By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
“A tradition is a custom or belief that has existed for a long time,” according to Collins English Dictionary. But how does such a tradition actually begin in a family? I’m specifically talking about food traditions, which have more meaning than we usually realize. Holidays, especially Thanksgiving, are loaded with specific dishes that are symbols of our national heritage and culture. When did that wonderful sage-and-thyme-scented stuffing become a regular filling in your Thanksgiving turkey? It had to start somewhere.
Even more curious to me is why we are all so wedded to these preparations. Have you ever tried to swap your standard buttered Brussels sprouts for something other than what your family is used to? For heavens sakes, no way! You’ll have a mutiny at your holiday table. How about changing up the mashed potatoes by adding trendy bleu cheese and bacon? Heck, no! Sacrilege. How about switching your green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup to green beans with lemon zest and basil? Your family will stage a coup and head for the door!
Have you reached the point in your Thanksgiving tradition where you offer two different stuffings? One that is the standard and the other an experimental recipe that you cut out of a magazine? I’ve even seen three different preparations offered at one holiday table to satisfy everyone’s itch. It’s gotten crazy.
Establishing a holiday tradition might just take place organically. This happened to me, my husband and two children back in the early 1990s. Every year. my husband’s parents wintered in Florida starting on November 1 to escape the Michigan cold. As a result, we never had Thanksgiving together.
One year I solved that problem by hosting a pumpkin-carving evening, featuring both a traditional Thanksgiving feast and pumpkin carving. These were no ordinary-looking pumpkins: my father-in-law and my husband, both foot surgeons with terrific fine motor skills and artistic talent, turned out some fairly fantastic carvings. Our kids did their best based on their ages, sometimes using stickers or paint to help the process along.
I would roast a stuffed turkey and serve homemade cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, Brussels sprouts — the whole nine yards. A year later, we said, “Let’s carve pumpkins like last year.” That began our annual tradition. I’m proud to say that my kids still carry on the pumpkin carving session in their home with my son Ben’s two little boys.
That’s how I created a traditional event. But how do we transition from one tradition to another at the holiday table? I actually was able to do this about 20 years ago. We always had to have sweet potato casserole with toasted marshmallows on top. Could I actually introduce another choice, and maybe, just maybe, replace said marshmallow-topped casserole? That first year, we had both dishes. We eventually dropped the marshmallow affair.
For today’s recipe, I’m offering my sweet potato pudding with oat pecan topping, which is now our go-to side dish. My son, Ben, has picked up the baton and makes it in his home as I make it in mine. This year, we will all be together at my home for the first time in 18 years! I might even let Ben make the casserole and have my daughter Hanna make our traditional pumpkin cheesecake, as she has always done.
Who’s going to go out on a limb this year and introduce a new side dish to their Thanksgiving feast? Let us know here at The Insider what you make and how it was received. Have fun preparing your meal, sharing with family and friends, and being thankful for all that we have. Enjoy a wonderful holiday!
Sweet Potato Pudding
Yield: 1-1/2 qt. casserole
2 1/2 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1 1/2” pieces
2 lg. eggs
3 Tbs. pure maple syrup
2 Tbs. pure vanilla extract
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
1/2 c. packed golden brown sugar
1/2 c. chopped pecans
1/2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
2 oz. cold butter, cut into bits
Boil the sweet potatoes in a large pot of salted water until very tender, about 12 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Puree the potatoes in a food processor. Scrape into a large bowl.
While the potatoes are cooking, make the topping: In a small bowl, using your fingertips, mix the brown sugar, pecans, oats, and butter bits until it holds together but is still crumbly. Reserve.
Whisk the eggs, syrup, vanilla, lemon juice, and salt in a bowl. Blend into the sweet potato puree.
Grease a 2 qt. shallow casserole. Pour in the sweet potato mixture. Sprinkle the pecan topping all over. Bake in a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, or until the pudding is set and the topping is bubbly. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.