The best Thanksgiving dinner we ever had was far from previous flamboyant festivals the expectation of which I inherited from my family.
My husband was discharged from a Minnesota hospital the day before Thanksgiving in 1983, after a month that included two surgeries. We knew our families and neighbors would literally kill us with kindness if they knew we were home, but we felt the need for a private, traditional meal.
We sneaked home, with a brief stop at a Jamestown grocery store to buy two chicken breasts and a frozen pie. At home, I propped the chicken against a tiny ball of stuffing, opened a can of cranberry sauce, and baked two sweet potatoes. After our feast and a nap, we called our families to share the joy.
The point of Thanksgiving is about gratitude, not menu or tradition. So, for those living in cramped circumstances, be inventive and adventurous in your kitchen, wherever it is!
Be creative about tableware and mixing implements. A big clean ice-cream pail works equally well for adding stuff to stuffing or mixing that tossed salad. If the nice table linens are in storage -- somewhere -- buy colorful paper ones. If there are no serving dishes, put as many dishes as possible on the table, and invite guests to the kitchen to pick up meat and sweet or mashed potatoes.
First: The bird! Buy a cooked turkey breast. Slice it for serving, warm it just before dinner in the oven, microwave, crock pot or electric skillet. Add some gravy, the best you can buy, and don't be afraid to add favorite ingredients such as mushrooms, onion and spices.
If mashed potatoes are required at your table, the box ones aren't bad, but add a bit more butter and/or cream and perhaps a bit of minced dried onion. (Once, in stove-less desperation, I formed patties from purchased mashed potatoes, rolled them in crushed potato chips and warmed them in an electric skillet.)
Cooked sweet potatoes from a can may simply be warmed. For those who add pineapple or brown sugar though, transfer them to a serving dish, mix and immediately top them with miniature marshmallows so they have a chance to melt a bit.
For people whose mother insisted a meal must include vegetables, consider slices of carrot, celery and jicama, with radish roses, broccoli and cauliflower florets. And ranch dressing is not the only possible dipping sauce.
A spectacular salad need not have cooked ingredients or be prepared in advance. Betty Axtman of Rugby shared her terrific holiday salad: Mix romaine or spinach with a pint of sliced strawberries, half a thinly-sliced red onion, and a small package of sliced almonds. Toasting the almonds improves it even more.
Betty's dressing is 1/4 cup raspberry vinegar, 1/4 cup each of vegetable and olive oil, 2 tablespoons honey, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice and 2 teaspoons poppy seed. She often substitutes a can of mandarin oranges, drained, for the strawberries.
Or consider this fresh vegetable salad of cauliflower, broccoli and chopped green onions with some bacon bits. The simple dressing is a cup of mayonnaise, a tablespoon each of vinegar and sugar, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, a cup of shredded mozzarella and a cup of grapes.
If turkey is not a requirement for your guests, consider ham stacks. Cut thick slices of cooked ham, cut it in rounds or ovals, reserving trimmings for ham sandwiches or salad. Brush each ham slice with a mixture of prepared mustard, cinnamon and cloves.
Place a whole pineapple slice on top of the ham. Top that with a sweet potato. If cooking conditions allow, impale a marshmallow on a toothpick and insert it in the sweet potatoes a few minutes before serving.
Ham stacks can be rewarmed in the oven, microwave or electric skillet. I always make more than one serving per person.
Pie is probably a main requirement!
Our family finds purchased pies too bland. To accompany apple or pumpkin pie, we sometimes soften ice cream and stir in a sugar-and-cinnamon mix. The same trick works with whipped topping.
Remember, be grateful for something to eat, a roof and table and, especially, someone with whom to share.