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Thanksgiving Family Secrets : Onions: Grandma Creamed 'Em

November 17, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Remarkable, what a celebration can do for a child's palate.

Serve a little girl small boiled onions in cream sauce and she'll say, "Aaargh!" She'll make a scene. Seat her at her grandmother's Thanksgiving table, offer her small boiled onions in cream sauce from a cut-glass bowl with a large silver spoon for serving, and she'll daintily take a portion.

And she'll remember them--inexplicably--as the heart of her Thanksgiving feast.

Not her grandmother's gossamer mashed potatoes. Not the big bird pulled bronzed from the oven. Not the fascinating giblet gravy or the richly scented stuffing, nor the buttered Brussels sprouts nor the brown sugar-candied sweet potatoes, the ruby-colored fresh cranberry sauce, the tangy icebox pickles, the hot, ethereally light rolls, not even the velvety pumpkin pie nor the apple-y mince pie and the billows of whipped cream.


No, it's the creamed onions that first spring to mind when I think of my grandmother's Thanksgiving dinners. And what's even more curious is that the same thing happened with my children. The creamed onions were the first dish our eldest son always chose from the abundance on the table.

Taken in their parts, you can be sure whole baby onions are unfamiliar to most children. But right away, the onions' size is appealing--they're in scale. And their construction is fascinating, layer upon translucent layer. Finally, their flavor is lightly sweet and vaguely earthy, right up a child's alley. As for the sauce, it is pure yet luxuriant, sublimely buttered and creamed.

Plus which, the onion bumps under a blanket are fun. When a child's fork hits a ball, chances are the ball will scoot, and "catch-the-creamed-onion" makes a great game--if you're not caught at it.

At Thanksgiving, pressures of the everyday are off, the air is charged with laughter and conversation, and children share in the spirit by becoming adventurous at the feast--the second dish our eldest son reached for was the Brussels sprouts. Although everyone's on company manners, Thanksgiving's company is family and friends. The purpose of the meal isn't nourishment. The purpose--oh, joy--is pleasure. To celebrate being together. To share good things. Gratitude.


I couldn't be more grateful for the traditions my grandmother handed on to me and mine. But she'd laugh if she knew it was the creamed onions that symbolize her splendid cornucopia at Thanksgiving.

My grandmother's onions were cooked according to the method given in her 1902 copy of "Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book" by Sarah Tyson Rorer. Rorer admonishes, "If the onions are not thoroughly drained, they will dilute the cream sauce, making it watery in the bottom of the dish." Rorer's onion-drying technique can be applied to almost any vegetable that will finish in a sauce.

If baby onions aren't available, cook two-inch white onions. Then just before blending with the sauce, slice them in half between root and stem ends. Their shapes are fetching.


Lately, I've been adventurous myself at Thanksgiving. I add depth to the cream sauce by first simmering the half-and-half (today's version of Rorer's "light cream") with savory seasonings. Then I add color by stirring in fine shreds of carrots and finishing the dish with flecks of parsley. Although I know at first she'd sniff at my sassiness, in time--I also know--my grandmother would embrace the new tradition.


2 pounds small white boiling onions


1 1/2 scrubbed carrots, optional

Light Cream Sauce

Red or black pepper, preferably cayenne

Dash nutmeg

Small handful finely chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf, optional

Drop onions into 3 quarts boiling water in broad heavy pot. Count 3 minutes, then lift onions out, reserving water. Peel onions by slicing off root end with knife, pulling off skin, finally snipping off any tag on top.

Stir scant 4 teaspoons salt into onion water and return to boil. Drop in peeled onions and cook, uncovered, at boiling point just until tender when pierced with thin skewer, about 15 minutes for small onions, up to 25 for 2-inch onions.

Drain onions well. Return to empty pot and set over low heat, shaking pot frequently, until onions are thoroughly dry, about 5 minutes. Onions can be wrapped and refrigerated at this point.

Slice carrots crosswise 1/8-inch thick, then slice rounds 1/8-inch thick into strips, to equal 1 cup. Turn into medium-size skillet, cover with water, bring to boil. Then simmer, uncovered, just until tender, about 3 minutes. Keep in broth. Carrots can also be refrigerated.

About 20 minutes before serving, blend onions and Light Cream Sauce in pot. Heat over boiling water or lowest heat, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add nutmeg. If adding shredded carrots, heat carrots separately in pan. Then add when ready to serve, stirring just enough to blend. For carrot color to shine, shreds should not be swamped in sauce. Turn into heated serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

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