Every family has some kind of holiday dish made by opening a lot of cans and dumping it all into a bowl.
I’m not sure what it was in your family, but for the past 40 years or so, it’s been the “Green Stuff” in mine. It’s proper name is Watergate salad, apparently named after a similarly hued cake served at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. (You can read the history of the salad by clicking here.) And, more importantly, since she first made it, it’s been served at every single holiday dinner my mother hosted, and it was what she brought to the family dinners when she stopped.
In my family, it isn’t a holiday dinner until the Green Stuff hits the table.
After I got married, there was a spell during which I hosted big Thanksgiving dinners in my little bungalow. Family and friends, and friends of friends, came for dinner, or dropped by for dessert — and I loved all the noise and smells of hosting them: the shopping and chopping, the cooking and clanking, the polishing and cleaning.
It was always fun because my mother helped with the prep the day before. We’d prep and chat, and sometimes we’d have a bit of wine. These memories fill me today, the second Thanksgiving without her.
I’ve heard that after the death of a loved one, it’s not the first holiday that’s the hardest, but the second. That first holiday, the grief is so fresh that it feels like the anomaly it is; it’s the second holiday that teaches us about the permanence of our loss. And so here I am, as I get ready for the second Thanksgiving without my mom, feeling weepy as I think about her and miss her.
I learned everything I know about getting around a kitchen from that woman. She was a really good cook, raised by her mother with Italian sensibilities in the kitchen, which meant cooking from scratch, cleaning as you go, and looking derisively down your nose at TV dinners and fast food and other things deemed Americané. (There were a couple exceptions for my mom, though, including the occasional Burger King run when my dad was out of town, and the two things she made for holiday dinners.)
Before she died, I told her how gobsmacked I was by how she fed six people three meals a day, every day, and how everything — from her pasta sauce to her salad dressing to her soups — was made by hand.
“How did you do it,” I asked.
She waved off the compliment with a shrug of her shoulders.
Lucky for me, she let me run wild in her kitchen. I approached cooking as a wildly creative venture, and my early culinary missteps taught me to respect the science of it all. It fascinated me, how combining some of this with a bit of that, and then applying heat, got you to a soup or a stew or a cake — and my mother was happy to teach me what I wanted to learn. I especially enjoyed baking, though there were lots of stumbles, like when a batch of oatmeal cookies I took out of the oven with great anticipation was nothing more than an ugly, sloppy mess of dried-out goo.
I was horrified.
“Look,” I said as I showed the sorry mess to my mother. “There must be something wrong with the recipe, or maybe it’s the oven.”
She took one look and asked if I had added the oatmeal because, of course, I hadn’t.
There were two things that my mother made for every holiday: the Green Stuff/Watergate salad, and a layered raspberry and cream cheese jello dish that was magically popped out of a Tupperware mold.
My mother quit making the jello dish years ago because it stopped coming out correctly. Rather than staying nicely molded — a white stripe of cream cheese and sour cream nestled between layers of jello full of raspberries and crushed pineapple — it took to sliding apart and melting before our very eyes.
She was mad.
She followed the recipe exactly, just as she had for years. The only difference she could find was that what had been Hawaiian crushed pineapple was no longer from Hawaii. So it came off her holiday menu, and the Green Stuff stood alone for the holiday dinners.
The biggest Thanksgiving dinner I hosted — 18 people crammed around two tables —was memorable because, though not yet medically confirmed, I knew I was pregnant. It was also the year I had to ask my mom to make a double batch of the Green Stuff.
Through the years, the number of people around my Thanksgiving table has shrunk.
This year, because of the shrinking coupled with this seemingly never-ending pandemic, it’s just three of us. And it’s going to be a Thanksgiving to remember, as this is the year I teach my son, now 22, how to roast a turkey and make stuffing.
Like my mother did for me when I was young, I’ve let my kid learn his way around the kitchen. I am proud to say that he’s quite a good cook, though I still haven’t come to terms with his embrace of sous vide.
He’s made pumpkin pies two years in a row — check out this year’s. And last night, after he got home from a Friendsgiving dinner, I taught him how to make the Green Stuff.
Here’s the recipe:
How To Make A Watergate Salad
1 box pistachio pudding mix
1 can crushed pineapple in its juice (do not drain)
1 cup miniature marshmallows
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/2 tub Cool Whip or similar whipped topping
Mix all ingredients together. Chill until ready to serve.