Entertaining for the Holidays Old Virginia Style, Part 1

This is the first in a series of kitchen tested recipes, menus, decorating tips and ideas for a beautiful holiday season with a southern flair.

Thanksgiving and the approaching holidays bring back unique and poignant memories for our family. On more than one occasion my father, an intelligence officer in the United States Army, would receive orders for his next assignment just about the time we had settled in “back home” and had started school. We would soon be travelers again and Thanksgiving would be the last time, for some years, that we would all be together in my grandparents’ home.

Home was in the county seat of Caroline, the Town of Bowling Green, a place at that time of 500 people where everyone knew everyone else. Interest in the business of others wasn’t just a passing fancy in post World War II Bowling Green; it was the occupation of this small southern town. Those same nosy neighbors, however, were the ones who brought meals when you were sick, and cut your grass or shoveled snow if you lost a loved one. It was a double edged sword and still is today.

Those of us in the early 1960s who had televisions could count on three stations, NBC, ABC, and CBS, and Walter Cronkite reigned supreme on the nightly news. It’s a given that each generation as it ages seems to look back and think the times were simpler, but it’s not just a sense of nostalgia that makes me view our county then as still young and innocent. Those were the days before the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and the terrible days of the Vietnam War. I feel as though America grew up right along with me.

I started school in those years, looking much like my mother did in the 1940s, in plaid dresses and the obligatory new, little girl’s white sweater that was buttoned on in the frosty mornings. Yes, the winters were colder and earlier in Virginia in those days. More than likely, I had already window-shopped with Christmas in mind on the one Main Street of our town where the Western Auto held the toys of my dreams.

On the days leading up to Thanksgiving, my grandfather would be long gone in the mornings, duck hunting on both the Rappahannock and the Potomac Rivers with his Chesapeakes. My grandfather was a self-made man who quit school in the fourth grade and grew up on a farm in what is now the impact area of Fort A.P. Hill. He once told me in a rare moment of self reflection the reason he ended his school career. He and his two older brothers had one pair of shoes between them, and he was embarrassed by his inability to keep up attending school only every third day.

He was a man of few words and did not believe in accepting credit. He paid cash for everything he owned for his entire life. By the time I knew him, he was the manager of a large excelsior mill and later was the Town of Bowling Green’s first Utilities Director. A brilliant person, he never met a math problem he didn’t like, and the lack of an engineering degree did not stand in the way of his design and layout of the town’s water and sewer system. The same system is still in operation today in much of our town.

He was also a talented woodsmith who could build furniture and who loved fine craftsmanship of all kinds. The house that we all longed to come home to in Bowling Green had been painstakingly build by his hand, with bricks that he managed to acquire from an old plantation house in Essex County. He played both the guitar and mandolin, and had a soft and melodic country music voice.

My grandfather, Fitzhugh Thornton (on the right), in the early 1960s after goose hunting on the Potomac with his Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Fudge.

In the late afternoon, my grandfather’s step-side Chevy pickup would arrive down the back driveway and two great, curly-coated brown dogs with green eyes would roll out into the basement. They were a male and female, the first two Chesapeake Bay Retrievers ever seen in Caroline, and had been purchased by my grandfather in New York. Fudge, the female who always rode in the truck seat with my grandfather, had produced a litter of puppies which had been highly prized. She was a live wire, while the male was of a quieter nature. Both tolerated my attentions as a child, but those wild green eyes were only for my grandfather, and they were amazing hunters.

With the dogs in the basement in front of the fire, my grandfather would haul off his water gear and come up the stairs in his heavily quilted tan long underwear, and put on his black and red check shirt, and a pair of old corduroy pants. He would wait in his living room chair for dinner time listening to a radio station that played country music and reading the paper. He would have easily been the subject of a Cabela’s advertisement today. My grandfather was L.L. Bean before it was cool.

On the main floor of the house, preparations for our family Thanksgiving would have been well underway for a week. My grandmother was the CEO of our family, and so all duties large or small were filtered through her. Her hardwood floors would be cleaned and buffed, and the beautiful wool winter rugs that had taken my grandparents three years to save the money to buy were laid down. My grandfather had finished his house off with fine brass doorknobs, locks, and lights, as well as brass fireplace accoutrements. These would be polished until they shown like a mirror. The piano, where he and my mother sang and played hymns and Christmas carols at night, might have already received the special attention of a piano tuner.

My grandmother was never happier than when planning our family celebrations even though we all knew they would soon be putting us on a train or plane for our next destination. My assignment, even at a very young age, was to choose and lay out the table setting. This was a huge operation in my child’s mind and a task carried out after numerous consultations with “Grandmother.” Would we use a freshly ironed tablecloth on her prized walnut dining room table, or linen placemats? The china choices resided in her walnut corner cabinets, and we could use her china, or those pieces which had been given to my mother as wedding gifts. Sometimes we used magnolia leaves on the mantelpiece, and for the table centerpiece as well. My grandmother did not own dozens of prized serving pieces, but the few she had were lovely.

A huge Johnson Brothers turkey platter called “His Majesty” hung all year long on the dining room wall and is still one of my prized possessions. When the turkey was carved, the platter was used this one time of year, and passed down the table with its wonderful slices of moist turkey.


My grandmother’s turkey platter inspired this table setting in 2014 which featured my own turkey plates by Johnson Brothers, mercury glass pumpkins by Pottery Barn, Marquis Crystal stemware by Waterford, Hurricanes by Colonial Williamsburg. The vintage silver candlesticks were a wedding gift to my mother.


When storing fine crystal like Waterford, wash in lukewarm soapy water and thoroughly dry. Check for water spots under a light. Use vinegar on a soft cloth to remove spots which can result from hard water mineral deposits. For stubborn or multiple spots, soak in a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water.

When it came to the dinner itself, Grandmother wasn’t a big believer in things that could be frozen and then cooked on the day of Thanksgiving, so much of the meal was prepared in a two-day period. There was always a favorite dish attached to every member of the family. For two days she would be up at 4:00 a.m. so that our family could be the recipient of a perfectly baked turkey, homemade gravy, mashed and sweet potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, her amazing rolls, pumpkin pie, and my favorite, just for me, tomato aspic. In her kitchen was a small white chair which had a pull-out step stool. It was there where I perched for hours, a willing assistant, handing her ingredients.

Later in life, I came to realize what a toll all the partings had placed on my grandmother, a woman whose greatest wish had been to have her family close. She told me later when I was grown how determined she was to cherish every moment as it happened and to only be sad after we were on our way to our new destination.

“I knew that those days would never come again,” she said. “I knew you would only be six years old, or nine years old, once and I wanted you to look back when you were my age and have all those happy times to cherish.”

Over the years, the sweet memories of these times would hold me in good stead on Thanksgivings in faraway places, and I could close my eyes and bring up the image of my grandmother’s beautiful Thanksgiving table, a table which I still have today, and each person who sat there. On the left, I can see my grandmother sitting nearest the kitchen so she could make sure we had everything we needed, and then the young face of my mother, and next to her my little brother in his high chair. On the right sat my uncle and my handsome young father. Across from me at the head of the table was my grandfather who broke all of his quiet rules when it came to me. How I loved to wait for him to wink at me from his armchair as he carved a perfectly baked turkey.


My home, Red Barn View.

While my grandmother’s house was sold in the 1980s, I am blessed to live in the house my parents built just a few blocks away when my father retired in 1976. The property is part of an old dairy farm which dominated pre-Civil War Bowling Green, and the old pond trail still leads me on the back road to my grandmother’s door. All of the faces that appeared at that table are gone now, except for my brother and I. A new generation has emerged in my niece and nephew who are grown and off on their own amazing adventures. On Thanksgiving, though, I gather up my family and make many of the recipes we enjoyed so long ago.

My grandmother succeeded with the warm legacy she sought to impart, not only with the memories of our family, but with a solid skill set which certainly went out of style when I was a young woman, but is making a comeback in the 21st Century. Cooking and entertaining with a Virginian or southern flair has been the subject of dozens of best selling cookbooks, and what would the world of cuisine be without the huge success of Paula Dean? Martha Stewart’s most popular on-air segments are those that showcase southern cooking.

The Tradition of Gathering
The culture of our regional cuisine is certainly entwined with the very nature of the south. In rural Virginia, many miles of often impassable roads in the winter and spring months separated homesteads. With food cellars stacked high after the harvest, people traveled to visit friends and family and stayed for many months, which is one of the reasons so many early American weddings took place at Christmas.

While the official Thanksgiving proclamation did not happen until Lincoln signed that document in 1863, in the south’s agrarian society it occurred naturally when the year’s work was done. In fact, 74 years before, in 1789, President George Washington issued a request on October 3rd which suggested the new nation observe a Thanksgiving.

Think of the Southern Holiday Season as a long sojourn beginning in October when the field work was done, and lasting until Twelth Night in January. Gathering at long tables and gleaming sideboards piled high with homemade breads, game, smoked meats, and vegetables prepared in every delicious fashion is a southern tradition.

 

The Hostess Rules for the 21st Century

Rule Number 1
Remember, it’s Thanksgiving. An eight course meal is okay one day of the year. Save the tofu for another time. Everyone knows the first rule of “Virginia Hospitality” is abundance.

Rule Number 2
A Virginia hostess is a cool, calm, organized hostess. Entertaining with style and grace is an art which does not have to be set aside, whether the party is family or friends. My grandmother and mother threw a mean Thanksgiving feast, but could also pull off a cocktail party for Christmas, or game dinner for the New Year as well. While I employ many modern tools, like the freezer, crock pot, and food processor, the key to success is planning, planning, and more planning.

I don’t really cook anything but the turkey on Thanksgiving Day. The turkey is fried by Jeff because about a decade ago I discovered that no bird cooked in the oven is as tender and moist as a deep fried turkey. No, it does not taste fried, but more about that later. All of my other dishes are run in the oven on Thanksgiving Day and cooked on low heat.

My planning begins in October and I keep a notebook from year to year on what works. There is nothing sadder than trying a new dish that looked incredible in the magazine and ends up inedible. Or how about a hostess who is so fatigued that she is too tired to catch up with “Aunt Hattie,” who has traveled 150 miles to visit. Many jokes are made about the incompatibility of family members on Thanksgiving, and the news reports it is the most stressful day of the year, but the choice is yours to make it a sweet and memorable time.

Rule Number 3
Make two to three dishes from scratch. To satisfy family Thanksgiving dinners, church picnics, tailgating, and countless other events, the caterer and “meals to go” from the local supermarket are just a phone call away. As good and convenient as these may be, I think we lose something along the way, especially in the south where home cooked meals are an intricate part of our heritage.

This year, I chose five main dishes from scratch to prepare and ordered my desserts from a local small business. Here, however, is where rule number two comes into play again: Keep a note book with recipes and variations which work for you, including ideas and tips which do well in your home on presentation and décor. Add to your notebook as you try new things. A beautifully set table, home cooked food, and lively conversation is truly special, and offers warmth to family and friends in an age which moves very fast.

A Red Barn View Thanksgiving 2017
While we don’t have time each and every Thanksgiving season to make our own pumpkin filling, this year due to an October event at our home we had a dozen leftover pumpkins purchased for decoration. Since pumpkin pie is Jeff’s all time favorite, we decided to put up our pumpkins in the freezer for future use in casseroles, soups, and pies. It’s easy to do and will result in the true pumpkin taste lacking in the canned pumpkin from the grocery store. If you check the label, many brands are, for the most part, squash.

Some people cook pumpkin in the microwave, but if you will take a bit of extra time and cook it in the oven at 375 degrees until fork tender, the skin will peel right off and be completely ready to drop in a food processor or mixing bowl. Puree your cooked pumpkin how you like it for recipes, finely pureed or more coarse. This year we found that the large blue pumpkins have an unusually sweet taste and I will be using those in a casserole instead of sweet potatoes in the recipe listed below.

Here are this year’s updated versions of our family’s traditional favorites: Sweet Potato Casserole with Bourbon and Vanilla, Homemade Cranberry Sauce, Sage Sausage, Chestnut and Mushroom Stuffing in the Crockpot, Twice Baked Potatoes, and Holiday Green Pea Salad. All recipes feed between 8 and 10 people.

Both potato recipes can be made and frozen ahead for several weeks, or refrigerated three days ahead. I use “The Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond’s Twice Baked Potato recipe as it is identical to one my mother adopted every year after we moved to the new house. It is exactly the same, although I leave out the bacon bits as I think it overpowers the yummy buttery taste of the potatoes. The cranberry sauce and stuffing can be made up to three days in advance. I make the green pea salad the night before and toss the bacon bits in before serving.

I traditionally cook with several varieties of alcohol which enhance the flavors of various dishes. Bourbon adds a woody flavor, and the various liqueurs such as the Amaretto used in the cranberry salad deepen the flavors.

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Bourbon and Vanilla
Tip: This can be reheated uncovered in a 350°F oven until heated through, about 35 minutes.

For the streusel topping:
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 14 pieces
1 1/2 cups pecan halves, finely chopped (about 6 ounces)

Providing your sweet potatoes are already cooked and mashed, make your topping first as assembling this casserole is really quick. For the topping, whisk the sugar, flour, and salt in a medium bowl until combined. Add the butter and, using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut it into the flour mixture until the butter is in pea-size pieces or smaller, about 5 minutes. Add the pecans and toss with your fingers to combine. Squeeze clumps of the mixture between your fingers to form irregularly shaped pieces about the size of small bean beans. Cover and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.

6 cups mashed sweet potatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Kosher salt, to taste
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons bourbon
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for coating the dish
3 teaspoons finely grated orange zest (from 1 medium orange)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup whole milk

  • Preheat oven to 350°F and set out a 8×8 casserole dish.
  • Place the bourbon, brown sugar measured butter, orange zest, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter has melted and the mixture has started to bubble, about 5 minutes; set aside.
  • Add the bourbon mixture and the milk and stir until evenly combined. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish.
  • Evenly sprinkle the streusel topping over the sweet potatoes. Bake until the streusel is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Place the dish on a wire rack and let it sit 10 minutes before serving.

 

Serve your cranberry salad in a pretty glass bowl. This crystal dish hails from the 1940s. The soon to be Green Pea Salad will be served in a Wilton Armatele casserole container which can do double duty in both the oven and out on your table, as it is designed to both cook and prettily serve.

Cranberry Salad/Sauce
(Sili variation from Southern Living)

This little gem has it all. It’s both tart and sweet, and the celery and toasted walnuts add texture and crunch. It’s also spiked so it’s an updated twist on a very old tradition. Even if you are serving ham, no Thanksgiving is complete without a cranberry dish. I use Amaretto, but you can use any orange-flavored liqueur. The tart taste comes from the orange zest and clementine segments. This recipe works just fine with frozen cranberries and store bought orange juice. The brown sugar amount is a suggestion. This is a recipe that must be sweetened according to taste.

10-12 cups fresh cranberries (about 2 of the bags you normally find at the grocery store)
2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 cups fresh orange juice (from 8 oranges) plus 4 Tbsp. orange zest (from 4 oranges)
Clementine segments (from 8 clementines)
1 tablespoon ginger (or more, to taste)
1 cup thinly sliced celery (from 4 stalks)
6 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts

Step 1
Bring cranberries, brown sugar, and orange juice to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring often. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until cranberries pop and mixture thickens, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

Step 2
Stir in clementines, celery (optional), orange-flavored liqueur, orange zest, and walnuts. Transfer to a serving bowl; cover and chill 4-24 hours or for 2-3 days ahead.

Sage Sausage and Chestnut stuffing in the Crock-pot

To follow this recipe exactly you will need Williams-Sonoma dried wild mushrooms (optional) and Williams-Sonoma chestnuts (optional).

You will also need one small onion diced into cubes, 1 cup of celery diced, and two packages of the sage sausage from Jimmy Dean. Cook these in a pan until the sausage, onions and celery until nearly done. The sausage will be brown and the onions translucent.

The secret to this dish is truly the bread. I know some people swear by cornbread stuffing but the very best way to make this is with a dense bread like sour dough, aged at least a week. Once your bread is cut into chunks, about five cups, pour and cover just enough to soak the bread with chicken stock. The carton kind of stock from Food Lion is fine.

Add in your cooked sausage mixture and set for several hours on low before adding your dried mushrooms and chestnuts, and then cook another hour. Please note: this is really good without the last two ingredients, so if you have children who won’t eat mushrooms and chestnuts, no worries. It’s still tasty as the sage in the sausage carries it off just fine. On Thanksgiving Day, you can reheat this on low for an hour and it’s even better than the day you made it.

Twice Baked Potatoes (The Pioneer Woman’s Twice Baked Potatoes recipe)
Did you know Twice Baked Potatoes can be frozen up to several months?

Holiday Green Pea Salad
The secret to this pretty salad is to spring for the expensive frozen peas and the thick cut bacon. This dish is served cold and I use a large etched silver bowl for presentation.

You will need four packs of 11 oz. Bird’s Eye Peas, 1 cup Miracle Whip, 1 cup diced sweet onion, and a generous amount of homemade bacon bits.

Soak your peas in the package in hot water until they are completely thawed. You can thaw them quicker on the stove in a saucepan as long as you don’t overcook. Mix your thawed but still cold peas in the Miracle Whip and onion. If serving right away, add the bacon bits and toss.

Staples for our Thanksgiving meal from Williams-Sonoma: Chestnuts, Dried Wild Mushrooms, and Autumn Fruit and Spice Turkey Brine.

Last but not least is the creation of your turkey, the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Meal. After years of nursing the turkey in the oven, someone gave us a deep fryer as a gift. The first year I used it I could not bring myself not to cook an oven turkey, so I did two. A fried turkey is just about the best and most moist meat you will ever taste, but the secret is in the brining process which is just another word for marinate.

Over the years I have experimented with a number of less expensive brines, but the very best one is from Williams-Sonoma and contains sea salt, apple, juniper berries, lemon peel, Star Anise, garlic, rosemary, thyme, onion, black pepper, and bay leaf.

Twenty-four hours before the turkey is to be fried produces the optimal taste when brining. There are large fancy brine bags which can accommodate even the largest turkey, but we use a heavy duty trash bag and the fryer as a container to accomplish this process. The brine solution is mixed with ice cold water and apple cider with the turkey left to marinate at least overnight, according to the directions on the brining jar. The colder you keep your turkey the more the brine will penetrate, helping to seal in the juices when cooked. If your night before Thanksgiving is not a cold one, you will need to make accommodations to brine in an aluminum pan in your refrigerator which will require turning to make sure the marinade is evenly distributing.

Drain and pat your turkey dry before skewing on the rack provided with the fry pot and cook according to the weight of your turkey, three minutes per pound.


Hot fresh and delicious turkey being removed from a deep fat fryer after being cooked for a holiday celebration.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more recipes and a bit of Virginia history including the very best and easiest Holiday Hors d’ Oeuvres, the story behind Dragoon Punch, Mulled Ciders, Hot Toddies, learning to “muddle” for warm winter drinks by the fire, and a Holiday Hunt Breakfast.

Cover photo: One of my favorite Thanksgiving tablescapes from recent years incorporating a vintage family heirloom from Jeff’s side of the family, “The Limoges fish plates,” which date to around 1900. Since our menu included Spiced Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, I updated the table with individual bowls in pumpkin shapes from Pottery Barn. The stained glass votives, mercury candlesticks, large smoky glass vase and chargers are from Pier One. The Jamestown Gold Stemware is by Mikasa.

  • MD Russ

    Wow. What a great summary for a traditional Thanksgiving feast, Susan. It bring backs so many memories of Thanksgivings at our horse farm on the Lynnhaven River in Princess Anne County where I grew up. A few comments.

    First, thanks for featuring the bottle of Hillsborough Opal. We grow petit manseng for Hillsborough in our vineyard in western Loudoun County. This year we produced about 7 tons of fruit for their Opal and for our Two Rivers Petit Manseng, or enough for about 4,000 bottles. 2017 is our first vintage.

    Second, sausage dressing is the only suitable stuffing for turkey and I agree that it must be made with sour dough bread crumbs and not corn bread. I use masala or sherry mixed in with the chicken broth, about 1:4 or less.

    Third, my family has been frying turkeys for at least 20 years and they are delicious, esp. when injected with marinade seasonings 24 hours before frying. (Safety hint: NEVER attempt to fry a frozen turkey. You might as well throw a hand grenade into your BBQ grill.) But for Thanksgiving there is nothing as good as a brined turkey oven-roasted with sweet onions and grapefruit slices in the cavity. We put ours in a large brining bag (always fresh and not frozen) placed in a large cooler and covered with 20 pounds of ice.

    Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

  • Lynn R. Mitchell

    Susan, you did a fantastic job with this piece which dredged up memories for me of my grandparents and childhood.

    But this summed it up: “Many jokes are made about the incompatibility of family members on Thanksgiving, and the news reports it is the most stressful day of the year, but the choice is yours to make it a sweet and memorable time.”

    You nailed it. Happy Thanksgiving, my friend!

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