Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and while every family has different traditions, mine always seemed odder than most. I’d never dream of changing them, though; they were created by my grandmother almost 100 years ago, when she celebrated her first Thanksgiving.
What did Thanksgiving – the holiday that epitomizes the “American Dream” – look like to my grandma’s newly immigrated family of Ashkenazi Jews struggling to survive in Williamsburg and stay afloat in a strange new world? Let’s just say it involved some resourcefulness – and some chicken livers.
My grandma, Zelda Marder Singer, immigrated with her family to the U.S. in 1923 when she was 13 years old. Her mother died soon after. Zelda was the oldest child of five and became a surrogate mother to her siblings, giving them all unintentionally unfortunate haircuts, and taking on one too many responsibilities. Enjoying her adolescence wasn’t an option; she dropped out of high school and started working at Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Factory (maker of the best kosher chocolate syrup), becoming the family breadwinner.
Her first Thanksgiving truly put the ideals of the “American Dream” – and Zelda’s cooking skills – to the test. A giant turkey, fresh veggies and decadent side dishes were clearly not on the cards, but with a few ingredients my grandma created a lavish meal. She had enough money for a fat chicken, saltine crackers and some questionable vegetables on the brink of turning moldy. To say she used every bit of that bird is an understatement. From the gizzards she made gravy, she saved the fat for schmaltz, and added the livers to the stuffing.
As a child growing up in a non-Jewish community, I was always confused and slightly embarrassed about why our family’s Thanksgiving meal had to be so bizarre. Trying to explain to my elementary school friends that my family put their own Jewish twist on American classics – adding gizzards to the stuffing and throwing a little bit of schmaltz in everything – never went over well.
It wasn’t until her passing that I truly understood why we still eat Grandma’s stuffing. Why, to this day, we have two stuffings on our Thanksgiving table: one with chicken liver and one without, which we discuss in depth, the majority preferring Grandma’s recipe every year. Zelda Marder Singer embraced the ideology of the “American Dream,” creating traditions that have stuck in our family for almost 100 years, for which we are forever thankful.
- 2 lb chicken livers
- 2 boxes saltine crackers
- ¼ cup water
- 8 large onions, sliced lengthwise
- 2 8-oz boxes white button mushrooms, sliced thin
- 6 large carrots, peeled and cut into strips
- 6 stalks celery, chopped
- vegetable oil
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- In a large bowl, soften the crackers in the water.
- In a medium-size skillet over medium heat, saute the chicken livers until the insides are no longer pink. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the onions to the skillet and saute until lightly caramelized. Then add the mushrooms and continue to caramelize. Season with salt and pepper. When the mushrooms and onions are golden brown, add them to another large bowl.
- Finely dice the livers and add to the mushrooms and onions. Add the carrots and celery. Squeeze the water out of the soaked crackers and add to the other ingredients. Mix to combine and spread the mixture into a baking dish.
- Bake, covered, for 45 minutes. Then bake for an additional 15 minutes uncovered. Turn the oven up to 375°F if the stuffing is slow to brown.