Thanksgiving Forever by
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Gladie with the finished turkey, 1982

Imagine my surprise when my dear mother-in-law called, saying she wanted me to host Thanksgiving in 1982. I had never cooked a meal like that before and at the time we lived in a 5th floor walk-up, rented condo, left partially furnished by the owner, with some of our own furniture strewn about. It had a non-existent kitchen in the corner of the “open plan” living/dining space. This was well before that concept was in vogue. It was just the way the floor plan was carved out when this old brownstone was renovated.

Gladys and Erv recently moved from New Orleans to Hamilton, NY. He had taken a job at Colgate University. They lived in campus-provided housing while they built their own home and Gladie wanted to be with her aging mother, our Nana, who lived a few miles from us. She assured me that she would cook, I just had to do all the grocery shopping and have the pots, pans, dishes, etc. for everyone who would attend. In addition to my in-laws and grandmother, Dan’s brother Gerry came up from Washington, DC and my mother came in from Detroit. She stayed with us. The others stayed with Nana in Brookline and other friends in Newton. We had quite a feast in our cramped abode that year.

Gladie sent me a three-page letter with all the grocery items to buy, section by section, according to each item to be cooked for our feast. The last words at the end of the letter: Don’t Panic! Though we were used to living in a 5th floor walk-up and I had great quads at this point in my life, carrying so many bags of groceries up was quite a chore. A neighbor took pity on me and carried the 20 pound turkey.

All went well, Gladie came early and cooked the food in batches in my little kitchen. I opened up the dining room table, usually folded against the wall, and we had a great time. We all admired Nana, now in her mid-80s and using a cane, for making it up the 5 flights.

Shopping list from Gladie

Don’t Panic!!


I saved that letter through all these years and it is the basis for all Thanksgivings since then. Gladie hosted some, when they lived in Up-State New York, but in retirement, moved to Florida, and we usually visited for Christmas instead, as it was no longer a drivable distance. So making Thanksgiving either fell to me, or we went to friends. I wrote notes on the shopping list about how to make the cranberry sauce (always from scratch, none of this canned jelled stuff for our family).

Well-used recipe for yams with caramelized brown sugar

The recipe that Dan MUST have, even if I am not cooking, is his mother’s yams with caramelized brown sugar. These days, I double the amount of brown sugar called for in the recipe. That, more than anything, spells Thanksgiving. You can see my well-used, stained recipe. For some years, we went with friends to our Martha’s Vineyard house (bringing all the fixings with us). I made copies of these letters and hand-written recipes, and at some point, laminated them. They remain in a folder in a kitchen drawer there, though we stopped the custom when kids went off to college and wanted to see friends when home over the holiday, not traipse off to an island.

One year, when our niece was at Brandeis, the pot with the caramelized brown sugar was too heavy to handle and I dropped it all over the floor. Funny kid that she is, she immediately made it look like the crime scene at the start of a Law & Order episode. Yes, Thanksgiving is for having fun with family, and even the yams can provide some comic relief.

Brown sugar disaster

Some years, if my family comes in from across the universe, I cook. But more often, we go to friends and bring items to add to their feast. Though no one else eats this, I always have to make the yams for Dan. I do know how to make the mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, but Dan won’t eat them. That’s not what his mother made. These brown-sugared yams remind him of growing up in his mother’s house, of childhood; it is his ultimate comfort food. So that is the recipe I make for him, no matter where we go or what we do.

Thanksgiving feast with yams on right.




Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Back Bay, 5 flights, don't panic!, Thanksgiving
Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Just a terrific, appetizing story, Betsy. I can certainly understand the panic you must have felt at that first Thanksgiving, even with Gladie doing all of the cooking. So glad it was the beginning of a wonderful tradition and not a one-time, never to be repeated disaster.

    Two things I particularly enjoyed about the story. First, the yams and how, no matter what, you cook and bring them for your husband. And second, as always, your photos. Only you would still have the “DON’T PANIC” note from Gladie to share with us and enhance your story.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. Definitely NOT a disaster, (though a few years ago, I dropped the pot with the caramelized brown sugar sauce all over the kitchen floor; our niece, who was a Brandeis student at the time, promptly lay beside the puddle, as if it were a crime scene at the beginning of a Law and Order episode and had her visiting aunt snap a photo. SO funny, but I don’t have a copy of it)! This was the beginning of a wonderful family tradition. And of course I have the original letter, with hand-written additional recipes for all Thanksgivings going forward. I have a little ring-binder, set up years ago with recipes, broken up into categories: meat, fish, dessert, etc. There is a separate space for Thanksgiving where all this is stored.

  2. Betsy, love your Thanksgiving tale and the photos – your mom-in-law, her recipes, and your funny niece!

    My T-giving confession – I make all the trimmings but I order the turkey from my butcher already cooked!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Glad you liked my tale, Dana. Not a bad idea to order the bird already cooked. I’ve tried it all different ways, from “farm fresh” to Butterball’s finest. To be honest, I am fine with the frozen bird I get at the grocery store. I think the secret is in how it is prepared, though I’ve never been brave enough to do the deep fried version.

  3. Marian says:

    Love the yams, Betsy. My mom does them with orange juice and they are succulent but not too sweet! The crime scene photo is hilarious and makes lemonade out of a “lemony” situation. I’ve tried various turkeys and do like the fresh, organic ones best (but they are very pricy). Here is northern California, doing them in a kettle barbecue is wonderful. They come out delicious and free up the oven for all the other fixings.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I was glad I thought to contact my sister-in-law for that “crime scene” photo this morning and added it. It did make things pretty funny as we cleaned up the mess. I think you have to count on good weather for an outdoor kettle, and we rarely have that here in New England (in fact, the year that David was born, it snowed on turkey day), so it just isn’t in the picture for us, but I know folks who swear by it, Marian.

  4. Wonderful memories and a story well told, Betsy. Love the stained recipe; a pristine recipe is an unused recipe, methinks. And btw, these are not called “disasters” they are called “memories”.

  5. Of course I love that you have that original recipe…”Don’t Panic” indeed. And that you managed to get your hands on the priceless “crime scene” photo! Once you get it in your mind, you just have to find it, right? I have spent hours looking for a certain photo for a story, or asking my daughter for it, because if I can see it I just know it exists somewhere. (I’ve come to learn you’re much more organized than I am.)

    Dan’s favorite recipe sounds so good.. No need to wait for Thanksgiving, we could use some comfort food right about now. I might give it a try. And cranberry sauce is great on turkey sandwiches, even if it’s store-bought packaged turkey. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Barb, I used to post all my stories to Facebook, but stopped after I discovered they are searchable and had a Daily Beast reporter track me down for comments on an old story. So now I post the prompt with a link to Retrospect. Today I tagged my sisters-in-law also. The one who took the photo had already read and commented early this morning after my first back-and-forth with John (as you saw in the comments), so I asked for the photo, which she immediately texted to me and I added to the story. That was about 10:20am EDT, so it got there before anyone on the West Coast had a look, and added a fun element.

      Dan enjoys dining out (obviously not right now…we are doing take out most of the time), so I don’t cook much, but I do love cranberry sauce on a turkey sandwich!

  6. Suzy says:

    I just love this story, Betsy, for all the reasons everyone else has already said. The “Don’t Panic” note from Gladie, the way you did all the shopping and she made the dinner in your tiny kitchen, the yams with brown sugar (much better than that disgusting marshmallow recipe), and the crime scene photo of your niece. How wonderful that your sister-in-law had that priceless photo and was able to text it to you! From one non-cook to another, thanks for a great cooking story!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Suzy. Whenever my kids come in, Dan’s sister Judy, and her husband Dave, drive in from Rochester, NY, so we have a REAL family get-together for the whole weekend. Particularly when Rae, our niece, was at Brandeis it made it even better. I knew Judy had that photo on her phone. It was great that she responded as quickly as she did, so I could get it into the story before most read it. More than anything, family is what makes the meal special (just as you described your production line with your daughters). Vicki is my taster for the mashed potatoes. That is part of our tradition. She always finishes them off…not part of this story, but part of the whole story.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I love the picture of your brown sugar disaster, Betsy. So smart of you to laminate those lists. And “Don’t panic” is the best advise to give a Thanksgiving hostess. Like you, for many years this was my holiday. One of my daughter’s birthdays was near Thanksgiving and my mother-in-law declared after her husband died (sadly young) that she was through with hosting holidays, but thankfully she still brought her delicious foods. The Thanksgiving birthday tradition died a natural death when the numbers hit over 40 people spread across three tables. The family broke into smaller units. I was both relieved and sad, because now it is different every year.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Wow! 40 people! I understand how it became necessary for your group to splinter apart, as difficult as that may have been, but now you have different groups to visit each year, though I know it isn’t the same.

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