John is pretty much opposed to traditions. I think they feel too obligatory to him, and he resists Supposed-Tos much better than I do. I learn a lot from him. Like to try new, complicated, time-consuming recipes on the holidays that usually call for roasting a turkey. Because really, unless it’s deep fried or smoked whole, who really gets that excited about turkey?
This year we declared it the Paul Prudhomme Memorial Thanksgiving, and poured through his cookbook to choose recipes. I have the copy of this cookbook that I grew up with, its dust cover discarded years ago, its pages splattered and smeared, many of them rumpled from being damp and then drying out. It falls open to a few recipes, shrimp creole, Cajun meatloaf, corn maque choux, bread pudding. We contemplated his shepherd’s pie recipe, which replaces the boring meatloaf base with Cajun meatloaf, garlics up the mashed potatoes, and is served with a rich, spicy brown gravy. But we decided to take on oyster dressing, a dish we’ve talked about for years but never made.
I grew up hearing stories about my Papa’s oyster dressing, but because my mom doesn’t like oysters, he never brought it to our house. Which is strange, because he brought all kinds of other things she doesn’t eat, usually with me as the intended audience. Deviled eggs by the dozen, gigantic cinnamon rolls from Sam’s, some strange kind of dip made with what he called sapsego cheese. [Turns out Sap Sego is a brand of cheese, not a variety; the variety is Schabziger, a particularly funky hard Swiss cheese that is typically finely grated and stirred into butter. Papa mixed it with cream cheese.]
I read lots of different oyster dressing recipes to figure out the general formula. Our favorite dressing is my mom’s adaptation of Prudhomme’s cornbread dressing; it has exactly the right consistency, not too dry and not too mushy, with excellent flavor and heat from the “holy trinity” (onions, celery, and bell pepper) plus three kinds of pepper, and crunchy edges (corner pieces are the best!). We wanted that consistency, so we chose a cornbread-based option for oyster dressing instead of Prudhomme’s, which calls for bread crumbs and just didn’t seem like it had the right bread-to-liquid ratio to set up the way we wanted.
And then, because I am my grandfather’s daughter, I tinkered. The recipe I started with assumes the cooking of a turkey, and our main course was to be shrimp creole. So I didn’t have turkey parts to make the called-for stock, but I did have shrimp stock leftover from making my creole sauce, so I used that instead. Some recipes I studied called for using the oyster liquor, but the one we picked didn’t mention it. I’ve never cooked oysters before, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I got two pints of Yaquina Bay Olys (or Olympics, the only native Oregon oyster), which are known for being sweet and melony and having lots of liquor. After I chopped the little guys and added them to the cornbread (the Homesick Texan’s recipe, baked in a cast iron skillet with bacon grease and buttermilk) and the vegies and spices, I looked at the liquor left in the pint containers. No way was I throwing that out, so in it went, along with the shrimp stock. Since I wasn’t using chicken stock, I also opted to replace the poultry seasoning with Old Bay.
John was at work while I was cooking. He does not approve of altering a recipe the first time through. He wants to do things the called-for way first and then make adjustments the second time through. Which is totally reasonable. My grandfather, on the other hand, almost never followed a recipe and often doctored to the point of inedibility. [I’m recalling a story about a pot of shrimp and crab gumbo ruined with red wine.] Papa’s food philosophy was that if some of something was good, then more of it must be better, resulting in ridiculously rich dishes that produced lots of ummmming and ahhhhing and high cholesterol.
Instead of stuffing a turkey, which we never actually do (we’re a dressing, not a stuffing, family), we stuffed mirlitons. Mirliton is the Haitian Creole name for a squash also known as chayote. We found them at our grocery store, the not-fancy one where we like to shop because we don’t do that thing people here in Eugene do of feeling superior because of where they shop. When I told her about our menu plans, my mom reminded me that Papa used to call them melletons, which according to Wikipedia is the usual Cajun pronunciation. I mean, Cajuns are known for dropping letters, whole syllables even, so that they drop an r is not really a surprise. What is a surprise is that this pronunciation was not another of Papa’s Papa-isms, like calling cayenne pepper ‘canine’ pepper and mocha java ‘mucho’ java. He was actually right about this one.
While the whole endeavor was not entirely a success—the dressing was too wet and we didn’t scrape quite enough of the flesh out of our mirliton pirogues—the effort meant that I got to spend the day by myself in my kitchen, dancing around to the iTunes Classic Alternative station, remembering my Papa as I simmered shrimp peels for stock, chopped and chopped and chopped onions, celery, and bell peppers, and washed many dishes.
The foodways of my family are a strange hybrid—Italian and Hungarian by way of the Gulf Coast—and what I am most grateful for inheriting is an adventurous spirit about food. I don’t think more is always better, except maybe when it comes to boozy whipped cream on warm bread pudding with lemon sauce.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.