Let's begin with a confession: I created this recipe for Thanksgiving. I know that's a holiday nearly two months away, and this post is for MSV's third anniversary, but bear with me. I also know that Thanksgiving is about as insensitive and manufactured a holiday as you could dream up, but my family celebrates it. I think most holidays here get uncomfortable. Folks in the U.S. fire up the grill and crack open the brews on Memorial Day. We hit big sales at big box stores on Labor Day. National holidays are meant to recognize dramatic parts of our history, yet it's perfectly human to want to gather with friends and family when those of us lucky enough to get it find free time.
I don't think the dominant U.S. culture is particularly good at gathering with people to remember and recognize. We're trained to be optimists and told we're masters of our destinies. When someone tells us their troubles, we're prone to insist the silver lining is bigger than the cloud. Instead of recognizing, we "celebrate," with decidedly upbeat connotation. Jovially celebrating dramatic parts of our history gets inappropriate pretty fast.
To be honest, I do love Thanksgiving as a celebration of fall harvest and as a way to ease the long nights. It helps that it's a food-centric holiday, and my hobby is cooking, and I get to prepare the big meal for my small family. Most of the time, I cook for myself. In a way, I cook for you guys here on MSV. But people need people, and actually serving food to people means something to me.
I took over Thanksgiving hosting duties in my late twenties because one year neither my mother nor my boyfriend's mother, the traditional preparers, wanted to cook. I thought skipping it sounded like a bummer, so I offered to host. I've done it for years now, but I went vegan a few years in, and I'm firm about not cooking animal products in my home. The lack of tradition allows me to tweak the menu annually for variety, and also to figure out what plant dishes everyone likes best. That means by Halloween, I'm fretting about a centerpiece for late November.
My hosting dinner started out with really low stakes. I was just trying to make sure we didn't miss out on a day most of the people we knew were digging into full tables. But I'm testing early this year because this Thanksgiving feels like a bigger deal than it has been in the past.
My boyfriend's mother, Shirley, died in early September after many tough years of living with pulmonary disease. I knew her as a selfless woman who always made me feel welcome in her home (no small task when dealing with someone as lousy at conversation as I am). Even though we weren't legally family, I never doubted that she considered me part of hers. She accepted both me and my relationship with her son and genuinely appreciated them as they are, even if the shape of those might not have been easy for her to understand. She went to her grave without knowing what practicing veganism means, though I'd been doing it for nearly four years at the time of her death. And that my boyfriend and I aren't married after the better part of a decade together is probably a fact that seemed strange (possibly even wrong) to her, but one that she never asked me to answer for.
Shirley kind of hated Thanksgiving, at least in the time I knew her. Occasionally, I feel badly that I probably forced her to keep celebrating it. We might have let the whole thing drop, and I suspect that would've been all right with her. A decidedly fussy eater in general, she once announced over a holiday meal she had prepared that she hated holiday food. But her family loves it.
I didn't host Thanksgiving last year. Shirley struggled once a year with weak lungs to climb the two flights of stairs that lead to our apartment, and she'd understandably had enough of it. She instead searched out one of the buffets in town where we all went together, and I made a spread for my boyfriend and me the next day. Now, given that fall is here, one of the ways my boyfriend and his father have talked about looking ahead and spending time together in the wake of Shirley's death is planning to gather once again at our home for the Thanksgiving meal.
One of the dishes Shirley made for special occasions was a potato casserole, heady with saturated fat, topped with breakfast cereal flakes, and greeted eagerly by everyone in the family (except me, with the incomprehensible diet). I'm not going to try to make it. She liked that casserole. It was one of the few things she did eat off a holiday table(*). It would seem misguided, even ghoulish, to me to try to recreate her casserole. I'm setting this table for people I care about who are in pain. It's important to me to recognize that in whatever small way I can. But I can't quiet the urge to commemorate her when it comes time for me to host my family, and I tend to respond to life with food.
So instead I've worked out a potato dish of my own that I hope will serve a similar function to Shirley's casserole. This one keeps it simple and adds creamy fat through foods I'm comfortable working with, almond meal and soy milk. And as a replacement for the beloved thinly sliced herbed potatoes from Veganomicon I used to make for Thanksgiving, it's much quicker to throw together, a definite bonus when you're putting together a large spread. It also takes one convenient cue from Shirley's casserole by using pre-cut frozen potatoes. Though nontraditional, it's nevertheless a rich and comforting dish. It can't do a thing about the death of a family member. But it's what I need to cook right now.
This is MSV's third anniversary, and I'm grateful you guys are all here for it. In the weeks leading up to this, I persisted in testing a cake to post for today, but I finally had to admit it felt forced. A classic marker of festivity doesn't fit here right now. This fall for my family isn't really about celebration. It's more about recognizing and remembering. We have things to regret and things to be happy for. This year, fewer of us will do just that around a full table.
(*Another was biscuits, which I always made sure to include for her. Note I'm updating that recipe this year to substitute vegetable shortening for half the nondairy butter, which makes a dramatically more tender biscuit. I always used it as an omnivore, but eventually skipped buying it. I recently splurged on the shortening for a gift batch and was shocked at the difference. Sorry I fell down on those biscuits in the last few years, Shirley. You deserved better.)
Creamy Hash Brown Bake
1 cup unsweetened soy milk
1 cup blanched almond meal
1 clove garlic
1 TBSP nutritional yeast
1 TBSP lemon juice
3/4 tsp fine sea or kosher salt, divided
1 lb frozen hash browns (look for a brand that contains nothing but potatoes)
3 TBSP panko crumbs
Heat oven to 375.
In a quart jar with an immersion blender, blend milk, almond meal, garlic, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and 1/2 tsp salt.
In a shallow medium baking dish, spread hash browns evenly. Slowly and evenly pour milk blend over potatoes.
In a small bowl, whisk together remaining 1/4 tsp salt and panko crumbs. Sprinkle evenly over potatoes.
Bake 40 minutes, until creamy throughout and browning at the edges. Switch to the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top. Serve hot.