Can’t wait for that Thanksgiving feast

Published 6:00 am Thursday, November 23, 2017

By Joel McNeece

Turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, hamburger pie, pecan pie and more will be on the Thanksgiving table this week. I’m already giving thanks to the many who provided the inspiration for all these dishes I will be consuming in large quantities Thursday afternoon.

The star of the show has to be Lana McNeece’s dressing. My mom shared her recipe with us several years ago when, like this year, we weren’t able to make it to Raymond for the annual Thanksgiving feast. My wife Lisa has replicated the dressing to near perfection on several occasions since.

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I’ve eaten a lot of different versions of dressing in my years, but no one has come close to my mom’s. The dressing by itself is something you can’t stop eating, but when you cover it with her giblet gravy and some cranberry, it’s a recipe for gorging no one could take offense to.

I’ve been blessed to receive some of the best home-style cooking known to man in my life.

My late grandmothers, Dimple Ferguson of Utica and Thelma McNeece of Raymond were Hall of Famers in the kitchen, and mentors to my mother.

Mammaw Ferguson made a dish called “hamburger pie” that to this day remains quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

We long surmised no recipe existed, because my grandmother never used one. I had looked at countless recipes claiming to be “hamburger pie” through the years and it was obvious they weren’t the same.

A few years back my mother opened a closet and pulled out an old Utica Methodist Church cookbook, circa 1970, and turned to a blank page where Mammaw Ferguson had hand-written the recipe for my other grandmother, Thelma McNeece of Raymond.

I couldn’t wait to try it and followed every hand scribbled direction to a T, but mine came out nothing like Mammaw’s. The biggest hangup is the handmade crust.

My first attempt was a great failure and left me pulling a store-bought variety. It lacked the flaky, crispy, unmistakable taste of homemade that I remember as a kid. We try again this Thursday.

A few Christmases ago I was visiting with my mother in her kitchen as she sliced up some sweet potatoes with hopes of replicating her father’s recipe for candied sweet potatoes. She had no recipe, she was just working on feel. That’s the kind of cook my mother is.

She said it was her second attempt, and it was a home run. Hershey had never produced any “candy” that tasted that good.

While slicing potatoes, she was telling me how my late grandfather, Gordon Ferguson of Utica, prepared his coconut cakes. They bought fresh coconuts and baked them in the oven. He would crack them open with a hammer and pour all the juice into a glass. He would then sit on the back stoop and carve out all the coconut, occasionally handing her a big chunk, which she said was one of the best things on earth, and then he would grate all that fresh coconut by hand.

The last step for the cake was to pour that glass of juice over the top of the cake. I remember how good those cakes tasted. I’ve never tasted one better. I loved the candied sweet potatoes too, but the casserole is more of a staple for us. The debate is always marshmallow or pecan topping. We’re going pecan this year because we’ll have so many for the pecan pie(s).

There’s no great recipe secret here. We use the one straight off the Karo bottle, but there’s just something special about those pies from my grandmother and mother. Perhaps the pecan pie just tastes better when you know someone made it special for you.

Mammaw McNeece didn’t cook anything fancy but made everything taste incredible. As a little kid, I would get excited about Mammaw McNeece’s green beans — GREEN BEANS. I don’t know how you make green beans so good that a little kid chooses them over anything sweet, but my Mammaw did it.

The last key piece of the puzzle this Thursday is, of course, the bird. I’ve never attempted to cook a turkey myself and our oven will be too crowded with other treats to find time, so we’ve made arrangements for what’s become somewhat of a tradition – a fried turkey from Joe’s.

Ever since doing a feature story on the fried turkeys at Joe’s Market in Bruce several years ago, we’ve called on Curt and Joe Boy to fry us up one to go with our feast.

It never disappoints.

Joel McNeece is the publisher of the Calhoun County Journal.