It's 4 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning — a good three hours before the daylong cooking marathon typically begins. I'm awakened by rustling and light banging coming from the kitchen of my mom's childhood home. After stumbling around in the dark to find my glasses and a robe, I sneak into the hallway, where I run into my mom, who was also heading downstairs to check out the commotion.
"Turkey burglar?" she jokes as we softly pad, sock footed, toward the darkened kitchen.
Upon rounding the corner, we catch my grandmother — with a smudge of oatmeal on her lower lip — in an egregious act of holiday culinary sabotage. This was the year that our family's long-running sweet potato casserole feud finally reached its blatant climax.
To fully understand this breach of trust, you need to know two things about my family. First, both my mom and grandmother are amazing cooks. I know that everyone says this about their moms and grandmothers, but in this case, I truly mean it. They have their respective skill sets, if you will. My mom's savory cooking can't be beat, while my grandmother excels at candy and dessert-making.
For years, this always led to a pretty neat divvying up of cooking responsibilities around the holidays. Mom would handle the bulk of the Thanksgiving meal, including the turkey, gravy and stuffing, while her mom would produce a dizzying array of sweets, such as chocolate-peanut butter balls, an apple spice cake with cream cheese frosting and seemingly innumerable cookies.
But then, when I was about 13, the rules surrounding this largely unspoken division of labor were upended. I'm not sure exactly what led to this shift; I've asked both my mom and grandmother, and they act like they don't know what I'm talking about. This plays into the second thing you need to know about my family: If my mom's stubborn streak is inherited, it absolutely came from her mom.
Upon rounding the corner, we catch my grandmother — with a smudge of oatmeal on her lower lip — in an egregious act of holiday culinary sabotage.
Planning Thanksgiving dinners after this mysterious pseudo-falling out was like negotiating critical policy decisions among global leaders. Or like playing my siblings' cutthroat "Cheater's Monopoly," a popular Stevens holiday weekend game, in which the division of the real estate on the board is dictated by backdoor deals, shifting alliances and hard lines in the sand.
One year, my grandmother opted to reclaim the preparation of the stuffing. As retaliation, I think, my mom whipped up a batch of expertly spiced pumpkin cookies with cream cheese frosting. The next year, there was a miniature blow-up over whether full dishes of both broccoli cheddar casserole, topped with pulverized buttery Ritz crackers, and cheddar corn casserole, also topped with Ritz, were absolutely necessary to feed a table of eight.
But never has there been a side dish as controversial as sweet potato casserole.
The beauty of that specific dish is that it doesn't necessarily fit into a tidy category; it's decadently sweet, but it's not a dessert. And while we've never been marshmallow-on-casserole people (thank God!), my mom and grandmother had radically different ideas about the appropriate topping.
Mom's topping consisted of roughly-chopped pecans glazed in brown butter with a little citrus zest and brown sugar. It's phenomenal. I may be partial, but I could eat just a pan of that topping and be content. Yet amid this culinary Cold War, my grandmother developed a new topping, which was decidedly more . . . esoteric.
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It was a mix of dried, rolled oats, a splash of cream and warm spices. Before baking, it was pretty creamy, but after sitting under a broiler, it grew a little stodgy. While a formal poll was never drawn, it was apparent from the time my mom and grandmother brought competing sweet potato casseroles to one particularly tense Thanksgiving dinner which was the family favorite.
All I'll say is that mom's casserole dish was practically licked clean.
As you can imagine, in light of the ongoing feud, that didn't exactly bode well for holiday spirits. In fact, it only escalated things. The next year, my grandmother decided to attempt to thwart my mom's casserole-making by "accidentally" misplacing the pecan chunks. Mom, ever-prepared, had another bag in her suitcase. That was also the year the oven mysteriously shut off mid-bake, as well.
Admittedly, there's part of me that has analyzed this behavior with the eye of an armchair psychiatrist. Maybe the unspoken tension here can be attributed to a perceived "changing of the guard" in terms of who is credited with creating holiday magic. Maybe it has to do with the fact that for many women belonging to my grandmother's generation, the only real exaltation of domestic labor took place during the holidays.
Then again, perhaps it could all be chalked up to competitiveness.
Maybe the unspoken tension here can be attributed to a perceived "changing of the guard" in terms of who is credited with creating holiday magic. Maybe it has to do with the fact that for many women belonging to my grandmother's generation, the only real exaltation of domestic labor took place during the holidays.
Nevertheless, Thanksgiving 2015 rolled around, and it seemed as though my grandmother had a change of heart. "Your grandmother called," mom told me in mild disbelief at the time. "She asked me to make the sweet potato casserole."
I vividly remember packing up a bag of ingredients — sweet potatoes, butter, cream, brown sugar, pecans, spices and a few juicy oranges — and unloading them into my grandmother's kitchen a few hours later. When we retreated to our respective rooms that night, everything seemed calm. Perhaps a little too calm.
It was only a few hours later when my mom and I were awakened by that rattling in the kitchen. When we turned the corner, it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to focus in the darkness. When they finally did, this was the scene: My grandmother, surreptitiously working by the light of a single lamp, packing a layer of oatmeal topping onto a casserole dish packed with whipped sweet potatoes. My mom's ingredients stood close by, completely untouched.
"Well now," my grandmother said, rubbing the dried oatmeal from her lip. "I just decided to get a head start."
At that point, something recalibrated yet again in terms of my mom's relationship with her mom, as well as the holiday itself. I'm not sure if it was the growing absurdity surrounding the preparations, or perhaps a mutual recognition of the other's talents. Afterward, however, the holidays largely returned to normal. Sweet potato casserole eventually fell off the menu in favor of roasted butternut squash, not to be spoken of again until one year when we opted to eat out for Thanksgiving.
It was a buffet-style setup that featured all the hits: roasted and sliced turkey, chafing dishes of macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, slices of whipped cream-topped pumpkin pie. At the end of the line was a dish of sweet potato casserole, topped with neither pecans nor oatmeal.
"Who would put marshmallows on a sweet potato casserole?" my grandmother asked. "What a ridiculous topping!"