Thanksgiving, with its sense of history and seldom-changing menu, can be simultaneously one of the most satisfying and one of the most frustrating meals to host. You want to do something new and different, but really, people want to eat the same things year in and year out. So I got to wondering what would happen if, instead of trying to break free of tradition as adventurous home cooks, we leaned into it a little more with a vintage mid-century meal.
I asked my good friend Stephanie Butler (that's her to the right), a Bay Area chef who writes about food history for the History Channel, to help me understand how the meal has changed since the 1950s and '60s, and what we can do now to add some retro touches. She not only explained the evolution of the holiday's menu, she provided me with a very special recipe, below, for a classic green bean casserole, worthy of becoming a staple on any mid-century holiday table.
"The focus in the '50s and '60s was more on using convenience foods. They just made things easier," Butler told me. "Cooking had been so hard for so long. Take a green bean casserole, which didn't exist before the '60s: If you wanted to make that before, you would have to make everything from scratch, make the chicken broth from scratch and use a lot of different pots. But thanks to things like canned soup and pre-fried onions and frozen green beans, things that seemed elaborate were a lot easier to make."
Since the '60s, tastes have thankfully swung back toward fresh ingredients, but it's possible now to use the best of both worlds: Convenience foods for convenience and fresh foods for taste, to create a mid-century banquet for a modern palette.
"When you look at menus in the magazines at the time, and even in restaurants, there's a lot of cocktails, there's Jell-O salad and stuff like that," Butler said. "A lot of thanksgiving recipes would have little cocktail salads like fruit cocktails or shrimp cocktails, or drinks like tomato juice and clam juice."
"A lot of old menus have, say, a tomato juice cocktail that was popular at the time. Up, in a cocktail glass, similar to a bloody Mary. Thanksgiving is something people eat toward the middle of the day, so a bloody Mary would be another way to make it kind of retro. When people come in, instead of giving them a glass of champagne, give them a Bloody Mary.
For an appetizer, try updating the cold pile of pre-cooked shrimp by using some of the higher-grade ingredients to which we're privy in California. "It is the beginning of crab season, after all," Butler pointed out, so try serving a bit of lump Dungeness crab meat in a martini glass, for extra mid-century flair.
"If you got some big, nice prawns or something, and poach them in a nice fish stock, you could have them with Heinz 57 cocktail sauce or something and it's still really good. I don't think that ever goes out of style."
As for the main event, "it's always just been roast turkey. People try to get fancy, but let's not reinvent the wheel," Butler said. "If you look back at old menus, everybody was into giblet gravy, which is easy to make. And everybody loves gravy."
It's not necessary to get complicated in order to get retro, Butler said. "People want the same things they grew up with: Stovetop stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry jelly in a can." This is where the convenience foods earn their title.
One classic of the era is the sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows, which is certainly dated. "Instead of marshmallows, you could bring in maple, or orange juice to highlight those flavors," Butler suggested. Or convert it to dessert.
"If you miss your traditional sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, you can do a sweet potato pie. And if you want to get fancy, you can put little marshmallows around the edge. Things on fire were really vogue around this time, so if you had a crème brule torch, you could toast the marshmallows around the edge."
Toasted marshmallows and bloody Marys? Thanksgiving can be exciting after all.
New and Improved Green Bean Casserole
Time: About 1 hour
1-pound green beans, washed and trimmed
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
10 oz. sliced mushrooms, can be button, portabello, cremini, or a mix
4 large shallots
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup half and half
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/3 cup cornstarch
Canola oil for deep frying
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and butter and set aside a 2 1/2 quart casserole dish. Bring a saucepan of heavily salted water to the boil, and blanch the green beans until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a separate saucepan, add the 2 tablespoons butter and heat until melted. Add the sliced mushrooms and some salt and saute until the mushrooms have given off their liquid and begin to brown, about 7 to 8 minutes. Mince 1 shallot and add to the mushrooms, saute for another 3 minutes. Scatter the flour over the mushroom mixture and stir well, then stir in the half and half, stock, and soy sauce. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Add the green beans, stir to coat with the thickened sauce, and pour the beans into prepared casserole. Bake until the mixture bubbles and the beans are heated through, about 20 minutes.
While the casserole bakes, prepare the fried shallot topping. Pour canola oil into saucepan at a depth of 2 inches, and heat until 350 degrees. Slice the shallots into rings about 1/8 inch thick. Separate the rings and place them in a bowl with the 1/3 cup cornstarch, tossing to coat. Ready a baking sheet or large plate with a layer of paper towels to drain the shallot rings after they are fried. When the oil is hot enough, fry a handful of coated rings at a time, being careful not to overcrowd the oil. When the rings have fried until crisp and golden brown, about 30 seconds, remove from oil with slotted spoon and place on prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. When the casserole is removed from the oven, top with the shallot rings and serve hot.
Stephanie butler is a chef and freelance writer based in Oakland ca. She enjoys cats and $14 ice cream cake.