In theory, cooking doesn’t seem like it would be that hard. Just follow the recipe, and everything should be fine, right? You can talk about adding a pinch more of this or that ingredient, or how it’s okay to “eyeball” the measurements rather than level off that perfectly measured cup of flour, but when it comes down to it, cooking is (to me, at least) a science. And just like with any science, in cooking both wonderful new discoveries and horrific disasters can come from the hand of the one who wanders off the beaten path. But if the job is to make a specific meal for a specific occasion, you can’t go wrong with the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

That was (is) the extent of my thoughts on the art of cooking. And since I don’t intend on becoming a master chef any time soon, I think that view has served me fairly well over the years. So when the opportunity came for me to help prepare Thanksgiving dinner, I thought, This shouldn’t be too hard.

On Thanksgiving, one of my family’s traditions is that we usually celebrate with my grandparents and some of my mom’s family. But on the Saturday before the big day, I received a text from my dad saying that my grandmother was just returning home after being hospitalized due to a blood infection. This meant that we might not be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with my grandparents—not because my grandma wouldn’t be able to cook, mind you, but because she would have tried to do so instead of getting some much-needed rest.

Fortunately, by the time I arrived home from school on Tuesday night, the situation had been resolved: everyone who was coming – my family, and two of my mom’s sisters with their families – would prepare some of the Thanksgiving dishes beforehand, lightening the workload for my grandma (we could never talk her out of doing at least some of the work, namely the turkey). My mom was responsible for two dishes: broccoli salad and green bean casserole—two dishes with which I was fairly familiar (eating, not cooking, of course), so I thought it would be as good an opportunity as any to try my hand at making them.

I quickly realized after I volunteered to prepare these dishes (under my mother’s watchful eye) that I was in completely uncharted territory. In case you haven’t learned this lesson yet, college students, let me warn you: cooking a dish for fifteen people is vastly different from cooking for yourself. You can’t take the same creative liberties with a recipe as you might try if you were the only one who would taste the final product, and you can become critical of yourself if it’s your first time trying to cook a recipe that you’ve eaten many times before, because you have the idea in your mind of how it should taste.

Side note: this is how the situation played out in my mind, and is more reflective of my own personality and feelings about cooking than rules that I have been taught; if you don’t share my insecurities, then more power to you.

Thank goodness I had instructions to work with. The recipe for broccoli salad, a personal favorite, was written neatly on a square, slightly aged sheet of white paper in my mom’s handwriting. When I asked her where the recipe came from, she told me that she had gotten it from my grandmother, who had gotten it from a friend years ago, and we’ve had it at almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner since then. The recipe for green bean casserole, on the other hand, was clearly taken from a magazine. Like the broccoli salad, though, we’ve had green bean casserole at most holiday dinners for years. Great, I thought. Less room for error. Nonetheless, I dove in to the work, and actually found it quite relaxing after my initial hesitation.

When I think about it now, I remember a lot of chopping, mixing, and waiting for dinner the next day, but the rest of it is mostly a blur. My mom needed to give me surprisingly few corrections throughout the process, and the results looked exactly the way they were supposed to. Thursday came, and my family chose not to highlight anybody’s particular role in the cooking process, and I was happy to find that the two dishes I had prepared were popular as usual. Not that anybody made any comments in particular on either dish, but I saw lots of clean plates at the end of the meal, and for once I understood the silent satisfaction that comes from helping prepare a meal for my family.

Maybe it was because of the atmosphere of the holiday season, or because I was doing it for people near and dear to me, but I certainly didn’t mind my work going unacknowledged. From the initial stress of thinking “Don’t mess up, don’t mess up,” to the final plate being cleared, I was able to get a little taste of what my mother and grandmother have been doing for my family for years, giving me a new appreciation and thankfulness for the wonderful opportunity that it is to spend the holiday season with family.

Broccoli Salad

Mix 1 cup mayonnaise, ½ cup sugar, 2 tbsp. white vinegar.

Mix together 1 red onion (chopped), 2 heads broccoli (cut off stalk and cut the florets into bite-sized pieces), 1 cup golden raisins.

Fry ½ lb. bacon.

Mix all above components together, marinate & refrigerate overnight.


Green Bean Casserole

Prep Time: 10 min. Cook Time: 30 min.

1 can Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup

½ cup milk

1 tsp. soy sauce (optional)

Dash pepper

4 cups cooked cut green beans

1 can (2.8 oz) French’s French Fried Onions

  1. In 1 ½-qt. casserole dish mix soup, milk, soy, pepper, beans, and ½ can of onions.

  2. Bake at 350° F. for 25 min. or until hot.

  3. Stir. Sprinkle remaining onions over bean mixture. Bake 5 min. or until onions are golden. Serves 6.