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Norman Rockwell not your style this Thanksgiving? ‘Zoom out.’

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year. Unlike other ‘winter holidays,’ it doesn’t include merchandising or the stress of gift-giving. It is a meaningful day that celebrates three of my favorite things: family, gratitude, and (of course) food. Every year I try to make time for my own little Thanksgiving warm-up: I watch the movie What’s Cooking

For the uninitiated, this wonderful little film, released in 2000, has been called “a heartfelt valentine to LA’s cultural diversity,” and “a perfect ode to the real American Thanksgiving.” I agree wholeheartedly. Perhaps what I love even more is that the story is light years away from the sort of Norman Rockwellesque perfection that has become the unspoken ideal for many families. In What’s Cooking, Thanksgiving is cooked up in four different kitchens of four very unique families of four different ethnicities: African-American, Hispanic, Vietnamese, and Jewish. It accepts that the modern American family is an amalgam that rarely fits the Norman Rockwell image.

Without spoiling the film, What’s Cooking offers a great reminder of how very alike we all are, even in our differences. Like most of us, each family has unique food traditions. I remember when I married Ed how different his Southern recipes were from my New Jersey-Eastern European food. Soon I found myself baking sweet potatoes with a sweet pecan topping! As the Vietnamese-American daughter in the movie says as her mother slathers the turkey with sriracha, “does the turkey need to taste like everything else we eat?” 

What’s Cooking does a beautiful job of letting us experience each family from the inside, and then letting us ‘zoom out’ to look at each family in relation to each other. With this perspective, we see the differences blur and similarities emerge. If you watch to the end, you’ll be in for a surprise when the final scene ‘zooms out’! 

Watching the movie for the umpteenth time last night, I thought back on my trip to Tanzania last year. As I stood and watched the herds of migrating wildebeest, I was awed by how these many small ‘families’ had come together to form a massive group. When I looked closely, I could see individual family clans—a mother, father, and two or three of their young—caring for and guiding each other amid the massive migration that was taking place all around them. And yet when I ‘zoomed out,’ I could see the larger group, moving forward as one, in what seemed to be total harmony. It was so beautiful to watch… and it made me long for a world in which we humans could move together in such grace and harmony.

‘Harmony’ is not a word that’s used often these days to describe our social climate. I hope that on this Thanksgiving Eve, regardless of your personal family challenges, you can ‘zoom out,’ blur your differences, and celebrate the things that matter to you with gratitude and grace. 

As I close this blog post, I will go pack, and then fly to Dallas to spend the holiday in my son’s home with his family. I have much to be grateful for, including health, as well as my optimism that peace and prosperity are possible—especially when it’s hard to keep the faith… especially then. 

I hope your list of blessings is long, and that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving—whatever is cooking in your kitchen. (And if you need a little push to get into the holiday spirit, watch What’s Cooking!)

Still looking for one more perfect dish for your table tomorrow? Here’s my go-to recipe for Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Topping. Ed loved it!

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds yams
  • 1 cup golden brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup chilled, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 TB maple syrup (the real stuff!)
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 TB lemon juice
  • 2 tsp salt

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Scrub yams and pierce with a sharp knife. Place on cookie sheet and bake for about 1 hour (until a butter knife easily slides through the flesh).  
  • While yams are cooking, mix sugar, pecans and butter in small bowl. Cover and chill until ready to use. (Can be made up to 2 days ahead. Keep refrigerated.)
  • Once yams are cooked and cool enough to handle, remove flesh from the skins and mash by hand or purée in a food processor. Try for a nice, smooth consistency.
  • Butter 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish. 
  • Beat together eggs, maple syrup, vanilla, lemon juice, and salt in large bowl. Stir in the puréed sweet potatoes until well mixed.
  • Pour sweet potato mixture into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle pecan topping evenly over the top.
  • Bake for about 1 hour—until sweet potato mixture is set and the topping is browned and bubbling. 
  • Let stand 15 minutes before serving. (Works well made ahead and reheated.)

Enjoy!