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Food & Wine

Thanksgiving in '50s Los Altos meant canned veggies but lots of turkey and fun

We certainly had the perfect setting for Thanksgiving in Los Altos in the late 1940s. My parents and my aunt and uncle traveled from St. Paul, Minn., with hopes of starting a new business and a new life in the Los Altos-Mountain View area. We moved out west together not on a Mayflower ship but in two woody station wagons, more "Grapes of Wrath" than "Pilgrim's Progress."

They chose Los Altos as their home. Conservative by nature, they did not know if they would like this new life far away from family and friends in the Midwest; nor did they know if their business would succeed.

With all these concerns, the two families decided to buy only one home - at Grant Road and Ranchita Avenue. A long, private drive surrounded by apricot orchards led to the house. The garage in the back had a small apartment, so one family lived separately, but we all shared the large home. We moved in fall 1947.

During our first year in Los Altos, my parents were still not sure if the move would be permanent, so they furnished the house with World War II surplus items.

We slept in army bunks sprayed white but clearly marked "USA." We loved talking to one another on cranked-up wartime walkie-talkies that connected our playhouse and the apartment over the garage with the command zone, otherwise known as the kitchen. I remember eating from metal army "mess" trays divided into sections. I don't doubt we enjoyed our turkey, dressing and plenty of mashed potatoes that first year in an efficiently separated manner.

A year later, when we decided to stay, our furniture arrived. The dining room table filled the room and was beautifully set with my mother's favorite Rosenthal Red Rose china.

One would think the Thanksgiving table would have overflowed with fresh produce from our Ranchita garden. I know we tried with a tomato or two. We also tried raising our own chickens.

All was going perfectly until the time came to eat our hard-earned poultry. I remember the horror I felt as I saw my uncle running after a chicken with an ax in one hand and an I-don't-want-to-do-this expression on his face. It was a test of manhood, and both my father and my uncle saw to it that it did not occur again.

My mother and my aunt were both good cooks and quite capable of making homemade dishes. But like many housewives of the era, they found cooking fresh produce to be old-fashioned and time-consuming. Modern canned goods were the revolutionary work saver of the 1950s. The side dishes, contrary to most nostalgic ideas of Thanksgiving past, consisted of canned sweet potatoes, canned corn, canned green beans, canned cranberries and canned pumpkin for the pie.

My father always pointed out that cranberries, when carefully and properly removed, revealed the can's design. The ruby log was always present on the holiday table.

The occasional parsley sprig was the only fresh herb of my childhood. But the homemade dressing, fresh-baked turkey, gravy made with fresh whipping cream, homemade rolls and pecan and pumpkin pies redeemed everything.

When a large bowl of dough stood in the center of the refrigerator shelf, I knew that a holiday was coming. The wonderful, slightly sweet rolls were delicious warm with butter at the table and later made the most perfect leftover turkey sandwich snacks. At the time, I thought they were a secret family treasure. I later learned they were the much-loved refrigerator rolls, an American classic, with the addition of butter, eggs and sugar.

Over the years and after attending culinary school, I updated the family Thanksgiving menu with fresh produce and herbs. Like my mother and aunt, I have chosen shortcuts here and there. But I have not found a substitute for fresh rolls or the cranberry sorbet. Our Thanksgiving would not be the same without them.

Ranchita dinner rolls

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

The beauty of these rolls is that the dough can be made up to three days ahead and placed in the refrigerator to rise. The recipe forms a soft dough that must rest covered at least one hour at room temperature to double or at least two hours in the refrigerator before being formed into rolls. The rolls then rest at room temperature to double again before baking.

1 package yeast

½ cup warm water

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup warm milk

8 tablespoons soft butter or oil

2 eggs beaten until light

½ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

4½-5 cups of unbleached white flour

Dissolve one package yeast in ½ cup warm water and 1 tablespoon sugar. Let stand until cloudy, frothy. Heat 1 cup milk to warm and add butter or oil.

In separate large mixing bowl, beat 2 eggs with 1/2 cup sugar and add to milk.

Add yeast mix to lukewarm milk. Add 1 teaspoon salt to liquid. Stir in 4½ to 5 cups of flour, enough so that dough can be touched without sticking to your hands. Knead with wooden spoon in bowl. Place in buttered bowl, turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap.

Let rise until dough doubles at room temperature or refrigerate at least two hours or overnight. (Also can be made and placed in refrigerator up to three days before baking.)

Make into rolls in your favorite form. Set aside, covered, until dough doubles. Bake 12 minutes at 375 degrees.

Cranberry sorbet

Makes 4½ cups

This sorbet can be made up to two days in advance. It is delicious to serve in small amounts before rich harvest desserts or to serve as dessert itself.

12 ounces fresh cranberries

1¼ cup water

1 cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Cook cranberries covered with ½ cup boiling water. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Drain and cool. Process in food processor or through food mill. Strain the processed cranberry mixture by pressing it through a strainer to remove and discard the bitter skin.

Combine cranberry puree, ¾ cup water, sugar and salt in sauce pan. Bring to boil, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Cool. Check puree, adding water so it is thick but can be poured.

Pour puree into ice cream maker or into ice cube trays. Process in an ice cream maker or pour mixture into trays and freeze solid. Remove ice cubes to food processor to process to chunky stage and return to freezer to freeze solid.

Spoon into serving dishes. Mixture may be frozen in individual serving dishes but must be carefully covered with foil. They then may be brought directly to the table from the freezer.

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