State of Grace

Midwestern classics and a chef’s sensibility come together on the holiday table

By Mary Sue Milliken

Published on October 31, 2013

State of Grace

My mother-in-law Barbara fell in love with Bill “Willie” Willis, an oil and gas wildcatter with a twinkle in his eye, in Kansas back in the late 1970s. Although we lost Bill a few years back, he taught her all his drilling secrets. At 83, Barbara continues to manage her leases—and even strikes black gold now and then—from her gorgeous farmhouse in Neodesha in southeast Kansas. It's remote and rural: the ideal setting for a fall feast. My husband Josh and I head there every Thanksgiving.

My family lives in Los Angeles, where I run my Border Grill restaurants and Josh works as an architect, but we both grew up in the Midwest and love these annual visits to our home turf. This year, accompanied by our son Kieran, 15, we stuff our suitcases with treasured ingredients for the holiday meal—a knob of horseradish for making bloody marys, fresh chestnuts that we'll roast and simmer with onions in cream for a decadent side dish, and loaves of Josh's fresh, crusty levain for celery-root stuffing. Everyone in my family knows the drill: full suitcase on the outbound flight and, unless I find something irresistibly delicious to bring home, half empty on the return.

In Kansas City, our oldest son Declan, 23, is waiting at the airport, fresh off the plane from New York. We meet up with my sister-in-law Gabrielle—whom we call Gabe—and her kids Max and Molly, who all live in Kansas City, then swing by the supermarket for a massive three-carts-full shopping expedition. At Barbara's house, we'll be joined by my sister Chris and her husband Dick who will drive down from Omaha, so I'm doing the math to make sure we've got plenty of food and I won't have to worry about grocery shopping again for the rest of the week.

Once both cars are packed to the rafters, we head south until, three-plus hours later, we pull off onto gravel road Number 325, and I feel a stir of excitement as Barbara's long tree-lined driveway comes into view. The towering cedars flanking the approach to the house were planted by Josh a year before we met; today, nearly three decades later, it's fun to see his grand vision realized. There are cows on the right, wheat fields on the left, and I can't wait to get inside, unpack, and unwind. Barbara's Great Danes meet us outside, providing a barking escort, and horses peek out of the barn at the hubbub. It's nearly sunset and Barbara's at the kitchen window; we pile into the house, give hugs all around, unpack our groceries, and start getting reacquainted with the farm.

The weather is warm and dry, and the kids romp around the ranch with the dogs, fish for bass in Barbara's pond, and shoot BB guns at pop cans. Once I settle in, I don't leave the farm until it's time to fly home, sending everyone else to pick up things we've forgotten, take the kids for their yearly Sonic burger and Dairy Queen fix, and grab a few bottles from the local wine shop. When I'm not gazing at the meadow crisscrossed by railroad tie fences, I hike around the farm or curl up to read in an armchair. Most of all, I revel in the luxury of taking a whole week to do my favorite thing in the world: cook for my family.

Roast Turkey with Celery-Root Stuffing and Giblet Gravy
Roast Turkey with Celery-Root Stuffing and Giblet Gravy

Celery root brings an earthy dimension to the stuffing for this crisp-skinned bird, which is dressed in a white wine, giblet, and mushroom gravy.

From the moment we arrive, I am in meal-planning mode. As the week progresses, with lots of help from Gabe and Chris, I tick off all the do-ahead tasks for the monumental cook-a-thon to come—washing and peeling vegetables and tearing bread for stuffing. Barbara joins us in the kitchen to share stories and soak up our company; while she enjoys living alone, it's clear she also loves the frenetic energy and bustle the holidays bring to her house. In turn, we love the quiet farm, the surrounding woods, and the long, leisurely days filled with cooking, napping, laughing, and eating—the perfect counterpoint to our hectic lives back in Los Angeles.

Years ago, when I was first getting to know my husband's family, I started jumping in to help Barbara and Gabe cook all their traditional Thanksgiving dishes, including a gargantuan turkey. Meanwhile, Josh would help Granny, Barbara's mother, with the pies. Year by year I've added more of my food to the mix—my mother's sweet and sour cabbage one year, a celery-root stuffing the next—and when Granny passed, Josh became our pie man. These days we've taken over the cooking. But while my husband and I steer, everyone else pulls their weight.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Gabe, Chris, and I are up and in the kitchen early to start on the dozen side dishes on our to-do list. Our Thanksgiving menu is enormous. It morphs slightly from year to year, but it's always a balance of old and new, a mix of whatever ideas or ingredients I'm exploring at the moment, as well as the beloved family standards. Since none of us can ever imagine omitting one of our personal favorites, we tend to make everything.

We always serve another kind of poultry alongside the turkey, so Josh and the kids spend Wednesday morning readying pheasants and partridges they've picked up from a local farmer. Our dueling birds tradition started one year when we arrived to find Willie had mail-ordered a giant pot and burner, along with a syringe for injecting garlic and Tabasco into the turkey. My in-laws hadn't been able to resist the deep-fried turkey craze. It wasn't bad, but it didn't stick—and I'm glad we tried it, because ever since, we've prepared a traditional roast turkey and something experimental alongside. One year it was a barbecued turkey. Another time we added a spicy braised chicken. For the past few years, it's been game birds, cooked in red wine. This year I'm planning to braise them in hard cider for a Kansan take on coq au vin.

The birds hang by their feet in the barn overnight—a scene from an 18th-century still life—and then the kids pluck them. (In LA, we raise our own chickens, so the task isn't that unfamiliar.) They bring the rather scrawny naked carcasses into the kitchen for me to gut and braise. Along with that hard cider, I add parsnips, pigs' feet, and pancetta. Cooked on the bone, the little lean birds become rich in flavor, unctuous but not fatty.

We make a compote of roasted onions and chestnuts simmered with bacon in cognac and cream that's based on a dish I learned 30 years ago working at Le Perroquet in Chicago. Back at the restaurant, we served it with suckling pig, but it goes just as well with turkey. Here in Barbara's kitchen, we score whole chestnuts, soak them a few hours, then roast them in her fireplace and peel them. Doing this by hand is painstaking, but it's worth it—the nuts are deliciously toasted, and besides, we all share the work, laughing and telling stories as we go.

Roasted Onion and Chestnut Compote

Roasted Onion and Chestnut Compote »

When Chris and I were young, our mom's German heritage dictated red cabbage for holiday meals, so we make that too: I shred the cabbage, toss it with sugar, red wine vinegar, and caraway seeds, and sauté it with the duck fat I've brought from LA. Both at home and in my restaurants, I save flavorful fats—whether skimmed from chicken stock or rendered from a roasted or braised duck—and keep them in airtight containers in the freezer for these kinds of occasions. Stirring the cabbage, I marvel at the color changing from dark purplish black to almost lilac as the vinegar works its magic. And as good as I know this balanced sweet-tart dish will be paired with the richer sides, I look forward even more to having it on my ritual day-after-Thanksgiving sandwich on toasted bread with mayonnaise, turkey, and lettuce.

Our prep work continues late into the evening. Gabe mashes canned yams and tops them with a fleet of marshmallows for her sweet potato casserole. We pickle shallots that we'll sauté with green beans, and we blitz together ground walnuts, cranberry, and orange for a relish. I dry-rub the turkey—a 12-pounder, juicier and more tender than a larger bird—and make stock for the giblet gravy. And at the very end of the day, we all gather in the kitchen for a glass of wine while I dice celery root for tomorrow's stuffing and Josh comes in to mix dough for the next day's pies. Had he not become such an amazing architect, he would have made a fine chef. When we finally get too punchy, we head off to bed. Even as I fall asleep I am silently reviewing what's still left to be done.

On Thanksgiving day, I get up at sunrise to stuff the turkey. I pull the bird out of the fridge to start warming to room temperature, and as I boil water for my tea, I see Barbara, always the early riser, out in the barn feeding the horses. I head to the basement for my favorite appliance in the whole house: an ancient electric roaster. I breathe a quick prayer that it still works as I set it up out of the way in the pantry and hit the "on" switch. The orange light glows and I hear the creaking of metal heating up. I relax—a little. With the side dishes and pies competing for oven space, that roaster is essential; it keeps the bird super moist while crisping the skin beautifully. While I stuff the turkey, Barbara and I chat quietly before the rest of the family rises.

The turkey attended to, I pull out all the dishes we made the day before and set them on the counter so they'll be room temperature before we reheat them. Gabe and I break out the yellowing recipe cards marked with Barbara's loopy handwriting and find the one that holds the instructions for making "noodle ring," a Midwestern take on noodle kugel with egg noodles, cottage cheese, and lots of brown sugar and butter topped with cornflakes that we'll bake into a sweet casserole.

Meanwhile, Josh is rolling out dough. He makes five pies—pumpkin, pecan, gooseberry, apple cranberry, and pear ginger—for the same reason we make so many side dishes. Certain parties have to have their pumpkin and pecan, and I have a soft spot for the fruit pies. They're in and out of the oven by eleven, and all that's left to do is toss the salad of crispy baked kale and roasted butternut squash with pomegranate seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and lots of crunchy endive and arugula—a fresh contrast to all the belly-filling dishes.

Everyone pitches in. To my eternal surprise, the entire family seems to enjoy being bossed around as if they were line cooks at Border Grill. The constant sizzle of the turkey and the scent of roast bird fill the air, reminding us that we skipped breakfast.

Around noon, as everyone begins to congregate, I break out the crudités, which my mom always served before a big meal (it's the best time to get your kids to eat their vegetables—right before dinner, when they're ravenous), and I serve a round of bloody marys, a version of a drink on the menu at Border Grill. We've made the ice cubes from cucumber, jalapeño, and tomatillo juice so the drinks will change and mellow, but not become watery, as they melt. The hard-boiled quail's-egg garnish, as well as the chopped crispy bacon in the celery salt on the rim of the glass, makes the drink a hybrid cocktail and appetizer. (I jokingly call it an "apptail," which we all agree sounds better than "cockitizer.")

As mealtime approaches, I play musical casseroles, reheating all our side dishes in the oven while sautéing the beans. I take out the turkey, and make a quick pan gravy with the stock from the day before. Once the turkey has rested, I begin to carve as everyone brings dishes to the sideboard. I urge Barbara to start filling her plate and take her seat at the head of the table.

Though I grab just a tablespoonful of each dish, my plate is overflowing when I sit down to eat. I can tell Barbara, a light eater, is happy—she has a full plate too. Gabe makes an eloquent toast to family and being together, with a hearty thanks to everyone for coming to this remote haven.

Even though it's warm outside, one look at my plate and I am aware of the season: fall soon yielding to winter. I love how the snappy autumnal flavors of the pomegranate, escarole, and the baked kale in the salad combine with the comforting wintery foods like parsnips, celeriac, and chestnuts, the roasted turkey and the gently braised birds. The mashed potatoes, enriched with butter and crème fraîche, are balanced by the crisp bite of the sautéed pickled shallots and green beans and the perfectly sweet and sour red cabbage. And, just like every year, I try the noodle kugel. It's been growing on me, I'll admit, especially when I pair it with the tangy cranberry relish.

We all go back for seconds of our favorites; some of us have thirds. Despite our gluttony, I'm happy to see we'll still have plenty of delicious leftovers for the next several days. As the Thanksgiving meal winds down, we are flushed with wine and good food.

The kids do all the dinner dishes, teasing each other and snapping towels. My sister's husband Dick and my son Declan play guitar and we sing our favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs. We put on the traditional late afternoon James Bond movie (Casino Royale this year) and as I watch, my eyes slip closed. We're not done with the meal—there's homemade eggnog and our many pies still to come—but for now I just bask in the feast's afterglow, and look forward to our last few days of rest, relaxation, and leftovers.

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