Column: Talkin’ turkey

It was a week after Labor Day, and I was already down for a Thanksgiving side dish. Roasted butternut squash. The emails planning the holiday menu had begun. Every two years, we head with my husband’s family—about 30 of us including kids—to Galveston, Texas, in November. We rent houses on the beach, play bourré, organize washer board tournaments, watch a bit of football, and eat. There’s enough fantastic fare dished out during the long weekend to feed a small village.

“It’s fabulous,” says one with a mouthful of homemade cornbread.

“It’s just like Sweet Mama’s,” says another as he helps himself to white beans.

“It’s a sin,” says another with a smile, as she serves a plate. “So much food. And so good.”

It’s a south Louisiana Thanksgiving feast at its finest.

The list of my husband’s extended cousins stretches on for miles—”I’m related to him” is a common refrain—but his immediate family includes his parents, his sister and brother-in-law, his aunt and five married cousins, all with kids in tow. And while the family members grew up in small-town south Louisiana, many moved to embrace the bright lights and big-city vibes of Dallas and Austin. They lead busy lives. They have hectic schedules. But it’s nothing that a helping of B.B’s blueberry pie can’t slow down.

“If you don’t show up, you’re being talked about” is the running family joke. And while said in jest, it’s kind of true. Another strong thread of south Louisiana heritage: guilt. So most make a considerable effort to go. If not to avoid guilt and gossip, they show up for love of family and food. Lots of food.

Sweet Mama, now serving rice and gravy in heaven, is the true matriarch of this show. My husband’s grandmother cooked traditional Cajun staples that are always the talk of the table when we feast. It’s the love of her meals, the smell of her kitchen, and the memory of holidays gone by that perpetuate the gathering of cousins today. Family gets together with family. Great food is involved. Cocktails are served. That’s just how it’s done here.

Of course, that’s not how it’s done in all families. Circumstances separate siblings, traveling during the holidays is hard, and cooking is a hassle for some people. New traditions are often forged. But in a culture steeped in traditions—old traditions, much-loved traditions, family traditions—it’s hard to feel right all dolled up in church clothes at a fancy restaurant on Thanksgiving Day when there are so many great recipes just begging to be cooked.

On our Galveston menu: baked turkey, fried turkey, sweet potato praline casserole, rice dressing, homemade mac and cheese, sweet dough pies and more. The menfolk plan on smoking a pig. Family tradition also dictates that green gelatin salad be served with ingredients that are as varied as pineapple, cottage cheese and chopped pecans. Don’t care for this dish? Put it on your plate anyway, dang it. Don’t be rude.

And let’s not go worrying about our waistlines. We organize our own Turkey Trot on the beach Thanks­giving morning. We can jog or walk as far as we want for as long as we want. Truth be told, few make it very far. But for most, it’s just far enough to feel OK about the Bloody Mary concoctions we are about to drink alongside a hearty helping of grits and grillades. Pass the smoked pig.