Passing along the stuffing recipe, and family traditions

IN NORMAN ROCKWELL'S famous 1943 illustration of a Thanksgiving gathering, three generations of a family are seated around the dinner table. Spirits run high as Grandma, wearing an apron as snowy white as the tablecloth, serenely presents a golden-brown turkey on a platter. Grandpa hovers proudly and solicitously beside her.

What domestic scene could be more idyllic?

If only Rockwell had also painted a companion picture "backstage," capturing the bustling scene in the kitchen moments earlier as Grandma stirred the gravy one last time, finished mashing the potatoes, and spooned vegetables into the covered silver dish now on the table. Did her daughters and daughters-in-law help her? And were her grandchildren there too, silently observing the process?

These are not idle questions. Preparing a holiday dinner is a culinary skill generations of women have passed down to daughters and granddaughters as a family legacy. How else can tradition - make that Tradition, with a capital T - continue? From the choice of food to the table setting, routines and rituals create comforting certainties - not to mention enduring memories - for the whole family.

Some instructions to the next generation of cooks are specific and deliberate: This is how you stuff a turkey. This is how you purée squash. This is how you roll a pie crust. Other techniques are absorbed gradually as children and teenagers watch and listen. This culinary osmosis serves as a powerful learning tool, however indirect.

My abiding memory of my grandmother's holiday kitchen involves watching her at the stove, a cobbler's apron covering her dress, as she transformed turkey pan drippings into rich brown gravy, stirring and tasting until the results satisfied her. She never knew that gravymaking was one of her best gifts to me.

In many dining rooms across the country, the Thanksgiving scene has changed little in the 60 years since Rockwell drew his illustration. Menus and table settings retain a timeless quality. But in the kitchen, the holiday legacy is undergoing a quiet revolution.

The grandmotherly cook in Rockwell's painting had no choice but to prepare everything from scratch. Today, our suburban supermarket offers a complete Thanksgiving dinner for $79.95 - a 14-pound turkey with all the trimmings. When time is short, who needs to make gravy, peel potatoes, or crimp a crust?

Not so many years ago, the holiday kitchen was largely a women-only domain. Now, in another sign of changing times, men who might once have settled for simply carving the bird are helping to prepare it, too.

Last year, men accounted for 20 percent of the 40,000 callers to the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, up from 11 percent in 1986. Marty Van Ness, a home economist at the hot line, speculates that some of the increase may be due to the growing popularity of cooking turkeys on a gas grill. Grilling is a guy thing.

As 21st-century cooks pass the culinary torch to another generation of sons and daughters, they can teach valuable skills while still offering comforting reassurance: It's OK to simplify, simplify.

Even Rockwell may have embedded a telling message in his painting. At the moment he captured - the grand presentation of the turkey that Grandma spent so many hours stuffing, trussing, and basting - not a single eye appears to be focusing on the bird. Relatives are looking at each other.

Perhaps the real message of the season is this: It's the togetherness that counts.

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