Western Pennsylvanians create Thanksgiving traditions: from sweet potato rings to stuffing balls to 'egg-beet reds'
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We didn't have to go over the river and through the woods for Thanksgiving; our grandparents lived just a few blocks away.
Still, the anticipation built for weeks. Thanksgiving was everyone's favorite meal, plus we'd get to see our country cousin, Georgia.
Crowding into the vestibule to get out of the cold, already we could smell the turkey, a good omen. Another was the sight of our plump grandmother in her shirtwaist dress and apron, refracted many times over through the front door's leaded-glass window as she came toward us. We knew that for weeks she'd been planning, shopping and cooking for the Big Day, and now the Big Day was here.
Like most Thanksgivings of the 1950s and '60s, it was a traditional feast: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, stuffing. No salad; no one wanted to waste precious tummy real estate. Same with the bread from Lutz's Bakery on Walnut Street; that always seemed to go back into the kitchen untouched by everyone except Grandpap. Veggies -- succotash, peas and carrots -- were unembellished but came to the table in fancy dress: a divided glass dish set in its hammered-aluminum server with tulip handle and warming candle beneath. The turkey shakers left their china closet roost, too, and the sight of salt and pepper coming out of the turkey butts never failed to amuse us children.
The next day, our family would head back over to Gram's for a big casserole of cut-up turkey, stuffing and gravy (that I liked even better than the Thanksgiving spread) and whatever else was left over.
Dessert was the same for both dinners: Pumpkin and minced meat pies with whipped cream, always. Gram was an excellent baker of all sorts of things, but why mess with tradition?
Tradition and Thanksgiving were made for each other, as Post-Gazette readers affirmed when they responded to our quest to uncover what constitutes a Western Pennsylvania Thanksgiving. For some of us, that tradition also reflects our region's immigrant roots, as tables and sideboards make room for Greek, Italian, Jewish, Lebanese, Pennsylvania Dutch and other ethnic dishes.
Here's what some of you cook and eat when you gather for that most American of holidays:
-- Patricia Lowry: email@example.com.
EVERY OTHER year Thanksgiving is at our house. We never have had fewer than 30 people, one year topping out at an all-time high of 46. We only do turkeys, no other meat. As part of our extended family is kosher, we do one kosher turkey and usually two other fresh turkeys. Sometimes we smoke one of them, which is a new favorite.
I am from Central Pennsylvania; most of the other family and guests are from the Pittsburgh area. We have our guests arrive at the unusually early hour of 1 p.m. When guests arrive, there is always the current year's version of pumpkin soup and hot apple cider to greet them. We have the usual turkey, mashed potatoes and bread stuffing with gravy. I mix it up, though, when it comes to the side dishes, every year trying a new vegetable or salad.
There are a couple of must-have dishes. One is baked corn, which is a type of corn souffle that is my mother's specialty. It is made really special by the fact that all the corn is homegrown and frozen by my mom every summer. This is a big hit and one that my husband's family had never eaten until I introduced it. Another must-have dish is scalloped oysters. This is an old-time dish that was a specialty of my grandmother, who got it from a friend who lived in Delaware. It is not oyster stuffing. It is a casserole where crumbled saltine crackers are layered with fresh oysters, oyster liquid, butter and lots of black pepper. Usually you have two layers of oysters and three of crackers, finishing with the crackers. Milk is then poured over the entire casserole and dotted with butter and baked.
We can't do without cranberry relish and have two favorites. One is a very sweet version that is made with ground apples, oranges and fresh cranberries that is then mixed with raspberry Jell-O and refrigerated. The second one is a version that I found in Gourmet magazine about 15 years ago. It uses fresh cranberries, frozen cranberry juice concentrate and orange marmalade. It is tart and goes great with the turkey. For dessert, pies are the choice! We always have apple, pecan and pumpkin. Usually we have mincemeat made with homemade mincemeat from a Pennsylvania Dutch recipe. We have tried pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin cake, pumpkin roll, apple cake, chocolate cheesecake and many other desserts, but the pies are the biggest hit. Thanksgiving is the biggest and best holiday in the Baer family!
JILL BAER, McMurray
This makes 4 to 6 servings so you will want to at least double it. We have successfully doubled, tripled, etc.!
We use our own homegrown frozen corn. If using regular frozen corn, take 1/2 of a cup of the corn and run it through the blender or food processor with a steel knife, then add this back to the rest of the corn. This closely mimics homegrown frozen corn in that you will have more of the "creamy" texture you get because you scrape the cob after cutting off the corn from the cob.
This dish can be baked, covered with aluminum foil, wrapped in newspaper and successfully trucked from East Liberty to McMurray, a drive of about 50 minutes. You can also bake it 3/4 of the way and finish it at your destination.
-- Jill Baer
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups of frozen corn, thawed
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- Up to 1/2 cup sugar to taste (homegrown frozen corn is very sweet; we usually use only 1/4 cup)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 375.
Beat eggs until they are light in color. Gently fold in corn, butter, sugar and salt and mix thoroughly.
Put into a greased (we just use Pam) casserole dish. Bake for 45 minutes until slightly brown around the edges and no longer slooshy in the middle.
-- Jill Baer
If buying the oysters in a carton at the seafood deli in the grocery store, buy "selects" -- they are biggest. Fresh loose oysters can be found in the Strip District and at some local markets. Make sure to reserve the oyster juice (called liquor). If it seems at all sandy, strain it through a tea sieve.
-- Jill Baer
- 1-pound box saltine crackers
- 2 to 2 1/2 dozen large fresh oysters
- 1 stick ( 1/4 pound) butter
- 2 to 4 cups whole milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Butter a 9-by-13-inch casserole or baking dish. Yes, use real butter!
Crumble 3 of the 4 sleeves of crackers while they are still in their packages; it's easier this way. 3 sleeves should be enough.
Start layering, beginning with the crackers. Spread a layer of one-third of the crackers over the bottom of the dish. Then place half of the oysters, 1 at a time, so they are distributed evenly over the crackers. Add the next one-third of the crackers, the rest of the oysters and finish with the last of the crackers. Pour the reserved oyster liquor over the top of the crackers. Add salt and freshly ground pepper over the top of the crackers.
Cut up the stick of butter into small pieces and place all over the top of the casserole. Finish by pouring whole milk over the casserole until it is visible beneath the top layer. DO NOT COVER the final layer with the milk; just bring it up to the bottom of it.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the top is nicely browned.
Serve as a side dish. Very tasty with a tart cranberry sauce.
Makes at least 14 servings.
-- Jill Baer
Due to my husband's Pennsylvania Dutch background, we have to have pickled hard-boiled eggs and beets (in beet juice) every holiday. Or "egg-beet reds" as they are now known in the family (when my young son couldn't say "red beet eggs") and I mean EVERY holiday!
SUE GAUGLER, Upper St. Clair
One of the traditions on our Thanksgiving table is stuffing balls. The recipe has been passed down from my grandmother, whose roots were Pennsylvania Dutch.
CASSIE TUTTLE, O'Hara
All measurements are approximate. The balls can be prepared ahead and stored in the refrigerator until baking.
- 2 to 3 loaves of fresh white bread, broken up or cubed (not dried)
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 sticks margarine, melted
- 2 or 3 eggs
- Salt and pepper
- Turkey gravy
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together bread, onion, margarine, eggs, salt and pepper; mixture should be moist, but not goopy. Form balls by hand (tennis-ball size). Drizzle some gravy over them (it's OK to use gravy from a jar).
Bake uncovered in 9-by-13-inch glass or metal baking pan for 20 to 25 minutes or until tops of balls turn golden brown.
Makes 6 to 10 balls.
-- Cassie Tuttle
Thanksgiving is a huge holiday in my huge Italian family. We always have the turkey, but our stuffing is a chestnut stuffing (my grandmother's special recipe). There are the usual "sides" of mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, broccoli, corn and salad. This year my sister will make "greens and beans" (made with Swiss chard and Great Northern beans), which is a family favorite. There is also wedding soup, and homemade pasta (spaghetti) with homemade sauce and meatballs (also family recipes), dishes of olives and stuffed celery, homemade rolls and lots of desserts -- pumpkin pie, special Jell-O (red, white and green), dirt cake for the little ones, and Italian cookies and pastries. There is homemade Italian wine and coffee with anisette, amaretto and Baileys.
The best part of this day is that is all about the food. The only real change to the menu is that there used to capons on the table for my grandfather, who wasn't a fan of turkey. I'm sure that throughout the years other dishes have gone by the wayside, but my favorite memories of this day is that it always started the day before -- preparing -- and early on Thanksgiving Day we all said a Thanksgiving rosary together. I also remember the big deal it was when you got moved up from the "kids table" to the "big table."
Thanks for the opportunity to remind me how blessed I am to have my huge Italian family (40) to share Thanksgiving together again this year!
ROSALIND FUNARO, East Carnegie
We grew up in a Slovenian-Polish household; however, Thanksgiving ended up being one holiday that we did not include ethnic food. Maybe it was a celebration of being an American, where Thanksgiving followed its own traditional menu. We had the usual fare for the holiday, nothing fancy, but plenty of it. The stuffing was the onion/celery/bread recipe, which was made with white bread, but it was so delicious.
My kids have grown up with the traditional Thanksgiving food, and the one picture I get time and time again of them is the one where they are ripping up the bread for the stuffing. The smells and comforting tastes of the traditional fare make Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.
CHERYL DIAK, Scott
I believe that most Greek-Americans would include "Greek stuffing" as a Thanksgiving staple. Why don't I make this delicious rice dish other times of the year?
This recipe, which is served as a side dish, comes from my Asia Minor-born yiayia, and my friend's Cretan yiayia with my own changes. As with most of Yiayia's recipes, this one is based on a lot on intuition, not science, so the measurements are guesswork! But it's very forgiving.
Both of my yiayias (Greek for grandmother) have passed away, as well as my friend's yiayia. They would be well over 100 years old by now. They were all marvelous cooks and bakers.
In my family Uncle Ben's is the rice of choice, unless you are making rice pudding (in that case you use River Brand; these were my mother's rice rules!)
We also have most of the American Thanksgiving basics (including bread stuffing). The only "Greek" concession is that I oven-roast the sweet potatoes. They are so delicious and healthy!
GREER ARGYROS MULHOLLAND, Edgewood
Very good done ahead and reheated.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1 stick butter
- 1 1/2 cups rice
- 1 chopped onion
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup chopped dill
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 2/3 stalks chopped celery
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Pinch of cinnamon
- 1/2 cup roasted, chopped chestnuts
- 1/2 cup dried currants soaked in red wine
Add olive oil to large pan. Break ground lamb into small pieces and brown. Add butter, rice, onion, herbs, pine nuts, celery and lemon. Cook, stirring occasionally for a few minutes. Add cinnamon, chestnuts, currants with the red wine, and about 1/2 cup water. Cover and cook over low heat about 20 minutes or until rice is cooked. It may be necessary to add a little more water.
-- Greer Argyros Mulholland
I have been having this exact menu for Thanksgiving since I was a child. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving unless all the foods were there: Pre-dinner snacks (chips with dip, celery with cream cheese, shrimp cocktail and veggie tray), turkey and homemade stuffing, cranberry sauce, ham with spiced raisin sauce, lots of mashed potatoes with homemade turkey gravy, candied sweet potatoes, green beans with a peppered white cream sauce, green bean casserole using Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup and onions, corn, fresh salad with apples, red onions and a homemade dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, rolls or biscuits, pumpkin pie, apple pie with ice cream. Wow -- after viewing this on paper no wonder I am so stuffed afterwards!
There are always 15 people but can reach to 30; it continues to grow as we get older -- kids, kids and more kids! It usually includes: Mom, Dad, all four siblings and their children, plus some cousins and their kids.
Mom still insists on having dinner at their home in South Park. We all arrive about noon, eat around 5 and leave about 9, of course after clean-up. My mother still insists on doing all the cooking; we offer to help but no is the answer to that question.
DeDe BESHENICH, Ingram
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. This year will be the 28th Thanksgiving dinner I have cooked. On my second Thanksgiving I cooked dinner on Thursday and delivered my daughter on Friday! Maybe that is why I find it so special.
Our family has a very traditional Pittsburgh Thanksgiving. One huge turkey, the bigger the better. Traditional stuffing with the trinity and loads of butter, chicken stock and eggs. We prefer the taste of the stuffing baked outside of the bird. Green bean casserole, make that two! Candied yams, which could double as a dessert. Plenty of corn with more butter.
My mother started this next dish as a family tradition 40 years ago. Instead of jellied cranberries I make a frozen cranberry mold. It uses whole canned cranberries, sour cream, crushed pineapple with the juice. Mix all together and freeze. We love it. Next come the mashed potatoes. We all prefer them mashed with sour cream and cream cheese. When baked off in the oven it puffs like a souffle. Then there is the gravy. I used to torture myself making it, but now everyone is quite pleased with Heinz turkey gravy. They don't know that I throw in a jar of chicken gravy, too. I just like the color!
Dessert consists of two apple pies (I make them), two pumpkin pies and one pecan pie. Then there is the Cool Whip. My grown children still prefer Cool Whip.
To the meal is added rolls and a traditional relish tray and champagne, which I prefer with turkey. Does life get any better? I don't think so! Oh, wait. There is what we call "Round Two," which occurs about the same time the men of the family finish doing the dishes. I have tried to mix things up a bit through the years, but my husband eats everything and then says, "That was good, honey, but you don't have to make that again."
I hope this adds to your supply of replies. Somehow I think you will be reading the same thing many times.
DEBRA CYBULSKI, Bethel Park
My husband was diagnosed with celiac disease 10 years ago, and we were determined to keep meals at home as good as they always had been. In 2000, when he was diagnosed, there was limited information and few gluten-free products out there, but they were starting to become more widely available. I learned a lot from Bette Hagman's books, and I experimented, using her techniques, changing my holiday (and other) recipes to be gluten-free.
Our Thanksgiving table is quite traditional with turkey, potatoes (cut into chunks and cooked alongside the turkey, like my grandmother made them), gravy -- made ahead and frozen, then reheated on Thanksgiving -- cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes cut into chunks and glazed with a sweet, spicy glaze (I usually put a bit of cayenne in, but this year I might try chipotle powder instead), green beans with crispy fried shallots, cranberry relish (from an old Amish cookbook), cranberry chutney, and pumpkin cake roll.
AND it is all gluten-free! I challenge anyone to find anything in this meal lacking! My children, who are in their mid-20s now, have brought friends to dinner at times over the 10 years, and I don't think that anyone even realized that the food was modified to be gluten-free. Certainly, no one ever seemed to pick at their food or leave anything on their plate! Through the ten years, I have learned more about how to cook good food from various sources, including the Post-Gazette.
KATHY SMITH, O'Hara
An early Thanksgiving dinner with our friends in October was the only thing to do this year because many of us would be out of town in November. In addition to my husband Howard's specialty of rotisserie-grilled turkey, our delicious potluck "funny French" menu featured Le Appetizer au Stover, Oysters Foster a la Casserole, Mashers Nancy au No Lumps, Veggies Verde Judy Judy Judy, Carrots en Glace au Noll, LoCal Last Course a la Nora, all seasonal trimmings and plenty of holiday cheer. Sharing Thanksgiving dinner with friends is always a special occasion.
NANCY NOLL, Brighton, Beaver County
We always smoke a turkey and ham that have been brined for one to two days. Maple sausage stuffing is a must with whipped garlic mashed potatoes, giblet gravy and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Spiced apple wine and beer are the drinks. The ending is Dutch crumb apple pie and, of course, pumpkin pie. Thanks, now you got me hungry. Happy Thanksgiving. It is my favorite holiday.
JIM HAGGERTY, Johnstown
Every year, we have all the standard foods -- turkey and mashed potatoes and coleslaw and my own cran-raspberry sauce with pecans. Stuffing? One traditional, one experimental every year. Homemade bread. Veggies. Stuffed celery. Very traditional, not a lot of variation year to year.
But the special dish -- the one that I remember from my childhood as my favorite -- is DeeDee's sweet potato ring. DeeDee was my maternal grandmother who raised me because my mom had a restaurant -- Bernie's in East Pittsburgh -- and worked a lot of hours. DeeDee taught me to knit and sew, she plaited my long braids and always made sure I had ribbons to match every dress I owned. And she taught me to cook -- and how my DeeDee could cook. She and Mom ran the restaurant, and "comfort food" was the special du jour.
DeeDee's sweet potato ring is an old recipe but a keeper! I boil the yams (I never use sweet potatoes but yam ring just doesn't have the same catchy ring to it!) and mash them with an egg or two and a dash of salt, depending on how much I am making. I butter an old metal ring mold (it has to be as old as I am), sprinkle chopped pecans in it, then sprinkle liberally with brown sugar. I then fill the mold with the mashed yams. It is baked at 375 degrees in a hot water bath for about 90 minutes. When you flip it onto a serving platter, you have this glorious crown of yams with the brown sugar drizzle and nut topping. You could take most everything away from the table except this ring! It has been on every Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter table since my childhood -- and I have kept the tradition going.
I usually put it on a plate then let it sit with the mold on it until I am ready to serve -- keeps the topping soft. If you have really "wet" yams, sometimes the water will come out in the center of the plate -- a paper towel soaks it up really fast.
KAREN L. HASSAN, North Huntingdon
First Published November 22, 2010 12:00 am