our traditions and it reminded no one of childhood.
Nostalgia is important in our family, with all of us spread across the country, busy with our own lives.
It’s comforting to know that we'll have a familiar meal for the holidays, the same dishes we ate when we were 15 years old, 25 years old and will still eat when we’re 90.
It’s something you can count on.
That, and the fact that the potato salad will never, ever smell like meat.