From turkey disasters to sweet pumpkin treats, Thanksgivings to remember

From turkey disasters to sweet pumpkin treats, Thanksgivings to remember

From turkey disasters to sweet pumpkin treats, Thanksgivings to remember
Thanksgiving dinner (photo by Jed Owen and Hayley Ryczek on

Everyone has their favorite Thanksgiving stories, ranging from Norman Rockwell-like Americana to down-and-out family feuds with mashed potatoes flying across the table.

This year, the Pioneer’s writers are serving up their own takes on holiday traditions – the good, the bad and the just plain silly.

Grandma’s extravaganza

Kevin Parker’s grandma, Mila Davis, created memorable Thanksgiving meals – complete with Jell-O molds served atop lettuce.

By Kevin Parker
My grandmother, Mila Davis, lived a great life of 102 years.

She emigrated here from Harbin, China, after the Russian Revolution and settled in San Francisco in 1922. As an operating room nurse, she had a storied career at Peninsula and Stanford University hospitals.

We lost her this past year, but her Thanksgiving meal extravaganzas remain etched into my mind. I mean, this woman could cook.

It was an operation that was her solo mission. She would start a week in advance preparing, setting and planning, and then she would make all kinds of meat and vegetable stuffing, specially cooked carrots, Jell-O molds on beds of lettuce, little cinnamon dessert swirls, mashed potatoes to kill for, homemade gravy – two kinds, a turkey cooked to perfection, croissants, cranberries, pumpkins pies, chocolate pies … so many pies that we ate pie and then everyone took one home, along with so many leftovers. I felt like we still had turkey weeks later.

The dinners set around a very large table at her home in San Carlos were always jam-packed full of laughs, family, friends and full stomachs. Ask anyone in my family lucky enough to attend, they just don’t make turkey dinners like that anymore. We miss you GG!

Gravy to the rescue?

By Pete Cruz
The first year I hosted Thanksgiving at my home as an adult, my mother-in-law came to visit and wanted to cook the turkey.
This seemed a good idea, but I did raise an eyebrow when she put the turkey in the oven on low heat around midnight. She said that cooking it longer with lower heat would make the meat fall off the bones.

The turkey came out about 1 p.m. (though I think she turned off the heat sometime earlier). I revved up my electric carving knife as folks gathered around for the feast. As I sliced into the bird, I was startled by the cloud of dry, sawdust-like particles that billowed around the buzzing blade. Barely able to suppress my laughter, I had to leave the room for a minute to compose myself.

That day I learned something about my sweet mother-in-law. Turns out she only ever ate the dark meat, and, to her credit, the dark meat did indeed fall off the bone and was moist and tender.

Unfortunately, those of us who liked turkey breast had to make do with slabs of white cardboard sadly slathered in gravy.

Thanksgiving, after dark

By Sunny Solomon
Thanksgiving dinner 1978, or maybe 1979, was the first one after my divorce, but I remember absolutely nothing of the dinner itself.

I remember making lists of what I shopped for, what I asked my siblings and parents to bring, and, most of all, I remember how I planned to take the three children back to Oakland for a much-needed visit with their dad’s side of the family.

Timing was everything, so I wanted the turkey cooked and ready to serve by the time we returned to Walnut Creek.

My sister arrived about 2 in the afternoon, with clear instructions to start the turkey shortly after I left with the kids for Oakland. We returned to Walnut Creek close to 6 that evening. Opening the front door, expecting to be overwhelmed with the aroma of an exquisitely stuffed bird, I knew something was wrong. I smelled nothing.

I could hear the clinking of ice in the drinks my family had made for themselves while waiting for my return. When I opened the oven door, there was the turkey in the covered roasting pan. I yelled to my sister: “Why didn’t you cook the turkey?” “I did,” she yelled back. “See, just like you said, 350 degrees.” “Well, it won’t do any good unless you turn the oven on, too,” I yelled back.

About the same time that I turned the oven on, my brother handed me a JD on ice, looked at his watch and said, “You think we’ll eat around 9:00, maybe sooner if you increase the heat?”

I handed the glass back to him. “Yeah, but make this a double.”

Time to get away

Instead of stressing about a holiday meal, Kara Navolio, second from left, and her family now travel for her November birthday.

By Kara Navolio
My birthday is around Thanksgiving, so it’s always been a favorite holiday.

But the years when my birthday actually falls on the day were not as enjoyable, spending the whole time cooking and entertaining.

Then I decided I didn’t have to do that. Instead, we would pack up the family and head somewhere fun. I thought we would miss gathering with extended family for all the traditional dishes, but they were actually some of our best family vacation memories ever.

When the kids were little, we spent the day at Disneyland: no crowds, no lines. One year, we walked the beach in Bodega Bay and then watched it pour down rain while playing board games. Another year, we crossed an item off the bucket list with a trip to New York to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ice skate in Central Park. Three years ago, we spent Thanksgiving in Maui, watching a sunset and eating mahi-mahi instead of turkey.

I really don’t mind when my birthday falls on Thanksgiving anymore; there’s always Christmas for gathering with extended family.

Making room at the table

Using her distinctive design style, Jennifer Leischer created a massive dining room table for Thanksgiving in her Clayton home. (Jennifer Leischer)

By Jennifer Leischer
Holidays at my aunt’s house were always a zoo.

Probably at least 40 people would make the trek – aunts, uncles and grandparents from near and far, so many cousins I could never keep track of who was who and, of course, adopted family members who would change yearly depending on whether they had a home to go to for the holidays.

My aunt’s holiday philosophy was “the more the merrier,” and a merry time was definitely had by all. Kids running here and there, the teens and twentysomethings acting cool and aloof hanging out on the front porch, the women cooking and gossiping in the kitchen, and the men outside smoking cigars and drinking single-malt scotch.

But I was never a fan of the seating arrangements for dinner. My sister and I had to sit at the kids’ table. I remember feeling banished from the fun stuff. Banished from the interesting conversations. Banished from the cool crowd. Maybe even banished from better food.

My aunt’s seating arrangements – with multiple tables throughout her tiny, but cozy, home – were not intentional exclusions. There was just only so much square footage.

When my husband and I moved to Clayton, we hosted Thanksgiving and quickly realized the functionality of extra dining tables. Not willing to turn down a design challenge, we moved every piece of furniture from our living room to create more space. And that year, we had a table for 19 … plus a kids’ table in the kitchen.

All things pumpkin

By Bev Britton
My mom was an excellent baker known for her flaky, lard-based pie crusts, rolled out to a thin perfection that I simply couldn’t duplicate.

After being disappointed with the pre-made crusts I tried, I opted for a bar-like recipe for my traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin dessert.

But since I love everything with pumpkin (except those odd, spiced lattes), I don’t wait until fall to start bingeing. I stock up on Trader Joe’s pumpkin pancake mix and will happily devour them with pumpkin butter in the midst of a July heatwave.

Last month, I made a pumpkin roll for my Book Club – and wowed the generally chocolate-loving crowd. Several asked for the recipe, and one even made it to serve to guests the very next night.

Pumpkin Roll

Serves 8
For cake:
¾ c. flour
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground cloves
3 large eggs
¾ c. sugar
Heaping 2/3 c. canned pumpkin (half a 15 oz. can)
½ c. chopped walnuts

For filling:
6 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
4 T unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Heat oven to 375. Grease 15 by 10 by 1 baking pan. Line bottoms and sides with waxed paper, then grease paper.
Lay out clean kitchen towel and sprinkle with 1/8 c. sifted powdered sugar.

For cake:
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt in small bowl. Next combine eggs and sugar in large bowl; beat until thickened. Add pumpkin to egg mixture and beat until well mixed. Stir in flour mixture. Spread batter evenly into pan. Sprinkle with walnuts.

Bake 15 minutes or until center springs back when lightly touched.

Immediately loosen cake from edges of pan and invert onto prepared towel. Remove pan and carefully peel off paper. Roll up cake in towel while hot. Cool completely.

For filling:
Beat all ingredients in medium bowl until smooth.
Carefully unroll cake and spread cream cheese mixture over cake.
Reroll cake – without towel. Wrap in plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Upwrap and slice into 8 pieces.

Note: I freeze the other half of the canned pumpkin for another day – but it’s never too much later.

Keeping my balance

By Tamara Steiner
I was 17 the year year my parents divorced. My dad and I were living in our home in Martinez and I was determined to celebrate Thanksgiving bigger and better than ever.

Our 1950s ranch-style home had a two-sided fireplace with a BBQ on the family room side right near the front door. For weeks I had a picture in my head of a sizzling, golden bird turning slowly on the spit for all to see.

Early that morning, my dad got a good hot bed of coals going, and we ran the rotisserie spit through a 14 lb. turkey, trussed him up and fired up the motor. Kerrrrrr-THUMP, kerrrrr THUMP.

Despite many stops and starts, we could never keep the roasting bird balanced. Hours later one side of the bird looked like a magazine cover. The other side not so much. My dad carved the well roasted side into teeny little bite-size pieces for the 12 hungry friends in the dining room. The dogs got the rest.

Luckily there were plenty of candied yams.