The Thanksgiving holidays, when we were kids, were magic times mostly spent with Aunt Peggy and her brood – either at our house in Century or theirs in Atlanta – when long-settled family food traditions could be counted upon to fill the house with rich, mouth-watering aromas from the hour we gathered on the den floor to watch the Macy’s parade (in fuzzy black and white) until the time finally came to eat the feast, usually around two in the afternoon.
The dishes we ate were as predictable as the sawmill whistle. There was a turkey, of course, and two kinds of cornbread dressing (that’s “stuffing” to you northerners) made from homemade, three-day-old pones (the better to soak up the juices) in two varieties: “plain” for us kids, and a larger Pyrex dishful for the adults made thick with the local but absolutely world-class Bon Secour oysters – fished out of the Gulf only the day before – that were so pristine, plentiful and plump in those days (before oil rigs and too many hurricanes) that they put modern ones to shame. Cranberry sauce made with chopped pecans and fresh cranberries supplied by the local doyenne and our neighbor, Miss Irene Whigham (who had them flown in from Maine every year) always added it’s rich, ruby color to the spread, and, as in most Norman Rockwell homes, the candied yams and mashed potatoes vied for room on the table with squash and beans and turnip greens.
And, starting about 1959, a new tradition, new aroma, was introduced to the medley, a dish that became such an instant family favorite that it was even fondly recalled – unbidden – by my cousin Margaret when we were reminiscing about those days a few months back. It’s an extremely simple dish, and couldn’t be easier to make, yet, in all the years since, I have never seen it served anywhere else. Mama just called it Baked Onions.
Since I was already eight or nine when it first appeared on our Thanksgiving table, I knew the dish wasn’t an old family tradition, but until very recently, I suppose I had assumed it was something that had come from Aunt Peggy’s rarified circle of Atlanta friends. In truth, I really hadn’t thought very much about where it had originated when, just last week and quite unexpectedly, I discovered it had come from a very different source indeed: Daddy’s old boss, Leon Clancy, or at least, the women in his life.
I was on the phone with Rissie, Mama’s great friend from those Century days (and still living in the same house directly across from ours), and said something about my plan to post this recipe in the lead-up to Thanksgiving since it is so simple, succulent and unheard-of. Somewhere along the way, in all the years since those early days, I had picked up the habit of calling the dish “Sweet and Sour Onions” (since they are), but when I recounted the recipe to Rissie – so simple that you only need to hear it once and you’ll never forget it – she immediately blurted out, “Oh, Tommy! Baked Onions! I had forgotten about those onions. Boy, how Mr. Clancy just loved those baked onions!”
Well. Suddenly, after all these years, I understood what had almost certainly happened: Mama had been served Baked Onions at one of the frequent dinner parties hosted by Mama Gladys, Leon Clancy’s wife, and she had liked them so much she had asked for the recipe. Then, knowing how much her sister would enjoy them (and she did), she added them to our Thanksgiving menu, where they stayed until our last Thanksgiving meal together, in Jasper in 1972.
Now, just a word of warning about this recipe. Only a year or so after I moved to Manhattan, about 1979, I was invited to a “covered-dish” Thanksgiving dinner party at the penthouse home of my boss at the time, Martha Moore Sykes. Now, Martha hailed from Bessemer and was “Alabama” through and through, so I thought she’d be delighted when I showed up at her door with a steaming dish of my family’s special Thanksgiving onions, but you should have seen the look on her face!
“Oh, Tommy! Onions!?!,” she exclaimed, not happily, “You brought onions to my party?!”
In truth, it being my first Thanksgiving at her apartment (of many), I had underestimated the quality of the company I was keeping, many of whom knew Martha through her long-time role as founding president of the New York City Opera Guild. The Guild was, in those glory days, a primary source of the company’s revenues, and among Martha’s best friends were Beverly Sills, to whom she spoke daily, and the great conductor Julius Rudel, City Opera’s General Director, both of whom were there that day. And, I might add, both of whom enjoyed my onions. Much, I suppose, to Martha’s relief.
I think Mama would have approved, and I hope you do, too.
Recipe: Mr. Clancy’s Baked Onions
4-5 large, sweet onions (Vidalia-type)
½ cup water
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup salted butter (one stick)
½ cup granulated sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°.
Peel and slice onions in 1/4” thick rounds, separate slices into individual rings and fill large Pyrex or similar baking dish with cover (or foil to cover)
Combine water, vinegar and sugar (it is unnecessary to dissolve sugar, but stir thoroughly just before pouring) and pour mixture over onions.
Slice stick of butter into pats and dot top of onions, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Cover and bake at 350° for an hour-and-a-half (90 minutes). Note that this can be baked for a shorter time in a hotter oven, the onions don’t really seem to care, but I’m putting it at 350° so this dish can be baked in the same oven at the same time as your dressing or sweet potatoes. If you have a dedicated oven you can do the onions for one hour at 425°.
PS: Just in case you missed it, here’s a link to my Sweet Potato/Mandarin Orange Casserole with coconut on top, another Thanksgiving favorite through the years: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/recipe-sweet-potatomandarin-orange-casserole-for-mary-hurt/
Oh, Tommy, how I do enjoy your stories! I hear your voice as I read your words…and I can see the images that you paint in my mind’s eye. I hope to see you next year as I am planning a trip to THE City.