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Sharing Thanks

Making Thanksgiving easier and more memorable

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For the past 20 years in the days before Thanksgiving, National Public Radio commentator Susan Stamberg has given her mother-in-law's recipe for cranberry sauce on the air. If you have ever listened to the recipe, you would remember it: cranberries, onions, sugar, sour cream, and horseradish. Some listeners love it. Some hate it. Some just like to hear Stamberg recite the recipe. I fall in the last category. I enjoy hearing Stamberg describe the dish she first tasted at her mother-in-law's home one Thanksgiving years ago. When "Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish" first aired, controversy ensued about its origin. Evidently Craig Claiborne had published the recipe in the New York Times in 1959. But determining the origin is a problem inherent with recipes since they have the tendency to be ripped from magazines and newspapers, copied onto 3 by 5 cards, sent by Email, or photocopied from hand written pages. Typically, the person who first put those ingredients, in that quantity, by a certain procedure, is not noted. All but the most "secret" recipes have become shareware.

Many family recipes, though, are in danger of being lost if not recorded. For this Thanksgiving, why not write down Aunt Sue's pecan pie recipe or call your mother or grandmother for her sweet potato casserole recipe? Recipes have a way of establishing traditions within a family. Each time I produce my grandmother's Thanksgiving sausage dressing recipe, I think about her laughter and soft-spoken wisdom. I hope my children will remember the stories I relate about their ancestors as we chop celery and onions, roll out piecrusts, and create our own Thanksgiving traditions.

For some, cooking a Thanksgiving dinner is a daunting prospect. Holiday dinners do not have to be totally time consuming, nor do they need to be perfect. In fact, some of the most memorable are those with a few mistakes. But don't try to do it all. The key is to organize, delegate, and keep it simple.

Here are a few ideas:

* First, collect the recipes. Even if you do not plan to make the dish this Thanksgiving, record it now as a gift to yourself later.

* When family and friends ask if they can bring anything, answer yes. Suggest that they bring a family specialty dish. One extraordinary New England Thanksgiving dinner I attended featured turkey and lasagna. If someone absolutely cannot cook, ask him or her to bring bakery bread or a bottle of wine. Be specific. The more bountiful the food, the less numerous are family squabbles. Plan for additional diners: college students travel in packs and friends always seem to have out-of-town guests.

* Discover the flavor of fresh poultry. Most grocery stores carry fresh turkeys, and some will order a specific size for you. Another source is Artagnan (800-327-8246), a New Jersey-based company, which will FedEx free-range and organic poultry, wild turkeys, or pheasant. But be warned that the cost of the shipping may equal the amount of the bird. Also note that fresh turkeys may require different roasting techniques. Be sure to read the packer's instructions.

* Use fresh cranberries, a native American fruit. Long before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, Native Americans mixed deer meat and mashed cranberries to make pemmican, an early convenience food that kept for long periods of time. Native Americans also believed cranberries had medical value and used them in poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds. Legend has it that cranberries may have been served at the first Thanksgiving dinner. Canned gelatinous cranberries bear only a slight resemblance and taste to fresh cranberries. If you can boil water, you can prepare fresh cranberries for cranberry sauce.

* Don't buy gravy in a jar. Gravy is an essential part of the Thanksgiving dinner. A friend and professional chef showed me how to make lumpless gravy easily. He poured some of the white wine we were drinking into the measured flour thinned with turkey stock. In minutes, the mixture miraculously dissolved into a smooth paste. Note, though, the wine will impart its flavor into the gravy. Select the wine with that in mind.

* Wine choice at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner presents its own set of problems. Let's face it, wine and cranberries don't mix. What is the best wine match for a marshmallow and sweet potato casserole? Since Thanksgiving yields an eclectic range of flavors, why not give your guests a choice as well? Offer some young fruity American whites and some zestier, not oaky, American reds.

* Make homemade pies. Pie crusts have the undeserved reputation of being difficult despite the expression "easy as pie." Store-bought piecrusts, whether rolled or not, never taste the same as those made from scratch. A good piecrust depends on the flour and shortening used. Use unbleached, all-purpose flour and almost equal portions of cold butter (never margarine) and shortening. This mix makes the crust flakier. Keep this mixture cold. Use ice water to blend, and refrigerate the mixture before rolling. After placing the crust into the pie pan, either glass or metal depending upon pie contents, press gently against the bottom and the sides. For a single crust pie, like pumpkin, pop the pie pan into the freezer for 10 minutes before adding the filling and baking. Chilling eliminates the shrinkage and keeps the fluted edges from collapsing into the pie. When I have a houseful of overnight guests, I assign teams and have each team make a pie. The pies may not be perfect, but the memories are.

Helpful Hints
* Helpful step-by-step Thanksgiving dinner guidance, with photos, is in Williams-Sonoma Collection: Thanksgiving, recipes and text by Michael McLaughlin, general editor Chuck Williams, photographs by Noel Barnhurst (Simon & Schuster, 127 pages, $16.95). All recipes include both US and metric measurements. One standout recipe is the Creamy Pumpkin Pie with fresh pumpkin puree: the taste difference of using fresh pumpkin is worth the time. This recipe is also available in a downloadable Thanksgiving recipe booklet: www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe.

* Butterball Turkey Talk-Line 2001 will have 45 professionally trained home economists and dietitians to provide solutions for turkey preparation: 800-288-8372. Hours are 8am until 8pm (CST) weekdays and on Thanksgiving 6am until 6pm (CST). For online assistance 24 hours a day: www.butterball.com.

* For cranberry recipes, Ocean Spray is offering a free Chef's Recipe Collection booklet: 800-662-3263. For "Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish": www/npr.org/inside/specials/sstamberg.

* Land O'Lakes Holiday Bakeline will answer baking questions and provide recipes: 800-782-9696 from 8am until 7pm (CST), or live help at www.landolakes.com.

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