The year was 1957, and a blushing bride was nervously but dutifully helping in the kitchen at her first holiday feast with her new "big city" in-laws. The young groom's aunt Dorothy, culinary matriarch of the family, had been working away at the meal for days (as she always did) and the banquet to be laid upon the enormous, antique dining table had to be just so.
This was a family of immigrants and their children were first generation to be born beside the Golden Door. Traditions were adhered to as gospel truth, and familial pride was paramount. They had achieved some measure of success, the nation was in boom times, and there was plenty to be grateful for that Thanksgiving Day.
All the bride could think about was not spilling the soup.
The first course was a simple peasant soup recipe by Dorothy's sister Marie who was the mother of the groom. It was one of broth and liver dumplings, served in shallow soup plates of delicate bone china. It took all the poise she'd been taught in school (yes, they still taught "poise" to young ladies in school then) for the new bride to bring the soup - unspilled - to the men at the table.
Succeed she did, but when she would go on to have a family of her own, and serve the liver dumpling soup at her own gatherings, it would be ladled out at the table and carefully passed from her to my father, then my sister, and then to me. Spills would be our faults.
Every family has a dish, or more than one, that speaks volumes of family history. The aroma brings back memories so powerfully that a single whiff can bring a nostalgic tear to a grown man's eye. I never knew my Grandmother, the originator of the recipe, who died when I was an infant. But I was lucky enough to spend my first few Thanksgiving meals in my Great Aunt Dorothy's Chicago brownstone, amidst uncle Mumm's music boxes, gazing up at the enormous table covered edge to edge with wondrous treats.
My sister fondly remembers chocolate angel food cake on pink plates, and Shirley Temples in hollow-stemmed crystal wine goblets. I'm sure there was a turkey, and I'm sure it was delicious, but the truly memorable foods for me were the houska (Dorothy's braided egg bread), the wild rice and the cranberries (also my late grandmother's recipes), and the liver dumplings. We kids ate the dumplings and left the broth behind, unaware that children were not supposed to like liver.
In fact I did not like liver, not the fried-with-onions variety anyway, but remained blissfully unaware that the dumplings actually did contain it until well into my teens when it first fell to me to make them. I had gained an interest in cooking through years living in a household where the main topic of conversation during lunch was what to serve for supper. The sound of the onion, garlic, and liver passing through my mother's Oster electric meat grinder is a vivid memory. Clearer still was the revelation that something that seemed so gross could be transformed into something so delicious.
Today the liver dumpling soup is expected on our holiday table, though now it has become a Christmas tradition, there being already simply too many "must haves" on Thanksgiving. The aroma, each bite of the tender dumplings, each slurp of the broth (which I do now enjoy), brings on that rush of comfort, of belonging to a loving family, of gratitude and joy and the realization that the happiest moments of my life have been spent around a table with great food in front of me and the people I love all around.
These traditions are vanishing. People rarely cook anymore, let alone with their grandmother's recipes. Perhaps we'd do well to look to some of these older traditions to find some of the joys of childhood and the love we share around a table. That, after all, is what the holiday rituals have always been about.
This article originally ran in the Winter, 2010 edition of Edible Iowa River Valley
Liver Dumpling Soup
1 pound cleaned beef liver
1 large onion
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 beaten eggs
½ pound dry breadcrumbs (about 2 cups, plus)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 gallon beef broth*
1 gallon chicken broth*
Put the liver, onion and garlic through a meat grinder on a fine setting (a blender or food processor may be used, however it will puree the meat and make the dumplings rather heavy). Add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.
In separate pots, bring the beef and chicken broths to simmer
With wet hands, form the mixture into golf-ball-sized dumplings. Simmer them a dozen or so at a time (or whatever fits well without crowding) for about 20 minutes, gently stirring once or twice.
Serve in shallow soup plates with the chicken broth, garnished with more chopped parsley. Yields about three dozen dumplings.
*Canned is fine, but choose the low-sodium variety so that you can control the salt level