Tradition is an interesting thing.
Sometimes we do things simply because we’ve always done them that way. Sometimes we mock tradition and forge ahead trying blaze new trails simply for the sake of progress.
I think tradition has its place, especially around the holidays.
Kids need to understand and experience their family’s stories to feel connected to the past. I think it helps to know where you’ve come from in determining where you’re going.
Jake often determines our family’s path. His needs become our actions, and some things flow from there. Usually, we put up our artificial tree the weekend following Thanksgiving. It’s usually around the changing of the calendar, which is a big deal for Jake. This year, partly due to his mother’s influence, we got to put it up the day BEFORE Thanksgiving. I’m not usually a fan of skipping holidays, even if it means getting into the Christmas spirit sooner. In fact, I can’t stand the fact that you can buy wreaths and Halloween candy in the same aisle.
That being said, there’s a tradition that I’ve tried to keep going since I was a young man. My grandfather’s turkey stuffing. We’re too northern to call it dressing.
It’s one of those things that Gramp and I did together. In retrospect, it was a pain in the behind, but I never noticed at the time. It’s a very simple recipe, and if you really want it, I’ll give it to you, but it’s one of those things that’s better “felt” than measured. It’s one of those things that you just keep adding pinches and dashes of things until it just “feels” right.
We used this ancient No. 2 Hand Grinder apparatus that clamped onto the side of my grandmother’s kitchen table. Isn’t it funny how things get assigned that way? It was definitely Gramp’s big leather chair, and definitely Nana’s kitchen table. It was one of those kitchens that was really tiny, but magical. Everyone had their assigned seat, and Gramp’s chair was in front of the stove, so that he always had to squeeze in tightly if Nana ever wanted to take anything out of the oven after he had already sat down.
Anyway, back to the stuffing. We made it the a day or two before Thanksgiving, then we’d put the pan of it in the garage (which was never warmer than 35 degrees that time of year) and let it meld together and get happy.
Here’s the set-up.
We’d clamp this archaic piece of steel to the table. So as not to damage the table, we’d use an old cheese-board cutting board between the clamp and the table. The 9×13 pan we’d fill was obviously much bigger than this little board, so it wouldn’t sit flat. We’d cut up lots and lots of salt pork, and quarter what felt like dozens of onions, plus the stuffing bread, and I’d begin the laborious task of feeding it through the machine.
You couldn’t just feed the pork, then the bread, then the onions, and mix everything afterwards. It required the right combination to keep things from getting too dry, too wet, or too stringy. The ground food would have to get squeezed out past the cutting disk, which was held on by that god-awful wingnut. Stuff always got stuck in the wingnut, so it’d have to be periodically removed, de-gunked, and re-applied. The mouth of the device was pretty small, so not only was I hand-cranking, I was using my left hand to force food down the shoot. I remember finishing in about an hour with a sore right shoulder and stiff fingers on my left hand.
The end result was magical. We could never fit all of what we’d made into the bird, so there was always a casserole dish of the extra cooked along with the turkey.
My Gramp passed in 1999. As far as I can tell, nobody else makes Gramp’s Stuffing these days but me. I’m not even sure I could put my hands on that old No. 2.
Fast forward to today. Things have modernized around my house. I have a KitchenAid mixer with a grinder attachment.
Mine even has a little wooden pestle for guiding the food to the grinding part.
Now though, I get to be the master, teaching my new apprentice. Gabriel sat with me as I cut up the tough salt pork, and quartered the onions. He gleefully turned the mixer on medium speed and finished a family sized portion of Gramp’s Stuffing in about 6 minutes. We mixed in the not-s0-secret ingredients and put the pan in the fridge to get happy. The parts of the grinder came apart easily and into the dishwasher they went. No more picking at the nooks and crannies with a paring knife like in the “good old days.”
I wonder if I had that same look of determination and accomplishment on my face when I was young. If so, I can appreciate the way Gramp felt watching me put in the effort to create something wonderful to share with the family at the big meal.
Gabe was certainly proud of the stuffing he made, and everyone enjoyed it; especially my Nana, who I suppose is the ultimate judge of those things.
I know Gramp would approve.