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My Mom’s Waldorf

It has never made any sense to me why all the food and lifestyle magazines devote their November issues to Thanksgiving menu ideas. With pimped-out photos of turkeys on the cover, they fill their precious feature pages with recipes for creative side dishes and newfangled pumpkin pie–themed desserts. Perhaps their market research shows that people want new Thanksgiving recipes, but I kinda doubt that’s true. I have no solid evidence for this (aside from my personal experience and that of just about everyone I know), but I would venture to say that most people in this country inherit their Thanksgiving menus — along with other family lore like stories about their parents’ first date — and that these menus are sacred. Altering them in any way should be done at one’s peril. The Turkey in Mole Poblano on the cover of this month’s Saveur looks fantastic, and, as I write this, some experimental newlywed somewhere is out shopping for the ingredients to make it. But on Thursday, I bet most of us will be eating a meal very similar to what our parents or in-laws or grandparents ate for Thanksgiving every year since … well, since the invention of mashed potatoes.

The Thanksgiving we normally eat is a distillation of my mother’s East Coast meal. While in theory I love the idea of a west Texas–style menu, and my grandmother’s asparagus casserole was something to be reckoned with (my grandmother on my dad’s side was a great cook, who sipped Dewars on the rocks and looked glamorous in Ferragamo pumps while she basted), I’ve never been a huge fan of cornbread dressing (much to my Abilene-born spouse’s dismay) and gravy with hard-boiled eggs and giblets in it. Plus, my mom attacks turkey day like a massive military operation — wielding oven mitts and Cuisinart with the precision and grandiose tradition of epic battles. Try to as much as gently suggest that perhaps we can forgo the ambrosia this year or slip in something as wacky as oysters in the stuffing, and you’re cruising for to a familial demotion. I’m exaggerating (a little), but suffice it to say she takes this stuff seriously. Over the years, there have been occasional variances — pommes Anna, succotash, a deep-fried turkey — but they have been short-lived, not because they weren’t delicious, but because they just didn’t taste like Thanksgiving.

So, I’m not going to describe a new way of brining a turkey or give healthy alternatives to butter in the mashed potatoes. Or even suggest that you try making stuffing using the basic recipe on the Pepperidge Farm package (just add extra sliced mushrooms, celery, and butter) because it’s so delicious and easy and, while not exactly homemade, tastes just like Thanksgiving to me. This is a once-a-year deal, and, however you do it, it’s perfect the way it is.

There is no shame in starting with this.

The one recipe I did want to share is for my mom’s Waldorf Salad. This is a very simple version of the famous salad created by the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. We’ve tried variations using pecans, dried cranberries, and grapes — none of which beat this. I get that your turkey day menu is probably already set, but this is one item I make every year and think, why don’t I eat this more often? It’s crunchy, satisfying, and low-carb; it makes a great light(-ish) lunch and of course is great at other holiday dinners, too.

Waldorf Salad (Being an “inherited” recipe, there are no exact measurements; this is basically verbatim from my mom)

  • Apples – unpeeled – a variety so you have some different colors – chop
  • Celery – chop
  • Walnuts – chop
  • Use a mixture of the three (mostly apples) to fill a large bowl – no real measurement, just what you like
  • Dressing: mayo (real mayo), apple cider vinegar, 1/2 & 1/2 (could use milk), a little sugar

Put the mayo in a jar, add a little vinegar, cream, shake well. Add sugar to taste — a little “tart” flavor should still be noticeable. Pour over salad, mix well, add a pinch of salt.

This is best made either the day before or early the day of; it likes to sit awhile (in the fridge) so all the flavors can mix.

By the way, what is your crucial, it’s- not-Thanksgiving-without-it inherited menu item?

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This post has 2 comments

  • Helen O says:

    We always had jello with mandarin oranges set inside, right there next to the turkey and stuffing. As irish immigrants in the 60s, my parents had Jello on the plate at their first thanksgiving, so they thought that’s what you did. We did it for decades. I am not hanging on to that tradition, i’m afraid.

  • Was it green jell-o? Orange? I see why you’re not holding onto that one, but jell-o IS very American!

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