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Kentucky by Heart: The unique flavors of Kyians’ Thanksgiving feasts connect past and present

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

Grandma Fryer could always be counted on to serve “ribbon salad” at Thanksgiving, along with on other holidays, especially Christmas. We ate it as either a side dish with the entrée or, because of its sweetness, sometimes as a dessert.

Long after Grandma passed, the red and green layered gelatin delicacy with cream cheese in the middle layer along with traces of pineapple, continued to find its way to the table of our meal gatherings. And though Grandma certainly didn’t “invent” ribbon salad, we felt like she might have.

Roger Garrison’s broccoli casserole dish (Submitted photo by Roger Garrison)

Being curious about the special dishes of other Kentucky families, I checked around to see. I couldn’t find others naming ours but found plenty of interesting diversity in responses, and I might want to try a few of them.

Roger Garrison, of Nicholasville, said his family’s featured food was a transplanted one.

“My aunt in Florida started the tradition by bringing her broccoli casserole to Thanksgiving dinner,” said Roger. “To the best of my recollection, it first appeared when we celebrated Thanksgiving at the home of my grandparents. This was a formal affair with linen, china, lots of silver, and a big bird, carved by Pawpaw.

“It was Pawpaw, Grandmother Garrison (not just “Grandmother,” he noted), Fowwie (the aunt in Florida), my parents and five kids.” It became a staple of Thanksgiving and other Garrison holiday gathering dinners. “I remember the time that the broccoli casserole didn’t appear at Thanksgiving,” he said with a grin. “I threw a fit! It is my job to bring broccoli casserole now.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

As a young person at about seven or eight, Brooke Hall liked her grandmother’s “green jello salad in a jello mold” every holiday and she got “upset if people ate much of it because it would be less for me.” As an adult, she bought a mold and has her grandmother’s hand-written recipe to carry on the tradition.

Many of us enjoy recreating the unique and authentic taste of a family food favorite. Not just any will do. Carrie Thomas, a Grant’s Lick Elementary teacher who grew up in Pendleton County, got excited long ago about the special rolls served at their table. “My Grandma always made her homemade yeast rolls with strawberry preserves,” she said. “We once asked her to write out the recipe for us so we could make them. Her measurements were difficult to follow since she said to use (terms like) ‘enough’ flour and she used oleo instead of butter.

“We tried but could never master them like she made them. The ladies then asked her to make them and they watched and took notes, but still, her special touch was needed to get them just right. Now that she is gone, her great-grandchildren enjoy making them and of course eating them for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They taste just like I remember!”

Miche Branscum, of Frankfort, noted that her grandmother always had jello slush punch and a dried apple stack cake, calling the punch “amazing.” In Henderson, Stephanie Brown mentioned that Granny always had a cannery of dumplings on top and a roasting pan full of cornbread dressing inside the stove.

It was homemade oyster stew for Erlanger resident Lucy Riffle’s folks and sweet potato souffle for Lexington-raised Susan Gall’s kin. Not far from Erlanger, in Walton, Janet Windgassen-Cook grew up eating oyster stew and oyster dressing at Thanksgiving, and the family of Mary Lynn Collins, of Frankfort, preferred scalloped oysters.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Darlene Godman, of Falmouth, said that her mother made homemade biscuits for the dressing.

“She would crumble up the biscuits to dry out for the dressing she made on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Darlene explained. “I guess she did this so the crumbles would absorb the delicious turkey broth. The best part was she made an extra pan of biscuits for country ham and biscuits for breakfast.”

Susan Gall points to her family’s traditional dish, sweet potato souffle (Submitted photo by Susan Gall)

Another Falmouth resident, Fran Carr, offered pretzel salad, green bean casserole, and pumpkin torte as foods that have stood her lineage’s test of time.

Likely a favorite for many is what former Fayette County teacher Jenny Bronaugh mentioned.

“For five generations, our family always had and continues to have sweet potato casserole topped with mini marshmallows,” said Jenny. “As a child, I didn’t care for the sweet potatoes but was allowed to eat those perfectly browned, melted marshmallows, only on Thanksgiving. I grew to love the entire casserole and still make it, now adding a jigger of bourbon, which was always an ingredient in the original recipe.”

Note, also, that Jenny replaces her marshmallows when reheating leftover casserole.

Lexingtonian Foster Ockerman Jr. insists that his favorite while growing up was a turkey and cranberry sandwich the day after Thanksgiving. Sharon Turner, of Versailles, recalls her “awesome” family’s dressing/stuffing.

“Mother would save bits of bread for two weeks and let it dry out before breaking it into crumbs, adding chopped onions and celery, melted butter and broth from cooking the neck and giblets,” she said.

Except for the oyster dishes, for which I never acquired a taste, my mouth starts watering when Kentuckians sit down for this week’s feast. May all of us be fortunate and grateful to be well-fed for this special time.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

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