st john


They say the older one gets; the faster time seems to move forward. I don’t know who “they” are, but “they” are spot on. It seems as if we were just bringing in the new year a few weeks ago and now it’s Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving is probably the most important food holiday of the year. It’s the granddaddy of all eating holidays. 

The Thanksgivings of my youth were spent in the small town of Brooksville, Mississippi, just south of Starkville. My father’s father grew up there, and what was left of his family celebrated Thanksgiving in a big way. The clearest memories of those early Thanksgivings were not of food, but of hardwood trees. As a child of the Piney Woods, I can remember riding in the back seat of my mother’s car, looking out the window, and realizing— somewhere around Shuqualak or Electric Mills— that the landscape changed from pines to hardwood. My cousins were probably baffled by my fascination of playing in the leaves in the yard of the old St. John house, but when one is surrounded by pine straw 24-7-365, piles of hardwood leaves are a welcome sight. 

Those Brooksville Thanksgiving spreads were massive, and when those relatives eventually died off, my Hattiesburg grandmother — and then mother — picked up the Thanksgiving feeding responsibilities. The menus at all of those meals were almost identical. Every year. Year in and year out. As with most Thanksgivings, turkey and dressing were the stars of the show. But they weren’t that unique to us, as my grandmother served turkey and dressing during Sunday lunches throughout the year. 

We never ate mashed potatoes, we ate sweet potatoes, and we never put marshmallows on top of our sweet potatoes. Ever. Period. End of story. Marshmallows do not belong on sweet potatoes. It’s in the Bible somewhere — in one of those Old Testament chapters with a lot of begats in it: “Thou shalt not put marshmallows on thy sweet potatoes, lest there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.” St. John Thanksgiving sweet potato casseroles always had some type of nut mixture on them to give it some crunch. So let it be written, so let it be done.  

My mother made a green bean casserole that had water chestnuts and caraway seeds that was very good. Seriously, ion the world of green-bean casseroles, it sits at the pinnacle atop all others. We never ate corn or macaroni and cheese, but always had some type of asparagus dish. In later years, my wife learned a cranberry recipe from a friend, and we moved away from the canned cranberry sauce to a warm, homemade compote using fresh cranberries. It is excellent. 

I can’t remember what was served for desserts in my childhood years, but once I started hosting and cooking Thanksgiving meals in the 1990s, I served pumpkin cheesecake, and still do today.

I have eaten the same Thanksgiving meal for 56 years. I like it that way, and I plan to keep it that way. The only deviation from the typical St. John Thanksgiving meal was in 2011, when my wife, two children and I were in the middle of a six-month trek through Europe. We were four months into the journey, and the kids had not complained about my rule of “No American fast food while in Europe.” We found ourselves in Venice on Thanksgiving Day, and I let them eat burgers and nachos at the Hard Rock Café. To be honest, I was a little grateful to be eating that, too. For the record, there wasn’t a marshmallow in sight.

Sweet Potatoes and Not a Marshmallow 

in sight

4 cups Sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled and mashed

1 cups Sugar

1/2 cup Honey

2 cup Brown Sugar, divided

4 Eggs, beaten

1 cup Heavy cream

3 sticks Butter, divided

1 tsp Cinnamon

1 tsp Nutmeg

1 cup Corn Flakes

1 cup Pecans, chopped

1 cup Slivered Almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  

Lightly butter a 13 x 9 casserole dish. Combine prepared sweet potatoes, sugar, honey, one cup of the brown sugar, eggs, cream, half of the butter, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl; mix thoroughly. Place sweet potato mixture to lightly buttered casserole dish.  

Combine Corn Flakes, pecans, almonds and remaining butter and brown sugar into a bowl. Mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture. 

Bake 40-45 minutes or until center is hot.

Yield:10-12 servings

The Ultimate Green Bean Casserole 

1 qt Chicken Broth

4 cans Green Beans, drained (14.5 oz cans)

1 /4 cup Bacon, diced

1 cup Onion, medium dice

2 tsp Caraway seeds (optional)

1 1 /2 tsp Salt

1 tsp pepper

2 cups Mushroom Béchamel Sauce 

4oz can Sliced Water Chestnuts, drained  (optional)

1 cup Swiss Cheese, shredded

6 oz can French’s Fried Onions, divided

Preheat oven to 350.

In a large saucepot, bring chicken broth to a boil. Place green beans in the broth and simmer 10 minutes. Drain the green beans.  

Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, render bacon until it just becomes crisp. Drain excess bacon grease from the skillet and add the diced onions. Cook over medium heat for five minutes. Stir in caraway seeds, salt, pepper and Mushroom Béchamel Sauce. Remove mixture from the heat and fold in the green beans, water chestnuts, cheese and half of the canned, fried onions.  Place mixture in a three-quart baking dish and bake 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining fried onions over the top of the casserole and return to the oven an additional 12-14 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving. Serves six to eight.

Jill’s Holiday 

Cranberry Sauce

12 oz. bag Fresh Cranberries

1 cup Port Wine

1 /2 cup White sugar

1 /2 cup Brown Sugar

1 /2 cup Orange Juice

2 tsp Cornstarch

2 Tbl Cold Water

Combine cranberries, port, sugars and orange juice in a sauté pan and simmer over medium heat for 20-30 minutes or until the cranberries become soft. Separately, mix the cornstarch with the cold water then add it to the cranberry mixture. Turn up heat to a heavy simmer and continue to cook, stirring well, for another 5-10 minutes. Serve warm.

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