By Lauren M. Johnson and Amanda Jackson, CNN Photo Editing by Heather Fulbright and Will Lanzoni, CNN
The holiday season is upon us, many of us have prepared our menus for the holiday dinners and parties. Some of you may be pulling grandma’s braciole recipe steeped in tomato sauce or that creamy garlic mash your mom made every Thanksgiving. Or you may be undecided about using a tried and true roast turkey recipe your family has passed down for decades or frying something new.
Whatever it is you are cooking, we all have memorable stories about the food that has been prepared and the recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation.
These are those stories. The ones about a certain dessert that is now being made by their grandson or the ones about treasured recipes that were forged through war or hardship.
It’s not the dishes themselves that have any magical powers, but the memories that come flooding back every time we take a bite.
If you aren’t a fan of dates you still may want to take a bite
Barbara Rhea, 78 | Beavercreek, OH
Barbara Rhea has been cooking date nut pinwheel cookies since she was eight when she and her four siblings went to live with her grandmother.
Rhea said her grandmother baked the cookies all the time and she would sit in the kitchen and watch her make the sweet creations, which had been written on a piece of paper around the time she married in the early 1900s. Her family has been using the original recipe to make her cookies ever since.
When her grandmother died in 1957, the responsibility to make the cookies full of dates and walnuts fell to her aunt.
“She made them every Christmas and then my aunt took over… and then somehow I got interested in doing it,” Rhea said. “My aunt passed away in 1991 so since then, I’m the only one who has been doing it.”
She said she’s already looking to pass the recipe to the next generation, with her daughter and two of her grandsons interested in continuing the tradition.
“People will say I don’t like dates, but when they eat these, they like these,” she said.
And her proof is when she replaced the dough with crescent rolls and finished as a top-five dessert at the 1988 Pillsbury Bake-off.
A sweet potato pie tradition that almost wasn’t
Sheila Connors, 69 & Jasmine Myers, 66 | Maple Shade, NJ
Sheila Connors’ mom was a cook and a baker all of her life and her famous Thanksgiving dessert was her sweet potato pie.
Connors and her niece Jasmine Myers said no one was allowed in the kitchen while she was cooking, and she would make 10 pies every year for the guests to take home.
“It wasn’t just sweet potato pies, but it was the feature, if you will,” Myers said. “That was the highlight and everyone went home with their own.”
For years, no one knew how to make the pie expect for Connors’ mom, until one day, when Connors was 31, her mom called her into the kitchen.
“I thought there was going to be a recipe or something to follow, but no, she dictated off all the measurements,” Connors said. “Taste testing as she went along, she knew when she needed to add more of any particular spice or sugar.”
Connors did her best to write everything down, so there would at least be instructions to follow.
Little did Connors know her mom would pass away the next year.
It isn’t lost on the women the tradition could have stopped if Connors had not been called into the kitchen.
Connors plans to share the recipe with one of her nieces, so the recipe can continue on.
The cheesecake recipe to appease even non-cheesecake lovers
Gary Brown, 65 | Hollywood, FL
In 1981, Gary Brown worked at a summer camp as he waited to take his board exams to become a registered nurse. He swapped recipes with another counselor at the camp. The cheesecake recipe he received would go on to become his signature dish, even 40 years later he is still making it every year for the holidays.
“It was my signature contribution to the holiday parties and meals,” he said. “All of a sudden, all these years later, I generated my own tradition and didn’t even realize it.”
He said he still has the original piece of paper with the recipe written on it, although it is now well-worn with some vanilla stains on it. While he has made some tweaks to the pie’s crust over the years, he hasn’t changed anything else.
“It’s my shtick,” he said. “It’s what I do at the holidays to give back.”
The recipe has also been a favorite among non-cheesecake lovers, his wife included.
Her mother passed away in 1987. The year before, she made her a cookbook with favorite family recipes
Vicky Dorsey Ott, 59 | Cincinnati, OH
For Christmas 1986, Vicky Dorsey Ott received a gift she would cherish forever — a handmade cookbook from her mother titled “…and stir in a little love.” Her mother, June Hairston Dorsey, died in February 1987 after battling cancer. She was 50 years old.
“This was one of the things she did before she died,” said Dorsey Ott, who added her four siblings also received the cookbook. “She passed down these recipes.”
The book is filled with a variety of family favorite recipes with commentary on the entries where her mom added notes like “Vicky made this for class.” Each note associated with a memory from childhood.
“It’s such a lovely connection to have with someone,” she said. “Each time we make a recipe we think of her. I can share a piece of her with them.”
Now, nearly 35 years later, she has passed along the recipes to her own daughters. While she said it’s near impossible to choose a single favorite, she said she would probably have to pick the “Sour Cream Cinnamon Coffee Cake.” The recipe was given to her mom by neighbors. It is a crowd-pleaser and best enjoyed warm.
The most unusual Thanksgiving dish of them all — a carrot mold
Sue Trock, 66 | Las Vegas, NV
So, what is a carrot mold?
“It’s not a vegetable, it’s not a cake and not a bread,” said Trock. “It’s served next to the mashed potatoes and stuffing. It’s really good. Just try it.”
The dish was made by her mom, Clara Berkowitz, who brought it to every Thanksgiving, no matter who hosted. It was a long-standing Thanksgiving tradition Trock has now taken over since her mother passed away in 2007. She even has a 50-year-old handwritten recipe card her mom gave her with all the ingredients.
“My mother had beautiful handwriting,” said Trock. “Seeing her handwriting and all the times it was used is a nice feeling.”
She said her cousins have also carried on the tradition of the carrot mold and often call her for the unique recipe. While discussing the recipe, Trock began to cry as she remembered her mom and the all the memories they made around the holiday table.
Over 100 years later, this potato stuffing recipe has been served to six generations
Maureen Morales, 73 | Kingwood, TX
For Maureen Morales one holiday dish that stands out to her is her Great Grandmother’s potato dressing. The day before Thanksgiving, she would watch as her Great Grandmother Mary Hughes prepared for the holiday feast.
“I can remember being at the kitchen table with grandma cutting potatoes and peeling them,” she told CNN. “I think my love for cooking came from her. “
The recipe was believed to be an old Irish recipe since Hughes emigrated to America in the early 1900s. But the family learned it was actually a recipe given to her by their neighbors who emigrated from Germany. More than 100 years later, the potato stuffing has become a staple dish at the family holiday dinners and has been served to six generations.
“It’s our own Thanksgiving story,” she said.
Snowball cake and cheese straws: these are a few of their favorite things
Toni Robinson, 59 | Clarkston, MI
Toni Robinson said she can still remember her grandmother making her famous cheese straws and eating her mom’s snowball cake for the holidays.
Her grandmother would always come over for thanksgiving with a big bag of the cheese straws and it was always something she and her sisters looked forward to, she said.
Since her grandmother’s death, one of her sisters makes the straws for each of the family’s during the holidays using a cookie press. It’s a staple in the house this time of year.
“Now our kids know about these cheese straws even more so than we did,” Robinson said.
When it comes to the snowball cake, Robinson admits it’s been less of a tradition since no one could make it like her mom.
“Everything was always so beautiful,” Robinson said. “She frosted it with whipped cream and covered it with tons of white coconut flakes.”
In a perfect dome, Robinson said it genuinely looked like half a snowball sitting on the table, and she looks forward to attempting to make it like her mom this year.
Grandmother’s dressing had so much sage the bread turned green
Amy Rafferty, 52 | Chicago, Illinois
A vivid memory from childhood Amy Rafferty remembers is how green the bread in her grandmother’s dressing was at Thanksgiving because she used so much sage to cook with. But she says every year, without fail, the sage centric dressing sat on the holiday table waiting to be devoured alongside the turkey.
“That was one food item that I remember for her because it did stand out and it overwhelmed the plate,” she said. “We ate it though.”
Even now when Rafferty smells sage she is taken back to the memories of her grandmother, Mary Ann Smith.
“So now when I cook with sage and smell it wafting through the house I remember my grandma so young, and those days with family (most are gone now) all through such childish and innocent eyes,” she said. “So, is the sage dressing a good recipe? Meh. Is it treasured? Absolutely.”
A Great Depression moneymaker still brings joy to the table
Jody S. Woods, 64 | Grand Prairie, TX
Jody S. Woods says his great-grandmother sold her famous pound cakes to eke out extra money during the Great Depression. The recipe helped put food on their table and has been passed down to the women of his family for generations.
“It was awesome. It was like eating a heart attack,” he said of the rich desert.
Woods said his great-grandmother made the cakes with things she had on hand at her home near Arkansas.
“They grew their own wheat and they had their own chickens, so a lot of this stuff was free — a lot of the ingredients were free,” Woods said. “So they used the income from that as part of the way to feed the family.”
Woods, an auditor in the Fort Worth area, says his mom taught the recipe to his older sisters when they were old enough.
Women who married into the family — like his wife — don’t traditionally get the recipe right away.
“They had to earn their way into the trust,” he said.
He’d only been married for about two years when his mom died, so she never passed on the recipe.
“I think it was just more of an oversight because we dated for nine years,” he said.
Woods said he gives his sisters a hard time because they haven’t given it to his wife over their 36-year marriage.
In fairness, he admits they have offered it to her.
“I keep saying ‘No, I won’t have a story then,'” he said.
Wood said his sisters plan to share the recipe with his daughter to keep the tradition going.
The not-so-secret Mom’s pumpkin pie recipe
Jessica Dilsaver-Sandusky, 35 | Bowling Green, KY
For as long as Jessica Dilsaver-Sandusky can remember, her mother, Deb Scott, made a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving that become famous within the family.
“It was the perfect blend of spices, subtle sweetness, and rich flavor no store-bought pie could match,” she said.
After her mother passed away suddenly in 2018, Dilsaver-Sandusky said Thanksgiving wasn’t the same without the secret pumpkin pie her mom made. Her mom never shared the recipe and said it was only in her heart and mind. But it all changed when Dilsaver-Sandusky and her sister were going through her mom’s belongings.
They came across a recipe book, but the “secret” pie recipe turned out not to be so secret after all.
“Taped to a page in her handwritten cookbook was a recipe titled ‘Deb’s Pumpkin Pie’, with a Libby’s canned pumpkin label and their company recipe for pumpkin pie underneath,” she said. “All along mom’s famous pumpkin pie was on the back of my can of pumpkin! Thank you, Libby’s, for the pie; thank you mom, for the best memory of Thanksgiving.”
A turkey pan that lasts for generations
Lorrie Jones, 65 | Sandy Hook, CT
For Lorrie Jones and her family, when it comes to Thanksgiving the proof is in the pan.
The turkey pan has been passed down since her mom, a WWII vet, bought it in the 1950s. Made of heavy-gauge aluminum it’s a baking staple for the holiday.
“The main dish is turkey, right?” Jones said. “Her pan just made a really good bird.”
About thirty years ago, Jones started having the big thanksgiving dinner at her home, and her mom asked if she wanted to use the pan, and it’s been hers ever since.
“I remember her prepping everything and getting it ready,” Jones said. “After all the company left (my dad) would take it to the sink and make it perfect again, and it would go back downstairs to be stored for the next year.”
The pan has not missed a holiday. Even when the family missed having a big family Thanksgiving last year due to the pandemic, the pan was still used at her son’s family celebration. He will be the one to continue the turkey pan tradition.
“It’s not so much about what you make, it’s about the memories that you make and the memory of what your mom does and the tastes and smells,” she said.
Jones lost her mom to Covid-19 last year, but her legacy continues with her baking and with new granddaughter and namesake, Julia, who will experience her first Thanksgiving with a turkey made in her great-grandmother’s pan.
The legendary sweet potato pie being taught to the next generation
Linda Fantroy, 64 | Mobile, AL
Linda Fantroy’s most treasured recipe is her mom’s sweet potato pie, said to be legendary. The pie is such a hit at holiday gatherings someone took one of the pies and hid it in their car, she said. The recipe was the developed by Fantroy’s mom and dad who owned a BBQ restaurant in Prichard, Alabama.
“For a long time, we would not share the recipe, so it was really a covenant,” she said. “When the pies were gone no one had access to it ’til the next holiday. It became a legend on its own.”
She said she remembers learning the recipe while watching her parents cook at their restaurant when she was little. She added the recipe was taught orally and not written down. Over the past few years, she has continued the tradition and is teaching her nieces and nephews the famous pie recipe.
The family held a pie making contest one holiday with the younger generation to see who, if anyone, could perfect the taste and texture of Mrs. Catherine’s Sweet Potato Pie.
Her most prized possession — a handmade cookbook her mother made using a typewriter
Michelle Watts, 58 | Denver, CO
A blue three-ring binder filled with over 70 recipes typed with a typewriter is one of Michelle Watts’ most prized possession. The cookbook was a love token her mom, Jessie Monis, made for her four children. She filled the book with Syrian recipes, such as stuffed grape leaves from her native country, along with recipes she acquired from friends and family over the years.
“Each time I use the cookbook, I feel my mom with me,” said Watts, her mom passed away in 2018. “I hear her voice as I read the special notes she added to each recipe. And every single time my heart is filled with the love that she put into my precious cookbook.”
Her mom put each page in a plastic page protector, to guard against those inevitable cooking messes, said Watts, who received the book as a Christmas present in 1987. Along with Thanksgiving staples like stuffing and gravy the book also contains a turkey pot pie recipe, perfect for holiday leftovers.
A tradition that has been a ‘Dream’ for over 40 years
Lisa Baldacci, 63 | Woodbury, MN
More than 40 years ago Lisa Baldacci got a recipe for Dream Salad when her former mother-in-law made it for Thanksgiving, and it’s been on her table ever since.
The Jell-O salad variation contains pineapple, cream cheese, tiny marshmallows, lime Jell-O and is topped with Cool Whip. However, she is really the only one in her family who eats it.
“It’s kind of a joke,” Baldacci said. “The little ones will eat it, but everyone else just takes a spoonful to be polite.”
Then last year, Baldacci found out just how deep the Dream Salad tradition runs in her family when her daughter moved 1500 miles away and called asking for the recipe for Thanksgiving because she was homesick.
“I get teased about it every year, but it’s part of my tradition,” Baldacci said.
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CNN’s David Williams, Christina Zdanowickz and Leanza Abucayan contributed to this report.