Thanksgiving must be the only holiday during which the food on the dinner table is the star of the show. At Christmastime it’s the tree and the gifts under it, during the Easter season the eggs and new spring clothes, and when July 4th comes ‘round, it’s all about fireworks and the humble hotdog.
The Thanksgiving menu featuring turkey and cornbread dressing has been a staple in the South forever — or as long as this octogenarian has been around. So it was with surprise that I heard Roseanne Barr touting the big bird and — get this — mashed potatoes as holiday fare during the run of her popular TV show in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Today, though, Roseanne might have introduced her family to the superiority of the cornbread dish, inasmuch as it was featured last week in holiday food stories running in the Washington Post. That’s an example of a regional favorite gone national, as have so many others since I graduated from apple sauce and pablum.
Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s most folks dined on produce from their own farms or gardens, the gardens of those who’d set themselves up to profit from their labors in them, or from grocery stores in which not much came from very far away. Daddy had lived and worked in south Louisiana and developed a taste for seafood that was seldom available in our town in northeast Texas, but we got it when we could, satisfying our appetites for it when we moved in the ‘40s to Mississippi, only 70 miles from the Gulf coast.
Regional favorites began to travel across the country after World War II but even in the ‘50s culinary opportunities were limited. Did okra go to Idaho? No, that was borne out by a question that a native of that state asked me while we were both college students: “What’s that slimy green stuff with the little white balls in it? I think they call it ‘oak-rum’.”
I was 19 and visiting New York City in 1954 when I tasted pizza for the first time; 21 and working for a newspaper in Jackson, Miss., when I consumed my first oyster just off the half shell; 26 and the mother of two when the first “Pizza Parlor” opened on the West Bank of New Orleans, and during those days our little family traveled from Gretna to the lakefront to dine at one of only about three Chinese restaurants in business here during the early ‘60s.
But for the generation after mine food choices were increasing, and my grandsons, born in ’95 and ’97, have always had access to a diverse menu of foods from recipes of cultures across the globe. Before they were old enough to tolerate tamales, they occupied themselves happily with little bowls of refried beans and munched on tacos, savored the squid from Vietnamese dishes and dipped bean sprouts into fish sauce, devoured lobsters and asked for more, complained because the summer camps they went to failed to serve shrimp and oysters at mealtimes.
Now with the opening of several Middle Eastern restaurants in our part of town, they’re feasting on new cuisines. Some old ones, however, are being disregarded. Tomorrow, they’ll skip the cornbread dressing at dinner, and they never eat the okra in the gumbo their mom makes from the leftover turkey.