Nostalgia Table [Nov. 2019]

Thanksgiving will be small but not infelicitous. Which is to say there will be just three of us seated at the table, not the double-digit chair count of my childhood or some of the years during my time as a Wife. Though several others were invited, they’ve all found holiday homes for the day and gracefully declined our invite.

Photo: Dar Dawson

“Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.”

Robert Caspar Lintner

This morning was the sort of morning I woke up with a particular task list in mind and was thwarted effortlessly by my brain (which wanted to take a detour to dig through clipped and saved paper recipes for the original Starbucks oatmeal cookie, aka Outrageous Oatmeal Cookie). Back on task, the mushroom soup and green bean casserole is ready for baking Thursday, as are homemade creamed pearl onions.

I must have been about eight the first time a pearl onion landed on my Thanksgiving plate and it was probably at the New York Athletic Club, just down the street from my paternal grandparents’ apartment. They lived, for several years, on the corner of Central Park South and Columbus Circle. As far as addresses go, at the time, there was no better place if you wanted to stroll in Central Park or visit the Theater District or meander up and down 5th Avenue. It was near everything gentile, elegant and smart.

The mornings of Thanksgiving, after a (mandatory) light breakfast, we would step out of the dining room to the small terrace/balcony armed with air-horns from my grandfather’s boat and await the Thanksgiving Day Parade. (We called them boat horns. Cans of compressed air that have a screw-on trumpet with a small toggle to release the air. They are meant to signal distress at long distances. Or call the launch. Whatever use, they’re REALLY LOUD.) In colder years, in high wind, snow, sleet, we wore PJs or nightgowns under winter coats but, regardless of the weather, my sister and I would stick to the railings to watch the parade bands, floats and iconic beloved balloons, march down Central Park West. It was not to be missed and it was captivating.

My favorite year was 1973. I was ten, just. The celebrities featured in the parade were George JonesTammy WynetteEvel KnievelJohn DavidsonLittle Golden Books Characters. [Thank you, Wiki.] 1970 was another great year as I had mastered the art of blowing the air horn obnoxiously loud pointed down toward the parade and BOTH Don Ho (1970) and John Davidson (1973) looked up and waved a big, deliberate wave to our balcony. I was in heaven for days both years.

But, back to the onions.

My grandfather was a member of the New York Athletic Club, and after the parade, a light lunch and a (mandatory) nap, we were bathed and dressed and, as a family, walked down the sidewalk about five minutes to Thanksgiving dinner at my grandfather’s club. Recent photos show it has had a face-lift but when we were there, it was elegant, chandeliered and swanky. The waitstaff was strictly male, as were the bartenders. The white table clothes were pristine and such a bright white I was hesitant to rest even a pinkie. I remember a big black grand piano and live piano music the entire night, perhaps there was a small ensemble? I’m 56. This was ages ago. The piano is a yes. There, too, were always a large display of autumnal gourds and pumpkins. They may have been fake, they were SO big – then again, I was pretty small so maybe they were real.

My grandfather knew everyone by name – and they knew him by name – and everyone parted ranks when he entered the room. I had no idea a grandfather could have so much sway. (And, I had no idea who he was, when I was a kid. I know now and it makes so much sense.)

He and I had a special relationship. “You’re going to like this – try it,” was his introduction to four dishes that will always remind me of our outings together, and to stay adventurous and try new things:

A Traditional Turkey Club Sandwich (Old Brookville Diner)
Shrimp Scampi (from Old Gerlich’s – another post, another time)
Plain N. Y. Cheese Cake (don’t recall the place, maybe the NYAC?)
Creamed Pearl Onions (I’ve always called them ‘Pearled’ onions)

My grandfather drank gimlets. When bar-tending in my 20s and 30s, and part of the time Wasband was in Sloane-Kettering, I learned the difference between Gimlet and Gibson is the fruit (or garnish): Gimlet = lime. Gibson = onions… and giblet is, well, this brings us back to Thanksgiving, sort of.

Here is the recipe I used this year for Creamed Pearl(ed) Onions. Thank you, GrandpaJohn, for always taking me on adventures, even at the table. OX

12 oz pearl onions (found in frozen section of grocery)
Saute defrosted onions in 2 Tbsp unsalted butter.
When browned, begin to de-glaze with 1/2 cup of vegetable stock.
When most of the stock liquid is gone, add 1/2 cup heavy cream and gently stir as sauce thickens and reduces.
Salt and pepper to taste.


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