Our favorite Thanksgiving dishes
Andscape’s staff gives thanks for special meals prepared by loved ones
For many, Thanksgiving is about food and family. We maintain traditions while making new memories. With that in mind, we asked Andscape’s staff members to share stories about their favorite foods from Thanksgivings past and the special people whose hands — and hearts — prepared those dishes.
Grandma Ola’s sweet potato pie
My grandmother, Ola Mae Barnett, is the architect of many food staples in my family, including her cheeseburgers, her fluffy, loose scrambled eggs, and her salmon croquettes – which, due to a fish allergy, I have never tasted but heard are great. But her sweet potato pies stand apart, both a delicious dessert and an unofficial bonding item for us.
My grandmother has been deaf for most of her life. She’s never heard my voice or many of the daily sounds we all take for granted. Despite that limitation, we have a great and loving relationship, and I can even “talk” to her on the phone through a special device.
So she’s never heard me talk about those pies. Those glorious pies. Amazingly, I avoided those pies for the first few years of my life. Why would someone want to eat vegetable pie? I probably thought to myself. And truth be told, they closely resembled pumpkin pies, which we don’t eat. But then I had my first slice – microwaved for 15-20 seconds, of course – and then another, and then another. When I was in high school, my grandmother began making a pie just for me, separate from the community pie. After I went off to college in 2007, every time I returned home, whether it was for Thanksgiving, another holiday, or just a break from school, a pie would be waiting for me.
It’s been said that food can be a labor of love. And that’s true for Grandma’s sweet potato pie. She would do it with no complaint, almost 99% of the time, without me even having to ask. She’s never asked for anything in return except for a periodic phone call or spending a few hours on the couch with her. It’s just something she wanted to do – and don’t let my siblings or cousins hear this – for her favorite grandchild.
Last year, understanding the reality of mortality, I finally asked Grandma for the recipe. She went to the cupboard and pulled out a book that held what I imagine to be dozens of recipes. And out she pulled a tiny piece of paper with the sweet potato pie recipe written on it in her cursive writing. It contains [redacted] cups of sweet potatoes. And [redacted] cups of sugar and [redacted] eggs. Some [redacted] milk and a teaspoon or two of [redacted]. If I told you the recipe, I’d have to unalive you. She told me I could just have it, but I reminded her that it’s the 21st century and pulled out my phone and took a picture. Nearly two years later, I have yet to replicate her work, but someday I will.
Unfortunately, I won’t make it home this Thanksgiving and will miss out on Grandma’s sweet potato pie. But the next time I make my way back to Milwaukee, I’ll walk into my grandparents’ home, their large kitchen, and find two sweet potato pies sitting on the countertop. One will be for whoever wants the taste of the deliciousness that is sweet potato pie. And the other will be all for me, just as it’s always been.
Aunt Diane’s broccoli cheddar cornbread
Do you know that one dish guaranteed to be in attendance if a specific family member is there, too? That has to be my Aunt Diane’s self-proclaimed “famous” broccoli cheddar cornbread. Some may consider this dish a “Southern thing” or a “holiday thing.” I always considered it “Aunt Diane’s thing.” Although my aunt didn’t create the recipe, she made it better than when she found it, as she did with most things.
My earliest memories of my aunt are centered on the dining room table in her home. The ironic part about that? My aunt was far from a chef. In her words, she “couldn’t even boil water.” Somehow, though, she made one dish flawlessly. I first fell in love with her broccoli cheddar cornbread one random Sunday dinner that my grandmother prepared. The table was set as usual with everything from smothered turkey wings to turnips, and like magic to my adolescent eyes, this cornbread appeared on the table. When I asked who made it and she revealed herself as the chef, I was shocked. It was the best cornbread I had ever eaten, and I made it clear that it was worthy of being present at every family meal from that point on.
My aunt might not have been a strong contender in the kitchen, but she was a key player in other areas on Thanksgiving. She would be a timekeeper for all the pots and pans on the stove and volunteer to run to the store when an ingredient was forgotten. That was a trait of my aunt that I loved — the way she would always show up for others. That was also true for her broccoli cheddar cornbread. Every year it would show up at the Thanksgiving table. This year will be different, though. My aunt and her broccoli cheddar cornbread will not be present for dinner.
From the warm feeling of family around the Thanksgiving holiday to my aunt’s signature dish, it’s hard to proceed as usual when a person and their food are a significant part of your life. Last year, a week after Thanksgiving, my aunt was killed in her home, just steps from the table where we had eaten Thanksgiving dinner. A man my aunt said had been stalking her for two decades has been charged with killing her. My family has been robbed of her and what she meant to us, especially during the holiday season.
There have been elements of this situation that have been hard to process, but the peace that I have found is that although she can’t come back or ever be replaced, I’m able to feel her presence through her broccoli cheddar cornbread. Whenever I want to be transported back to my happy place — my family’s dinner table — or feel a warm hug from her, I can add all the ingredients together and get one step closer to those familiar feelings. However, I can’t quite get it exactly how she did. I don’t think it’s even possible because I know the essential ingredient she put into it was love, and the love she had for her family can never be duplicated.
Aunt Cheryl’s gumbo and fried fish
For years, I’ve made the pilgrimage to New Orleans to have Thanksgiving with my parents and other family members. The highlight wasn’t the Cajun fried turkey or the other side dishes. It was my aunt Cheryl Armant’s gumbo and fried fish. I will put her gumbo against anybody’s in the world.
Unfortunately, my aunt died two years ago, just days before Thanksgiving. While she is gone, I will never forget how special her meals were on Thanksgiving and how much she meant to me. In our last conversation, she talked about how excited she was for Thanksgiving and how she had her gumbo ready, and all the other famous dishes that people from Louisiana love so much.
Grandma Russell’s biscuits
This Thanksgiving marks two years and two months since my grandmother Bessie Russell died. The last few times I saw her, she was in her home of 52 years in Mount Airy, Philadelphia. She was barely eating.
While a lot of my most recent memories of her revolve around food: going out to eat with her and my mom — her oldest daughter — after doctor’s appointments or pedicures, bringing her salads and sandwiches once she was in hospice, and not leaving her room anymore. I can’t remember the last time I tasted her cooking.
I’d like to say that I wish I could have appreciated the last time I had her home cooking a little bit more. I can’t lie, though. For me, the lasting memories I have of my grandmother reimagined what femininity looked like for Black women beyond the kitchen.
Don’t get me wrong, she definitely could throw down, and there were dishes I loved. I loved her biscuits. I only ate her greens — a mix of turnip, mustard, and collards with turkey butts, onion, garlic, and rutabaga. Add hot sauce and vinegar as it boils down — for the longest time. My mouth is watering, thinking about the smell of the butter and a little garlic she melted in a saucepan to pour over them.
“She made homemade biscuits that none of us have the recipe for,” my mom said, remembering her favorite dishes of her mother’s. “She could make cakes and pies; I love apple pie.”
When I think of my grandmother, who I have called by her last name, Russell, since I was a baby — never, ever “grandmom,” or, even worse to her, “nana” — I think of all the meals she prepared for other people. And how she wanted more for her girls. My Russell never finished high school. She had the first of her five children when she was 17 and my mother when she was 19. Russell worked as a caretaker, a home aide for other people’s loved ones.
“She never required me to cook,” my mother, Eugenia Russell Hargrove, said. “She was more interested in me getting an education and me being a certain kind of person.” My mom continued, “She didn’t allow me to hang around with everybody.” Instead, my grandmother sent my mom to charm school and took an active interest in her friend group.
My mom’s only “job” (if you could even call it that) at home used to be keeping my grandmother company while she prepared meals, often from scratch, including desserts. Oh, and my mom had to set the table. Russell loved to use her table to set a mood. Eating at Russell’s house was about the ambiance: she liked having candles and flowers and would change the tablescape’s theme each year.
“She wanted to have a nice home,” Hargrove said. “She wanted for things to be a certain way and you just admire women that are like that, even from back in the day, but she knew she didn’t have skills to go out on her own and she wanted those things for me. She wanted me to have options. She wanted me to not have to stay somewhere.”
I asked my mom why she thought Russell was like that, not requiring extra hands in the kitchen. “I think she had it in her mind how she wanted her daughters to be. She wanted me to be better than her, be able to move differently, and be educated. She didn’t make much money and sent me to a private school that she paid for. I went to Catholic school first and then private girls school again, all because of her.
“I never felt like I had to learn how to cook and I didn’t,” my mom said. “When I graduated from high school, I did not know how to cook and it didn’t bother me. I was like, ‘I can read, I can learn.’ ”
Later in life, when Russell was trying to help my mom learn to cook, my mother joked Russell would say a “pinch of this or a pinch of that.” “And I’d be like, ‘What’s a pinch? Is my hand the same size as yours?’ [My mom is a Virgo, if you can’t tell.] I had to have it exact, and she was never that way.”
I see a lot of my grandmother in my mom. Russell loved for her home to be well kept, decorating seasonally. She loved well-made pieces of clothing and jewelry. She also liked to shop in secondhand stores. Russell’s motto was that people could see when things were nice.
For Russell, being truly fashionable was being able to shop in the best and worst places, and no one could tell. It was about how you put everything together. Russell taught my mother to have the basics in her closet: something to wear to a wedding, funeral, and cocktail party. I still follow that advice to this day.
My older cousin Rian Russell, Russell’s first grandchild, said our grandmother was always the picture of femininity, wearing hosiery and accessories, keeping her hair done, and with perfectly long, glossy nails. But Russell also constantly reminded us to pray, keeping God first — and not just before a meal.
My mother never stressed that I learned to cook, clean, or do laundry. I went to college not knowing how to do any of that. My grandmother’s thinking was her daughters had their whole lives to learn those things. Instead, she taught her daughters to be independent, championing education to achieve the best life had to offer. My mother was her first kid to finish college. My aunt, Russell’s youngest child, was next, earning a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. Russell always used to joke that she was forever getting an education.
“She always said, ‘It’s nice to look nice but have something in your head,’ ” my aunt Tasha Russell said. My aunt also said that her mother taught her to hang around people who would help her further her goals. “So for me, it was always important to be able to carry an intellectual conversation.”
While my mother always told me school wasn’t a fashion show, my grandmother told my aunt, “It’s important to look nice, but being pretty and dressed nicely will only take you so far … Get something in ya head.”
My grandmother taught my mother to be someone of faith. To be a woman who lives a beautifully curated life of her choosing beyond being of service to anyone other than herself. And that is who my mother taught me I am destined to be, too.
Grandma Clemmie’s upside-down pineapple cake
If dishes were like sports, my grandmother Clementine Marshall’s upside-down pineapple cake would be a unanimous First Team All-American. When I lived at home in my pre-college years, Grandma Clemmie would make it multiple times a year. In part because she’s a sweets addict. But really, because I’d ask, she’d be more than happy to oblige. Over time, the cake would become our annual Thanksgiving tradition when I moved out of the house. I’d always take half the cake back up to my apartments in and around the Washington area. Likely in some Tupperware container, which I promised to return, but we both knew that would never happen. It made the moment that much more special.
We haven’t had that tradition in a few years, though. We haven’t spent Thanksgiving together since 2019. We still see each other a few times a year. I miss her, and she misses me, but we’re both incredibly excited at life’s changes. I’ve gotten married and expect the birth of my first child shortly after the holidays. She can’t wait to be a great-grandmother again. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to put my son on the legacy of his great-grandmother’s legendary and scrumptious upside-down pineapple cake.
The memories of that cake over the holidays are some of the greatest memories of my life. The mere thought of them warms my heart and provides a necessary escape when life gets hectic or I need to slow down. I can hear the laughter and the debates about whether the Dallas Cowboys were worth a damn that season. I can see the smiles on the faces of all my cousins, aunts, and uncles as we went back for one slice too many.