I’m bringing the carrot casserole to our family Thanksgiving at Cowtail tomorrow. Any potluck, buffet or repast wouldn’t be a family dinner without it. I’m not even sure where it came from, but the dish entered the family cookbook after Daddy and Gay married in the early 1980s. Come to think of it, I’ve never been served carrot casserole at any other family’s table or at a restaurant so it may be unique to our family.
After 20+ years of making it a couple of times a year, I don’t consult the recipe or measure anymore. It’s about 2 lbs. of peeled carrots, sliced and parboiled. A half of a good-sized onion, minced. A good measure of the sharpest cheddar cheese at hand. Two dollops of mayonnaise. More salt than you think it will need but it needs it. Mix together and spread into a lightly buttered casserole dish, usually the Corning French White that I got for wedding gifts a lifetime ago. Top with some seasoned stuffing mix that’s been tossed with a little butter. Pop it into a 350 degree oven.
And that’s when I stop to smile as I remember the last line of Daddy’s recipe:
“Cook until done.”
I love the shorthand of it, the way that my father knew that I would know when the dish was right. Cook it until it’s done.
One Thanksgiving when I had just moved out on my own and was learning to cook for real, I wrote the carrot casserole recipe down on a sheet of yellow legal paper as Daddy dictated. My handwriting was young and strong and girlishly loopy. Back then, before keyboards and touchscreens and voice to text apps, I still used my handwriting all day, every day. Back then, I could call my Daddy if part of the instructions didn’t make sense. I can see his hand (back when he still had all of his fingers!), the way he punctuated instructions with his fingers splayed apart and used them to show a pinch or a stir or a scatter. Then when the instructions were over, he would do that little upward flip of the palm to show that it was finished and relatively simple and he had absolute faith that I could do it. Just keep going until it’s done.
When I went out to get some grocery things this afternoon, my heart was torn about–of all things–pie. Daddy was big into pie and Thanksgiving is the Pie Holiday. I remember a year at Joe and Beth’s house when we had SEVEN kinds of pie. I don’t know how to make pies. I usually choose cake over pie. But my heart hurts for pie this year. Emily posted a photo of an apple pie with a perfect scatter of autumn leaves cut from dough across its golden top. Daddy did that. Diane’s pecan pie displayed geometric precision in both nut placement and fluted edges. Daddy did that. Jo had a couple of sweet potato pies going alongside her greens. Daddy did that. Mir baked pumpkin pie with gluten free crust and burned the first one then tried again until it came out perfect. Daddy did that too. Well, not the gluten-free part, but the trying again part.
So with my dangerous combination of heartache and enthusiasm, I found myself in the baking aisle this afternoon, talking myself into a 2 or 3 pie commitment on top of the carrot casserole, the cranberry relish, and the rosemary roasted butternut squash I was already down for. I don’t even own pie pans so there I was in front of the disposable aluminum pan display, trying to invoke the spirit of Sam Garrett (who would have been at Williams-Sonoma three months ago to stock up on pie tins).
As I weighed the difference between 9-inch and 10-inch with lids or lidless, a tiny woman at my left elbow cried, “Ten dollars for a turkey pan? Lawd, they got to be kidding me!” I helped her check to see if any of the sizes across the bottom shelf would work but none was cheaper than eight bucks. Three stair-step girls in winter coats and neat braids waited behind the woman. The youngest, about five, wandered over to a display. “Grandma, look! They got snowman marshmallows!” The tiny grandmother waved away the marshmallows with the turn of her hand, fingers pinching the air to sketch a silent “no.”
The girls stayed quiet as their grandmother pulled silver pans from the shelves. She asked me for my opinion on the turkey pan situation. I pulled out one for lasagna that would be big enough. “This one’s six bucks, with a lid…” I offered. The grandmother–who in all honesty was about my age–held up her hand to show me a folded bill. “But I got $5 dollars and that’s ALL. I got everything to cook but I don’t have a pan.” We both turned back to search the shelves again.
An answer came to me as simple as “Cook until done.” I knew what right looked like in this situation. I opened my wallet and pulled out a $10 bill. “Here you go. Get what you need.” She flung her arms around my neck and we patted each other on the back. I whispered, “Grab a bag of those snowman marshmallows, too.” She squeezed my hand and chirped, “Y’all get you some marshmallows!” All three girls reached for a bag each, felt what it felt like to hold them, then the two older girls put theirs back down on the display so the littlest girl could carry them. We picked out a roasting pan and a couple for casseroles then shared one more hug before the family went on their way.
I walked away with a lighter heart and a much diminished need to bake pie. Pie was Daddy’s love language. Mine might be giving what I have to give.
Cook until done.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.