“This is exactly how we were meant to celebrate Thanksgiving,” I tell Mr. G as we peer over one of Eureka Springs’ steep hillsides to the sleeping town below, through bare-branched trees and clumps of shrubs bearing fat red berries.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
Somewhere off in the distance, a church bell’s peals travel through the crisp morning air. A man jogs, his breath puffing out in visible clouds, three leashed dogs trailing behind. Nearby, neighbors greet one another with, “Is your turkey in the oven?”
Strangers nod as we walk by, offering the day’s pleasantry.
We continue our leisurely holiday stroll through this Arkansas mountain town, window-shopping along Spring Street’s twists and turns, spying slippers we want to buy for Mr. G’s granddaughter when the stores unceremoniously open on Black Friday to polite trickles rather than unruly throngs.
Our favorite coffee shop, Eureka Daily Roast, is open for business this early hour. We wander in for steaming lattes and nibble pumpkin truffles made by one of the town’s talented young bakers.
On the way back to our accommodations, the Dashwood Bed Chamber at the Peabody House, we snap pictures and giggle at the quirky sight of the life-sized Humpty Dumpty sitting precariously on a stone wall and inhale heady scents of sage and cinnamon wafting from cottages and homes.
Later in the day, at the Grand Central Hotel, we feast on turkey confit with cranberries, cream-cheese mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, sweet potatoes with Missouri pecans and slices of pumpkin cheesecake.
Jerry Yester, of John Sebastian’s 1960s group Lovin’ Spoonful, plays the piano throughout dinner, singing “Daydream” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Johnny Mercer’s “Dream.”
He throws in a folksy rendition of “Kansas City” before closing up shop and heading home to nearby Harrison for Thanksgiving with his wife.
Yester and the server who has brought us our Thanksgiving dinner four years in a row know us. Our innkeeper, Faryl Kaye, knows us. The couple from North Little Rock who rents the room on the second floor of the Peabody House every Thanksgiving weekend knows us. Shopkeepers like Stan and Jeff at the divine Vintage Cargo and restaurant owners like Bobbie Foster at delicious Mud Street Café know us.
It feels right, this Thanksgiving away from home.
As a young girl I thought traditions, especially those centered on the holidays, were non-negotiable. That you didn’t mess with things like turkey and classic mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving and oyster stew on Christmas Eve and beef tenderloin with horseradish crème on New Year’s Eve because it might unhinge an invisible life balance.
And that you always, always marked those annual observances with family members and never, ever strayed from the handed-down mashed potato recipe.
My holiday traditions received a gentle makeover after my husband, Richard, died in 2008 and I realized traditions were things that brought comfort, peace and happiness — not necessarily repetitive acts, played out year after year.
The first two Thanksgivings without him I boarded an intimate cruise ship with my friend Shelly, seeking to create a fresh tradition and reconnect with my inner balance, splashing in the Caribbean’s therapeutic blue waters, eating turkey and unfamiliar mashed potatoes with gravy under swaying palm trees on a remote beach.
Then I met Mr. G and announced a new tradition was in order. In an eclectic Arkansas burg that welcomed us in 2010 when, still tender from the loss of Richard, I found comfort, peace and happiness, even miles away from family and friends.
The day-after-Thanksgiving in Eureka Springs is part of the new tradition I savor, too.
Breakfast at the Mud Street Café where Foster and her friendly crew serve jumbo muffins, lush pieces of quiche cradled in homemade crust and the best coconut crème pie in the entire state of Arkansas.
Late lunch at the Local Flavor Café, where the spicy shrimp Diablo on garlic cheese grits is deeply satisfying.
After exploring unique shops like Vintage Cargo and Wild Blue Yonder, where the three employees dress in pajamas for the Friday after Thanksgiving, and purchasing a bag of salt water taffy along with a huge hunk of fudge at Sweet’s Fudge Kitchen, we plop into overstuffed leather chairs at The Stone House and order the Connoisseur cheese tray and listen to Yester strum his acoustic guitar.
The only thing absolutely not negotiable for me on Thanksgiving — or any day, for that matter — regardless of tradition, is some measure of gratitude. Even in pain, loss and sadness, when gratitude plays hide-and-seek, there are glimmers of it.
Elements of past traditions are sprinkled liberally throughout my current Thanksgiving sojourn.
Gratitude is a staple. Love for family and friends. Turkey and pumpkin.
And mashed potatoes — whether they’re a version plucked from childhood or an updated recipe, consumed at a table where family and friends are assembled, or on an exotic island or in a town that my heart has adopted — are always on the menu.
Because it would be crazy not to have mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.
Sometimes, though, just like traditions, they require a bit of tweaking.
Mary Berg, owner of Kansas City’s Delish Catering, loves mashed potatoes. And this version of a twice-baked potato recipe is not only a customer favorite, but also Berg’s family’s pick for Christmas dinner. “Lizard” is a nickname 13-year-old Berg gave her mother that has stuck over the decades — just like this dish that Berg was introduced to as a youngster.
The Lizard Special … aka Beyond Loaded Smashed Potatoes
Makes 8 servings
8 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
8 ounces of unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup cream cheese, room temperature
Approximately 1/4 cup chopped scallions or chives
1/2 cup to 1 cup crispy bacon pieces (use more or less depending on taste)
1-1/2 cups shredded white cheddar (reserve 1/2 cup for topping)
Salt and pepper to taste
Keep potatoes covered in cold water during prep to prevent browning. Place potatoes in heavy-bottom stockpot and cover with cold water. Place on stove over medium to high heat and cook until tender. While potatoes are cooking, prepare other items. When potatoes are tender remove from heat and drain well. Using hand mixer beat potatoes while occasionally scraping sides with a rubber spatula. Add butter, sour cream, and cream cheese; mix into potatoes until creamy. Add remaining ingredients and season to taste. May top with remaining white cheddar and serve immediately or place in oven safe dish and top with cheddar cheese; then warm at 350 degrees for to serve later.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.