My eyes were too heavy but I couldn’t drift off to sleep.  In a few hours, the bus would reach Coalinga and the half-hour stop in the middle of nowhere would surely ruin it.  I was on a Greyhound back to San Francisco after spending my first Thanksgiving in Las Vegas with my uncle from Los Angeles.  He offered to buy me a four-hundred-dollar last-minute plane ticket but I just couldn’t accept it.  He already had been a gracious host over the weekend and I knew that the hefty price tag was just too much money for him.

CarrowsI turned on the  lights above my head and reached inside my Eddie Bauer knapsack for my book on Differential Equations. This would put me to sleep, I thought. I sank back to my forest green seat and started to read but glimpses of the past weekend kept flashing in my  mind.  The dizzying lights of the Strip.  The dancing fountains at the Bellagio.  The terrifying drop at the Stratosphere.  And, of course, my very first turkey.  We were still stuffed from a beastly buffet lunch but my uncle insisted on treating me to my first American Thanksgiving dinner.  We drove over to Carrows a few blocks away from our cheap motel off the strip and sat down to dinner in an oversized booth decked with laminated menus and silk flowers.  We had roast turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce, stuffing, and sweet potato casserole.  For dessert, we shared a slice of pumpkin pie decorated with sloppy dollops of whipped cream. The meal was mediocre but it was my very first Thanksgiving and I enjoyed it tremendously.

The bus was barely full.  It was dark and quiet except for the man in front of me who breathed heavily in his seat. I glanced around and noticed a mother and her son sleeping silently across the aisle.  The son laid his head on his mother’s lap while the mother laid her hand on her son’s arm.  Her beautiful face was lit softly by the street lamps and the cars that whizzed by. I gazed at her and I couldn’t help but think of my mom.  It would be Christmas in less than a month and I couldn’t bear the thought of spending the Holidays alone.  Everyone I knew, the handful of people I knew in Stanford, already had made plans.  I promised myself to stick it out to the end of graduate school before returning home to save as much money as I could but I was terribly homesick.  I was bent on spending Christmas with my family and I would break the bank if I had to.

I tossed and turned helplessly in my seat but before my fits of homesickness snowballed into self-pity, I remembered what my uncle told me as we said our goodbyes at the Greyhound station. “Everything will be fine,” he reassured me.  “Don’t you worry. You have a lot going for you, Jun.”  

Like a calming mantra in my head, I repeated his words over and over.  I have a lot going for me.  I have a lot to be thankful for. His words were very true.

 

Sweet Potato Casserole Recipe
Recipe from Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook,
makes 8 servings

6 large sweet potatoes
6 tablespoons brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the topping

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup chopped pecans

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet until very tender, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half, scoop the flesh into a bowl, and mash until smooth. (You should have 4 to 5 cups.) Stir in the brown sugar, eggs, orange juice, butter, vanilla, and salt. Place in a casserole dish.

To make the topping, combine the butter, brown sugar, and pecans. Sprinkle over the sweet potato mixture. Bake until the nuts are toasted and the casserole has puffed, about 30 minutes.

 

Sweet Potato Casserole

 

Year after year, Dennis and I make Thanksgiving the same exact way. We celebrate with roast turkey and a spread of stuffing balls, mashed potato and gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie for dessert. I hope this finds you and your family well on this delicious American holiday.

 

Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffing Balls Recipe

Shaping stuffing into balls roughly the size of a kid’s clenched fist is plain genius. It has the perfect crunch-to-moisture ratio. It’s lightly toasted on the outside but inside it’s wonderfully moist. These almost famous balls have been featured in KCRW’s Good Food with Evan Kleiman. Check out the link and listen to my interview about my first Thanksgiving and these beguiling balls.

 

Pumpkin Pie Recipe

This is a classic Alice Waters recipe for pumpkin pie made from scratch. Waters recommends using sweet pumpkin varieties like Sugar Pie, Long Pie, or Cinderella to make the pumpkin purée. Most pumpkins are for carving, not for eating, and their flesh is too watery and flavorless to make a good purée, she writes. Butternut squash can be used for the purée as well. The recipe for pie dough is another classic taken from The Joy of Cooking.

  • Pingback: How to Make Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffing Balls | Jun-Blog

  • http://www.queensnotebook.com Elizabeth @Mango_Queen

    What a heartwarming story, Jun! Tugs at my heart and reminds me of our “firsts” here in America..and how homesick we were. Your Uncle was right! It’s been awesome for you, Jun! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving & thanks for sharing these delish recipes!

  • Pingback: Giving Thanks and How to Make Pumpkin Pie | Jun-Blog

  • http://wokwithray.net wok with ray

    May you have a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving, Jun!

  • http://twitter.com/kitchenkwento Aileen Suzara

    Homesickness and missing loved ones really does rise up during the holidays, as does gratitude for all we have. Thanks for your memory and the bright, vivid pictures.

  • http://samanthafoodgeek.com Samantha

    Wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving Jun..and Dennis too! I have to try those Thanksgiving Stuffing Balls. Sounds like a great holiday hors d’oeuvres!

  • http://www.skiptomalou.net SKIP TO MALOU

    happy thanksgiving jun!  I remember i made your stuffing balls last year and it was a hit at my hubs’ office potluck.  i’m grateful for virtual friends like you Jun… stay in touch!

  • Carolsterner

    My Dad asked for stuffing balls at my yearly traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks for the recipe. And Happy Thanksgiving.

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Betty Ann, thank you! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Have a great Thanksgiving to you and your family, Ray!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Thank you, Aileen!  I know, my homesickness gets multiplied a thousandfold whenever the Holidays come around.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Have a delicious Thanksgiving, Samantha!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    This warms my heart, Carol! Thank you! I hope your dad enjoys the stuffing balls.  Have a great Thanksgiving!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Malou, you are too sweet! Thank you! Have a great Thanksgiving to you and your family. I’m so excited that your mom is visiting! Enjoy her visit.

  • Adora’s Box

    I grew up eating camote and just love the stuff. I love the way the Americans celebrate its delicious flavours in their sweet potato dishes. As always, your stories leave a warm feeling. Your food does that too.

  • Pingback: N is for Noche Buena | Jun-Blog

  • Mary

    Thank you so much for the recipes.  Your story warmed my heart.  Family is so important and i just know that your’s  is very proud of you.  Merry Christmas.

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Mary, thank you for your lovely note.  Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • http://howtomakesweetpotatofries.org/ Alex

    That turkey balls are amazing. I would love to have them anytime beside thanksgiving day. May be i want to feel that every day is thanksgiving day. The day when we can keep thanking to God to what he had given to us, to life that is full with love and joy. Just like your uncle said Jun. And I thank you for bringing this up.

  • Pingback: How to Make Apple Dumplings | Jun-Blog