Reinventing Thanksgiving: Traditional Foods, Fresh Recipes

By Regina Charboneau
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Regina Charboneau


Editor's note: This is the first weekly installment in a three-part series about reinventing traditional Thanksgiving foods. This week, you can try recipes for acorn squash and pecan popovers, grilled corn and squash quesadillas, and roasted Delicata squash with quinoa salad.

Writing about food on a weekly schedule has its challenges, but writing about food that is under the umbrella of "traditional" is a genuine challenge. I know this just from preparing Thanksgiving here for three generations. Each generation has a defined food memory of what they consider tradition and from my personal experience there are huge disconnects among "The greatest generation" of World War II; Baby Boomers born in the late '40s and into Generation Joneses born in the mid to late '50s (we are now experiencing culinary middle-age); Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976) who have been experimenting in the kitchen with global ingredients for awhile; and Generation Y, born in the '80s, now top chefs who have had the entire world at their fingertips since birth, because they have never not known the Internet. Among these generations a traditional disconnect is not just about what they want for dinner, but what they think is tradition.

When I moved home to Natchez and Doug and I purchased Twin Oaks, the timing was perfect because it was time for my generation to take over the family holidays. My mother's generation had taken over holidays after World War II and had done a fine job, but the trends in the '50s and '60s were not like before the war and they introduced their share of Jell-O molds. I remember every shade and addition from mandarin oranges and marshmallow to bing cherries and pecans and vowed to never have one grace my table.

Food trends are forever changing, but there are some foods that seem to remain the same ... especially at holiday time.

Thanksgiving food was plentiful, but I always found it a bit bland in Natchez. Having a father with deep Louisiana roots, I was accustomed to smoked, spiced meats, savory crawfish and shrimp stews, gumbos and spicy fricassees, so the typical cornbread dressing and overly sweet yams never were my favorites. When I had the chance to bring cranberry chutney, cornbread dressing with crawfish and Andouille, and smoked peppered brisket to the table, I welcomed the responsibility of Thanksgiving at Twin Oaks.

My mother was not always thrilled with new additions, as she had set ideas of what should be at the table, and never stopped defending Jell-O molds. My generation loved food and there was broad acceptance of change, but then my college-age nephews and nieces expect change, since they have always been connected to food globally through the Food Network and the Internet. Each generation sees food differently; they see it through their eyes and their history.

I have decided to do a three-week series on reinventing a few seasonal favorite Thanksgiving foods. Hopefully the generations are connected enough through family traditions that I can please them all. I will cover squash this week, cranberries next week, and turkey and dressing the last week. I have been working on some fresh ideas of my own for these holiday standards and have spent some time peeking into a few of the new books out for the holidays. Now that we live in a global world, foods can come from anywhere and can be shipped UPS or Fed-Ex. If I want chestnuts from New York at my Mississippi holiday table, I can get on the Internet and order them or I may even find them at the Natchez Walmart. Asian ingredients are finding their way into the most traditional of kitchens. Sun-dried tomatoes and basil are as common in today's kitchen as peanut butter and jelly. My son leaves requests for hummus on the chalkboard in our kitchen, and pita chips have replaced Fritos in our kitchen snack drawer. This is not just because we are eating healthy; it is we are eating globally.

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Holly A. Heyser

Several months ago I wrote "Revising the Classics, a Culinary Sin?". It was not judgmental but more analytical about the liberties we take today with re-naming the classics or using classic names for dishes that are just shadows of the originals. I now know that I have reached culinary middle age, since there are new books coming out that are reinventing what they consider classic and not so long ago I considered those recipes new cuisine. Food trends are forever changing, but there are some foods that seem to remain the same ... especially at holiday time. So each year I try to slip in a few new recipes or a few twists on the standards.

This year I decided to work on jazzing up squash. I can name several types of squash, but of all the choices my two favorites remain acorn and butternut squash. With the acorn squash I like the size, texture, and color for stews and for stuffing, and butternut squash has the best texture and taste for soups or roasting. Of all my ideas that I tinkered with, the one I liked best was my acorn squash and roasted pecan popovers. I will share my recipe with you. In fact, I liked the popovers so much, I am giving you a choice of sweet or savory. It works as a savory side dish or a brunch item with maple syrup. I also like butternut squash stuffed with crabmeat. That has a better chance of showing up on my buffet for Thanksgiving because I have too many guests to do the popovers.

I also decided to look through two new books that recently came across my desk. Both are just out for the holiday season and I thought they might have some new and fresh ideas for some of the classics. In looking through Food & Wine's new book, Reinventing the Classics, I found Roasted Squash with Quinoa Salad. I am glad I landed on that page, as I think it is one of the best recipes in this new book. Then there is Southern Living's 1001 Ways to Cook Southern, another book dedicated to revising the classics, but with over 900 pages I had to go straight to the index and found their Grilled Corn and Squash and I was even more intrigued when at the bottom they recommended making quesadillas with the sweet combination of two of my favorite vegetables. I am going to delve deeper into Southern Living's new book for next week.

I had a wonderful conversation with Dana Cowin from Food & Wine about the premise of their new book. What I especially liked about the book is how there is a strong focus on the flavors of many classics that we crave, but they found ways to improve on speed and ease. One dish that will probably end up as a standard in many households in America is the Flatbread Lasagna. We both agreed that ingredients such as flatbread are now universally available, so you can expand on your creativity with more ingredients. When I complimented her on the recipe I chose for this article, Dana told me that the recipe by chef Michael Symon (of Restaurant Lola in Cleveland) for Roasted Squash with Quinoa Salad came from an article she wrote where she challenged some of her favorite chefs who were known for heartier fare to come up with some lighter, healthier recipes. She said the staff in the test kitchen knew immediately that this was a winner.

Here is my recipe for my Acorn Squash and Roasted Pecan Popovers, the recipe for Roasted squash with Quinoa Salad from the book Reinventing the Classics, and Southern Living's recipe for Grilled Corn and Squash.

Recipe: Regina's Acorn Squash and Roasted Pecan Popovers
Recipe: Grilled Corn-and-Squash Quesadillas
Recipe: Roasted Delicata Squash With Quinoa Salad

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/11/reinventing-thanksgiving-traditional-foods-fresh-recipes/66147/