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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.