Thanksgiving

I Asked My Grandma About Her 62 Thanksgivings Before Me

November 11, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

As an editor and writer, I interview for a living—cookbook authors, restaurant owners, dairy farmers—but rarely someone I meet outside of work. This article is an exception.

I interviewed my 90-year-old grandma, Jolly (yes, that’s her name, and often her vibe), about Thanksgiving, and what it was like in our family long before I was born.

The details are unimportant—and more important than ever. Because if we don’t listen to the memories of our elders, if we don’t take them as our own, if we don’t stitch them into the fabric of our holidays, our birthdays, our Tuesdays, what will happen to them? Where will they go?

This conversation is full of people you haven’t met, dishes you haven’t tried. Still, I hope it can serve as a springboard for chats with your own loved ones, even if it’s on the phone, technical difficulties and all.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Your tale brings me so many happy memories of past Thanksgiving dinners at my grandmother Lena's house. She had 9 children and most of those had at least 3 so we were legion! In Houston, Texas, Thanksgiving Day's temperature could be in the mid-70"s so there usually was no need for coats or jackets and all the kids would run outdoors then run back in through the kitchen to get a whiff of the aromas coming from the oven There were usually two t.v.'s, each blaring a different turkey-day football game. The noise must have been excruciating, what with children screaming with laughter, the football announcers filling every moment of the "air" with commentary and the grown-ups adding their two cents to the noise level. But what fun, fun, fun! All that is over now... not only has the grandmother passed away, but also this year, because of the deadly virus, we are precluded from traveling to anyone's house. I'm grateful I have these memories to enjoy, as the day could be pretty gloomy without them. Thanks so much for sharing your story.”
— amazinc
Comment

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


EMMA LAPERRUQUE: Tell me about the first Thanksgiving you remember.

JOLLY RAISS: It would have been at my grandmother’s house. I was about five years old. She lived in Newark.

EL: Which grandmother was this?

JR: My father’s mother. We called her Grandma Albert, but her first name was Anna.

EL: Got you, got you. And Grandma Albert made the eggplant.

JR: Yes, yes.

EL: Did you go to your grandmother’s every year?

JR: Yes, she had all the holidays.

EL: Did that annoy your mom, that you didn’t go to her family’s for Thanksgiving?

JR: No, no. We shared holidays. We always went to my mother’s mother, Grandma Shapiro’s, for Passover, for the Jewish holidays. And we always went to Grandma Albert’s for Thanksgiving and Christmas because it was her birthday. And she was a good cook!

EL: Yeah? What would she make for Thanksgiving?

JR: Always eggplant. And matzo ball soup. And turkey. And stuffing and side dishes.

EL: Was Grandma Albert kosher?

JR: Kosher-style. Not strictly kosher.

EL: What does that mean?

JR: She didn’t have any ham or shrimp or bacon in the house. But she would cook with butter when we had meat.

EL: Got it, got it. At what point did Grandma Albert stop hosting Thanksgiving?

JR: When she sold that house in Newark and moved to an apartment in Irvington—they no longer had the room for a big family dinner, so that was the end of it.

EL: Do you remember what year that was?

JR: Oh, boy. [Both laugh.] Oh, I wish Jane [her sister] was here, so I could ask her. She would remember. I would say probably...1944 or 1945. She was getting older by then, you know.

EL: Do you know what year she was born?

JR: No. But! She would talk about coming to this country in the blizzard of ’88. And she was about 12 years old when she came. So I’m guessing she was born around 1876.

EL: Wow. That’s a long time ago.

JR: A long time ago! Yes.

EL: Who took over Thanksgiving after Grandma Albert stopped hosting?

JR: My Aunt Lil in New York City. She lived in an apartment on 84th Street—

EL: You remember what street she lived on?

JR: Wait a minute...she lived at...36 West 84th Street. Oh my God!

EL: Oh my God! [Both laugh.]

JR: Her husband, my uncle Sal, was a surgeon in Manhattan. He was Canadian. Jewish, of course. Educated in Canada, but came to this country and married Aunt Lil. I was five or six when they got married. I remember going to the wedding because Aunt Dodo, you know who that is—

EL: Ummm…

JR: You know, my mother’s sister.

EL: Right, right.

JR: Aunt Dodo took my sister and I to the wedding, which was in my grandmother’s apartment in Newark, and we left the ceremony, because we weren’t invited to the reception, and we got a flat tire on the way home.

EL: Who fixed the tire?

JR: Oh, I don’t know. She called somebody.

EL: Wild. So, Aunt Lil took over hosting and—oh! [Call failed.]

JR: [Picks up phone.] I lost you.

EL: I lost you. I found you.

JR: Anyhow, he always carved the turkey.

EL: Who always carved the turkey?

JR: My uncle Sal. Because he was a surgeon.

EL: He carved the turkey because he was a surgeon?

JR: Right.

EL: What kind of surgeon?

JR: General surgery.

EL: Makes sense.

JR: And then after I got married and had children and we moved to South Orange, I had Thanksgiving, and the whole family came to me.

EL: You were 19 when you got married, right?

JR: Uh-huh. After Amy was born, we bought the house in South Orange, and then I had Thanksgiving.

EL: Oh! [Call failed.] What the fuck?

JR: [Picks up phone.] Why does it keep cutting off?

EL: I don’t know.

JR: Wasn’t me!

EL: Wasn’t me! Okay. You were 19, you got married, had John, then Margie, then Amy, and then you moved to South Orange.

JR: Right.

EL: So it was 1955, you were 25, with three kids. What did you serve?

JR: Very traditional, very traditional. Some appetizers, turkey, stuffing, string beans probably, apple pie, pumpkin pie. Very traditional!

EL: Where did you get the recipes?

JR: From my grandmother and my mother—my mother was a good cook!—and I guess from cookbooks. You wanna know which cookbooks?

EL: Sure!

JR: The Joy of Cooking. And from magazines. Good Housekeeping. Gourmet.

EL: How do you think your Thanksgivings were different from Grandma Albert and Aunt Lil’s?

JR: They weren’t. Not much difference. All very traditional.

EL: Did you like hosting Thanksgiving?

JR: Yeah, I loved it. My favorite holiday.

EL: Why is it your favorite?

JR: Because there’s a lot of good leftovers. [Laughs.] And the family being together. It’s special.

EL: Did any of your husbands ever help with the cooking?

JR: [Laughs.] I did all the cooking.

EL: Did you host all the years that your kids were growing up?

JR: Yes.

EL: So you hosted from 1955 until you, me, Mom, Dad, and Jake moved in together?

JR: The last Thanksgiving I hosted was when Arnie [her husband] was so sick. We had 18 people at the house in West Orange.

EL: Eighteen people? Why?

JR: Well, I think we knew it was his last Thanksgiving.

EL: What year did he die, 2001?

JR: Yeah. You know—the following year, I did have Thanksgiving. And then the following year, we moved here, in 2003. And your mom hosted Thanksgiving.

EL: How did you feel when Mom started hosting? Relieved, or sad?

JR: I was relieved. By that time, I wasn’t so young anymore. It’s a lot of work! What I most of all missed was not doing my own recipes. My stuffing. I don’t like the stuffing your mother makes. [Both laugh.] Too avant-garde for me. I liked making my recipes, my carrot pudding.

EL: I don’t know if I remember the carrot pudding—what was that like?

JR: It was grated carrots, like a carrot soufflé, but heavier. Sweet because carrots are sweet, but not sweet like a dessert.

EL: What are your thoughts on Thanksgiving this year, Thanksgiving during quarantine?

JR: I’m hoping we can go into the garage. Your father bought heaters!

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

32 Comments

michael November 23, 2020
Ditto/ditto: Sweet account, Emma. I'm guessing there's some Sephardic genome in the family portrait? I'm thinking it explains eggplant in the T-day feast... Thank you
 
elyze November 22, 2020
This is so sweet 💜 "I'm hoping we can go into the garage. Your father bought heaters!" :))
 
Linda November 22, 2020
Hi. I grew up in Irvington, and now in Short Hills. Also have a second home in Bradley Beach. I make carrot ring for every holiday. I’m assume that the recipe is similar to yours. Thanks for sharing your story.
 
Sarah H. November 23, 2020
Would you mind sharing your recipe?
 
Linda November 27, 2020
I’m going to try to send you a picture of the recipe. I’m not sure where to send it. Do you want to give me your address
 
Lyle D. November 22, 2020
Oh, my word, this is so heartwarming! Thank you so much for sharing this. Of course, you've also shared with untold generations of your own family. Makes me wish we lived in your grandma Jolly's neighborhood!
 
Veevee November 22, 2020
Wonderful. So so wonderful.
 
amazinc November 22, 2020
Your tale brings me so many happy memories of past Thanksgiving dinners at my grandmother Lena's house. She had 9 children and most of those had at least 3 so we
were legion! In Houston, Texas, Thanksgiving Day's temperature could be in the mid-70"s so there usually was no need for coats or jackets and all the kids would run outdoors then run back in through the kitchen to get a whiff of the aromas coming from the oven There were usually two t.v.'s, each blaring a different turkey-day football game. The noise must have been excruciating, what with children screaming with laughter, the football announcers filling every moment of the "air" with commentary and the grown-ups adding their two cents to the noise level. But what fun, fun, fun! All that is over now... not only has the grandmother passed away, but also this year, because of the deadly virus, we are precluded from traveling to anyone's house. I'm grateful I have these memories to enjoy, as the day could be pretty gloomy without them.
Thanks so much for sharing your story.
 
ioana November 22, 2020
Hello, what a lovely read. I am so impressed that your grandma kept this tradition alive for so-so many years. I am Romanian, 1st generation in US and, minus the red bell pepper, this is exactly the recipe my own grandmother used to make for fasting days. Potlagel is still a designation used for eggplant spread in some parts of the country.
 
Ellen M. November 22, 2020
That was nice. Thanks for sharing.
 
Martha B. November 22, 2020
This was lovely to read. I imagine many readers will feel, as I did, a tender sadness at not having had similar conversations with grandparents and parents now departed.

Thank you, Jolly and Emma. Happy Thanksgiving.
 
lynne C. November 22, 2020
I second the request for more info on the “carrot pudding” that is mentioned. I’m intrigued!!
 
Sarah H. November 23, 2020
Melissa Clark published an updated version of the recipe 3 years ago on NYT Cooking, it’s a good reference: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1018656-carrot-ring?smid=ck-recipe-iOS-share and then also and Joan Nathan seems to have written about it for Tablet Magazine in 2016: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/food/articles/ring-in-thanksgiving. The version I know calls for either puréed canned carrots (!) or puréed steamed carrots — not finely grated carrots.
 
angelitakarmalita November 22, 2020
Just beautiful... both of my grandmothers have passed, and both were excellent Southern cooks. It’s because of them that I also, love to cook and am obsessed w/our families heritage recipes. I am blessed to have many of theirs in their own handwriting, and you know the question people ask about “in the event of a fire, what would you grab?” We’ll, these are at the top of my list. My father’s mother, Arlene was an excellent baker, and being a frugal Southern cook, made all of her cakes w/rendered chicken fat, to this day, nothing taste’s as good as her cakes w/o it (well, because of course if you told someone today that the secret to your moist cake was chicken fat, they’d make a face and probably politely stop eating it 😂). My mom’s mother, Lissie, was a damn good cook!! She and my grandfather were farmers and literally raised almost everything I remember eating (including the chickens and the hogs). I stood beside her on many an afternoon while she made, what we call in the South “chicken pastry” it’s what most (Northern) folks would call chicken & dumplings, except she made her’s w/homemade thick noodles (in Maryland, they refer to this as Chick n Slicks). I loved your interview and would do the same, encourage those of you that still have your lovely grandmothers and mom’s in your life, to talk to them about these cherished recipes and memories. They are a treasure....
 
Bonnie L. November 22, 2020
I love this! Makes me wish I had grandparents to ask about holiday traditions!
 
Barbara K. November 22, 2020
I just started crying when I got to the part about the carrot pudding...my mother was a fabulous cook, and passed away six years ago...no one can find that recipe. Being Jewish in the Deep South, I had no idea it was a Jewish recipe!! I just remember loving it when we'd all get together for big dinners. Mama would put local lady peas in the center of the ring mold. You are so kind to share these wonderful memories with all of us!!!
 
Robin G. November 19, 2020
I shared this on FB and asked everyone to interview the oldest generation, and to interview themselves for the next generations. Thanks for posting this!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 19, 2020
Love that, thanks for sharing!
 
Hallie G. November 12, 2020
This was the perfect salve for all the vitriol in the news. It really made me miss my grandparents... and their delicious food. Thank you for sharing and Happy Thanksgiving to you all.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 19, 2020
Thank you, Hallie, happy Thanksgiving!
 
Dana E. November 12, 2020
What a wonderful read - thanks for sharing! I think it's more important than ever this year to connect with loved ones any way we can and hear their stories. My grandmother is getting older and more nostalgic and this year has told me so much about her life that I never knew. I need to write it all down so I don't forget :)
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 19, 2020
Thanks, Dana E! My memory is nowhere near as good as my grandma's is, so I'm all for writing things down :)
 
Sarah H. November 12, 2020
Carrot pudding! Can you ask her about the carrot pudding please! We call it carrot mold. It’s was a staple at my large family’s Jewish and Jew-ish Thanksgiving too. (We have smaller satellite celebrations now — and various cousins still make it.) We think it originated with my great-aunt, but we don’t know for sure and I’m so curious about the recipe’s origin. There is a version in Marian Burros’ Elegant But Easy book, and Melissa Clark created a more contemporary version over on NYT a few years ago, but otherwise, it’s this extremely idiosyncratic dish that I have every year but otherwise never see or hear about. And never have had anywhere else other than at my family’s Thanksgiving celebration.
 
witloof November 12, 2020
We never had carrot mold in my family, but one of my friends from high school served her grandmother's version at her Thanksgiving table and I instantly fell madly in love with it! I have the recipe and I think I will make it this year for my solo celebration.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 19, 2020
Hey Sarah H! She doesn't remember where it came from but if I find out any more info about the recipe, I'll let you know!
 
Sarah H. November 22, 2020
Can you share the recipe?
 
Sarah H. November 22, 2020
I would love to see her recipe too! My grandmother has a few slightly different versions for it in her recipe box.
 
Amy L. November 22, 2020
I am going to look through (my Mom) Grandma Jolly's well worn recipe box and see if I can find it. I do remember she had and was a big fan of the Easy But Elegant Cookbook mentioned above so that might be the source also.
 
Sarah H. November 22, 2020
I could write much more about all this than I’m sure anyone here truly cares about! But, three years ago, when Melissa Clark published an updated Carrot Ring recipe I spent a while searching for the origins of the recipe and the history of the dish and I didn’t find much.

I just looked back at the comments on NYT Cooking in addition to
Easy But Elegant it appears that a few people also have now written that it may be from the Antoinette Pope Cookbook which I had not heard of, but looks like that has chapter titled: Vegetables: Vegetable Molds and Vegetable Casseroles. Which for me, is very interesting to me as we have always called this Carrot Mold.
 
Bonniesue November 25, 2020
Carrot pudding. I have a version called carrot kugel that an Israeli relative gave me long, long ago. She usually served it on Rosh Hashanah. Of course I can’t find the actual recipe now, but essentially it was 2 lbs of grated carrots cooked with a little water and a tbls of sugar until soft. Then put in a casserole dish, sprinkle with graham cracker crumbs, dot with margarine (she kept kosher), and bake until hot and brown on the top.
 
Arati M. November 12, 2020
I loved reading this Emma—thank you for sharing Grandma Jolly with us. These details are so important to record, like you say, to stitch into our tapestry of holiday traditions. A giant quilt of memories that keeps each family warm, even in the toughest of years...
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 12, 2020
Thank you, Arati! <3