We’re Having a Small Thanksgiving, and I’m Okay With That

Oh, the good old days. That photo was taken Thanksgiving dinner two years ago. Our niece, Megan, made those T-shirts for us. All eight of us. The day was a happy jumble of parade watching, cooking, dancing, dancing while cooking, some football (well, we had our nephews with us, what were we to do?), and eating. Lots and lots of eating.

This year’s different, for oh-so-many reasons. Coronavirus, obviously. But, even more devastating to us, my dad died in January. I haven’t spent Thanksgiving in Swansea, MA, with my parents in years, so The One and I decided to visit Momma Leite for a few days over the holiday weekend this year. That means more COVID tests and more isolation. Oh joy! Oh rapture!

At first, we thought, to hell with a big Thanksgiving dinner! Just being with Momma is enough. That lasted all of two minutes. We both love everything Thanksgiving–the decorating, shopping, cooking, eating, and leftovers. So we’ll be damned if we don’t make this year count.

The plan is to pack up our turkey salt-and-pepper shakers, two of which are from my Vovo Costa and are older than me, pumpkin candles, decorator leaves, leaf placemats, and a bunch of pumpkins to decorate my mom’s table.

We were going to cook up in Swansea, but since my mom’s stove hasn’t been turned on in years, we didn’t want to hazard a disaster. Instead, we’re making everything here the day before, and reheating up there. (Pictures to follow, natch.)

One thing that has never wavered is our Thanksgiving menu. I was all for doing half recipes, but The One, who counts Thanksgiving as Abraham Lincoln’s second-best executive action, demanded the full monty.

“Leftovers,” he chanted like a mantra. “Leftovers.” So full recipes it shall be.


Our Threesome Thanksgiving Menu

To start, we’ll have Pumpkin-Cider Soup. As most of you know, my boy is out of his gourd about the gourd. And how can you deny a man who’s willing to cook for his quasi-unlawful mother-in-law? (He steadfastly refuses to marry me, so I’m his unlawfully wedded husband–hence my mom’s moniker by proxy.)

Pumpkin cider soup in a blue and white teacup, garnished with crème frâiche and chives.
: Leigh Beisch

With Momma Leite and me being Portuguese, there’s no question that the bird will be my Portuguese Turkey. What makes it Portuguese, you ask? Good question. It’s simple really: It’s stuffed with orange and lemon slices and rubbed all over with paprika-infused butter. What really makes it Portuguese are the two dressings. One is my Vovo Costa’s chouriço bread stuffing (below right). It’s so insanely good, neighborhood dogs have been known to bay at our back door when she made it. Basically, it’s stale bread mixed with chopped cooked chouriço (sausage), onions, garlic, tomato paste, crushed red pepper flakes, beef stock, and tons of paprika. (Yes, we “pork chops” love our paprika.) The other dressing is my godmother’s contribution to the table (below left). It’s a potato-and-sweet-sausage little number spiked with plenty of nutmeg. Out of this world.

A Portuguese roast turkey with two stuffings in white bowls with a spoon resting in one of the bowls.
: Holly Jennings

Yet we’re not having either of those. The One is a huge fan of Stove Top Stuffing. I mean huuuuuuuge. He loves this stuffing more than his Velveeta. And, again, how can you deny a guy who cooks for your mother? But I refuse to serve it as directed. Nope, nada, no can do. I’ll dress it up so even the snottiest of culinistas would be none the wiser. I’m not sure which way I’ll go yet–nuts, cheese, sausage, oysters? I’ll keep you posted.

For vegetables, The One has to have a sweet-potato something. Sometimes it’s a gratin, sometimes bourbon-braised sweet potatoes, and sometimes a classic sweet potato casserole. But this year, it’s going to be a Sweet Potato Soufflé. It’s airy, rich, and has a killer pecan streusel on top.

An oval dish of old-fashioned potato gratin, with a bottle and decanter of wine behind it.
: Christopher Hirsheimer

I’m not a big fan of anything sweet during my dinner, so I’m also making an old-fashion potato gratin. But I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute, because, folks, have you seen these Aligot Potatoes? They’re potatoes + cheese + potatoes + cheese + cream. I mean, come on! Who in their right mind could resist these? (My condolences to the lactose intolerant.)

A person holding a spoonful of aligot potatoes over a copper pot.
: Quentin Bacon

Of course, there needs to be a green vegetable. But this is one holiday when it’s acceptable for healthy greens to act as nothing more than a delivery system for more cream and butter. The top contender is Creamed Spinach. I like this one because it doesn’t start with a roux–a flour-and-butter mixture–so it’s gluten-free. Not that any of us are gluten intolerant, but I’ll take virtue any way I can.

A copper pot filled with creamed spinach.
: Christopher Hirsheimer

Cranberries–ah, those sweet little tarts of the Thanksgiving table. I’m not that gung ho about cranberry sauce. I think I’ve been traumatized by seeing too many ribbed red corks farting out of cans when I was a kid, but I know my mom loves it. Although we love an apple-cranberry sauce, I’m convinced Momma Leite will turn up her nose if it’s not somewhat close to ye ole Ocean Spray jellied sauce. So we’re pretty sure we’re going with this Cranberry and Orange Relish.

Cranberry and orange relish in a white bowl on a baking sheet
: ckimballphoto

Dessert. Well, I have little wiggle room when it comes to dessert. As I said, The One’s a pumpkin aficionado, and he insisted upon my Pumpkin Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting. Again. And again³. In fact, this has been a tradition ever since I developed the recipe about 20 years ago. It’s never failed. Momma Leite has a wicked sweet tooth, and, as I write this, I don’t recollect ever making it for her, so I think it’ll be a treat.

A pumpkin cake with maple-cream cheese frosting on a cake stand.
: David Leite

It’ll be a hard holiday for us–the first Thanksgiving since Papa Leite passed, the first since COVID began. I think I’ll ask my mom to set a plate at my dad’s spot out of respect and remembrance. My heart breaks knowing hundreds of thousands of families–perhaps even yours–will be doing the same, but due to very different circumstances.

Regardless, I wish you and yours a blessed Thanksgiving. I hope whether you’ll be together with loved ones, sharing a meal with family over Zoom, or by yourself, that you’re safe, loved, and well fed. And in this horrid, wretched, despicable year, I truly hope you can find something, even just one thing, to be thankful for. We’re bigger than this.

David Leite's handwritten signature of 'David.'

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. That was a fun read. I hope that you and Momma and The One have a lovely T Day. It’s nice to know how others are adapting. Good call on the unused oven. By the way, I, like The One, am a Stove Top gal myself, although there’s much jazzing up of it! I’m all about the leftovers and Thanksgiving sandwiches. I like to throw a little coleslaw on mine, but not the sweet version, basically cabbage with a dressing.

    I am reading your Notes On a Banana right now. Your honesty and humour are quite compelling.

    1. serafinadellarosa, thank you so much for the kind words. They mean a lot. And I’m over the moon you’re enjoying Notes on a Banana. But what really strikes my fancy is that coleslaw on a Tday sandwich. Brilliant!

  2. The recipes sound great, especially pumpkin cake. Might begin a birthday tradition (mad about the gourd myself).

    Writing to express condolences. My own heart breaks thinking of the loss and first holidays without loved ones presence or even voices on the phone. Hope you’ll feel his presence and enjoy that of everyone else there.

    1. Jen, thank you so much for your kind words. It is so very hard. I’m here now with Momma Leite (I come here about every 2 weeks or so), and she’s having a hard go of it.

  3. What?? I thought you and the One were married? Why does he refuse to marry one of the most delightful, funny, big hearted people that I don’t know??

    1. Chris, you’re going to have to ask him! He thinks that if we got married, we’d suddenly split–after 27 years together. Maybe we need to start a petition!

      1. Well, he’s just going to have to get over that silly notion! And David, I was so shocked when I read that the One refused to marry you that I forgot to tell you how sorry I was to learn that you lost your Dad this year…One of life’s biggest heartbreaks but so glad you can be with your Mom and help each other with the loss of your beloved Dad now during the holidays. Take good care!

        1. Chris, thank you. Yes, silly, silly man. And superstitious. You take good care, too. And happy Thanksgiving!

      2. I too would like to see you married, but you have to remember that he’s with you because he WANTS to be, instead of because he HAS to be. Love you both.