The Alchemical Kitchen: Kitchen evolutions

By Rebecca Brenner

Organic and local replace packages and cans, but the love remains the same.
by Rebecca Brenner

I’m busy stocking, preparing and planning for Thanksgiving dinner. Contemplating holiday recipes transports me back to Pittsburgh in the fall, to my grandmother’s lap, to my mother’s kitchen. Now flipping through my mother’s old, stained copy of “Joy of Cooking,” her cursive notes throughout, I long for being seven. I can almost smell what is being chopped, sautéed and baked.

My culinary tastes are very different from my mother’s. But since she passed away six years ago, I am coming to understand that my own food traditions are just evolutions of hers and my grandmother’s and others who have shared dinners with me and my family over the years.

At Thanksgiving, my mother would let me help her make the pumpkin pies: three full-sized for Thanksgiving Day and six miniature ones to be enjoyed the night before by my siblings and me.

She was fully of the pre-packaged, convenience food generation. Her pumpkin pie recipe came straight off the Libby’s pumpkin puree can and the dough was made by Pillsbury. This year, I’ll use her basic recipe but substitute local, organic and homemade ingredients.

Instead of turkey, I’ll probably go with fish, but alongside will be my mother’s stuffing. Her secret ingredients were Mancini’s bread (legendary Italian bread in Pittsburgh) and an obscene amount of butter. The smell of simmering butter, onions and celery evokes memories that form my experience of the holidays. With my mother’s recipe as my base, I’ll bake my own bread and purchase local onions—and keep the loads of butter.

Her salad was straight from the ’60s: shredded iceburg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, chopped cucumbers, peppers and carrots smothered with canned, pitted black and green olives and Italian dressing. I always had three bowls. I’d save the black olives for last, placing them on my finger tips for a few minutes before eating them. This year I’ll use local greens and veggies and homemade dressing, but I’ll keep the canned olives.

I’ve decided to forgo the canned corn and cranberries; I didn’t interact with them much, or her, as she prepped them. Maybe I’ll make baked greens, or a potatoes and cultured vegetable dish.

I’ll keep up her game of going around the table and asking everyone to share something they are grateful for. This year, I will tell her I am grateful for the connection food gives me to those who have gone and to those who are still on their way, how I am grateful for her unending commitment to bring together the ones she loved over meals; and that my own belief in food as a medium that bridges generations, neighbors and communities started in her kitchen. u

Rebecca Brenner, Ph.D., is a nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health. For more healthy DIY recipes visit her at and


This article was originally published on November 1, 2009.