by Caroline Chambers
For the past six years of our marriage, our most established holiday tradition has actually been to break from commonly accepted tradition.
Until 2013, when my husband George and I got married and moved from Virginia, where he was stationed as a Navy SEAL, to his new base in San Diego, we had spent every single Thanksgiving in North Carolina with our own families. As November approached during our first year in California, we realized that the cross-country flight just didn’t make sense financially or with our work schedules.
As the sad reality of not spending Thanksgiving in North Carolina was sinking in, my uncle invited us to spend Thanksgiving with him and his lovely wife at their home in Lake Tahoe. Hardly knowing another soul in California, and craving the familiarity of spending the holidays with family, we excitedly packed up the car and drove eight hours to Tahoe. We enjoyed the coziest three days chopping down Christmas trees, cooking a very traditional Thanksgiving feast (with the exception of a Momofuku Crack Pie!), and building fires with my aunt and uncle.
The following year, prompted by their jealousy of George and my Tahoe adventure, my entire family made the cross-country trek to Tahoe—all the way from Georgia and North Carolina. This time, we committed a Southern sin when we— gasp—went out for lunch instead of cooking. There was simply too much fun to be had gambling in the Tahoe casinos, hiking in the unseasonably warm weather, and exploring the lake on a Tom Sawyer-esque paddlewheel boat. We were in and out of Thanksgiving lunch in two hours—no days of prep work or hours of cleanup involved. “We’ll never cook Thanksgiving lunch again!” we swore. We left the restaurant and went about our day, maniacally chuckling to ourselves thinking of all the suckers around the country who were now waist-deep in a kitchen full of dirty dishes.
The next year, one of George’s SEAL buddies took leave before a deployment and spent Thanksgiving with us at Stanford, our new home while George was attending business school after the Navy. The three of us spent Thanksgiving week guzzling cheap beer at a Stanford football tailgate, over-eating at the infamous Alice’s Restaurant in the hills of Woodside, tossing back Bloody Marys, and watching even more football. No dishes for the second year in a row—score.
For Thanksgiving 2016, George and I convinced my family to meet us in one of our favorite places—Ojai. It is a delightful small town in the hills of Central California and happens to be one of our favorite places on earth. If you visit, enjoy one of the in-room jacuzzis at the Ojai Rancho Inn, one of (it’s impossible to choose just one) our favorite hipster motels in California. All of the dogs joined us this year, which made our gang of ten people a sight to see as we biked around town, gorged ourselves on copious amounts of food and drink, shopped, played cards, hiked, watched the sunset at Meditation Mount and yep, you guessed it—ate Thanksgiving lunch (actually, we pushed it to dinner this year) out at a restaurant.
Despite how much I’d grown to love eating my Thanksgiving meal out at a restaurant, hosting Thanksgiving together for the first time last year stands out as my favorite Thanksgiving to date. After years of renting overpriced studio apartments on the California coast, George and I had finally moved into a home worthy of hosting Thanksgiving. We finally had our very first guest bedroom (two, in fact), a multi-butt kitchen (in my family, we call tiny kitchens “one-butt kitchens”—this kitchen could fit many butts), and at long last: a real-life dining table! Previously, guests had been relegated to the couch (which, for many years of our marriage, was right beside our bed in our studio homes), our kitchen could strictly accommodate a sole butt, and our dining table was a repurposed gardening table in our backyard. My parents, aunt and uncle, and our Midwestern pals who couldn’t make it home joined us for a Thanksgiving meal that could have fed about 30 people (even as a pro, I struggle with portions).
Here’s where I fess up: I hate Thanksgiving turkey. All my life, I’ve passed over the turkey in favor of stockpiling my plate with more sides and desserts, so when it came time for George and me to host our first Thanksgiving, we did the unspeakable—we didn’t make a turkey on Thanksgiving. George protested that no turkey on turkey day was un-American but my promise of a succulent, slow roasted pork shoulder soothed his nerves.
For two days, I marinated a pork shoulder, dry rubbed with a garlic, rosemary, and lemon paste. Next, we slow-cooked it in a bath of homemade pork stock and apple cider vinegar for 12 hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., on Thanksgiving Day. George lacks a real zeal for ad lib cooking, but as a military man, he can follow orders, so as my sous chef he was charged with basting the pork at specific intervals throughout the day. Teamwork, baby.
In our southern family, the most spirited debates are always around the most indispensable side dish. I have some cousins that would rather die than do without rice and gravy. For others, a green bean casserole or grandma’s stuffing is what matters most. Again to George’s chagrin, for our California Thanksgiving, I broke with the traditional side dishes of the south and incorporated a fresher, California vibe. The most memorable for me were my Orange and Vanilla Bean Cranberry Sauce, Roasted Delicata Squash with Chimichurri and Pomegranate Seeds, and my Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Orange Sauce. It turns out when the men in the family protest having to eat Brussel sprouts, dousing them in a sticky, Chinese-restaurant-worthy sauce will put an end to all complaints.
This year, we’re sticking with our Thanksgiving tradition of having no tradition. We’ll be spending the holiday solo, getting settled into our new home in Carmel, California, and preparing for our first baby, due in January. I’m envisioning myself curled up on the couch with a cup of tea, while George hangs pictures on the walls and I critique him because they are slanted or not centered. We’ll see how that plan pans out.
Some local friends heard we had no Thanksgiving plans and invited us over for lunch with their family, which made me realize—we do have one Thanksgiving tradition that we’ve stuck to every single year of our marriage; spending our day of thanks with loved ones. Despite not having established a single true Thanksgiving “tradition” as a couple, George and I have always spent the holiday surrounded by people we love (whether we’ve known them our whole lives, a few years, or in this year’s case, just a few months), with copious amounts of delicious food (homemade or from a restaurant, turkey or no turkey) in our bellies. And isn’t that enough to be thankful for?
This year, I’m bringing the Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Spicy Orange Sauce from my newly released cookbook, Just Married, to Thanksgiving. I’ll triple the recipe, pack the orange sauce in a separate container, rewarm the brussels in the oven, and toss it all together just before serving.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Spicy Orange Sauce
1 lb. brussels sprouts, trimmed
1 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Juice of 3 large oranges
1 Tbsp. sambal oelek
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. fish sauce
2 scallions, light green and white parts only, thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Halve small brussels sprouts and quarter larger sprouts so all pieces are roughly the same size. Place the sprouts in a large bowl and toss with the olive oil and salt. Transfer to a baking sheet and spread out so no brussels sprouts are touching. Place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until the sprouts are dark brown and crispy.
While the brussels sprouts cook, make the spicy orange sauce. In a small pot over high heat, combine the orange juice, sambal oelek, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and fish sauce. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until reduced to about 3 Tbsp. Keep a close watch; if you reduce it too far it will quickly burn.
Transfer the brussels sprouts, spicy orange sauce, and scallions to a large bowl and toss to combine. Serve immediately.
Caroline Chambers is a recipe developer, food writer and author of Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds published by Chronicle Books in October. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Food Republic, Cooking Light and Men’s Health. Originally from North Carolina, she currently lives in Carmel, California, with her husband, George, and dog/BFF, Hooper.