As an editor and writer, I interview for a living—cookbook authors, restaurant owners, dairy farmers—but rarely someone I meet outside of work. This article is an exception.
I interviewed my 90-year-old grandma, Jolly (yes, that’s her name, and often her vibe), about Thanksgiving, and what it was like in our family long before I was born.
The details are unimportant—and more important than ever. Because if we don’t listen to the memories of our elders, if we don’t take them as our own, if we don’t stitch them into the fabric of our holidays, our birthdays, our Tuesdays, what will happen to them? Where will they go?
This conversation is full of people you haven’t met, dishes you haven’t tried. Still, I hope it can serve as a springboard for chats with your own loved ones, even if it’s on the phone, technical difficulties and all.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EMMA LAPERRUQUE: Tell me about the first Thanksgiving you remember.
JOLLY RAISS: It would have been at my grandmother’s house. I was about five years old. She lived in Newark.
EL: Which grandmother was this?
JR: My father’s mother. We called her Grandma Albert, but her first name was Anna.
EL: Got you, got you. And Grandma Albert made the eggplant.
JR: Yes, yes.
EL: Did you go to your grandmother’s every year?
JR: Yes, she had all the holidays.
EL: Did that annoy your mom, that you didn’t go to her family’s for Thanksgiving?
JR: No, no. We shared holidays. We always went to my mother’s mother, Grandma Shapiro’s, for Passover, for the Jewish holidays. And we always went to Grandma Albert’s for Thanksgiving and Christmas because it was her birthday. And she was a good cook!
EL: Yeah? What would she make for Thanksgiving?
JR: Always eggplant. And matzo ball soup. And turkey. And stuffing and side dishes.
EL: Was Grandma Albert kosher?
JR: Kosher-style. Not strictly kosher.
EL: What does that mean?
JR: She didn’t have any ham or shrimp or bacon in the house. But she would cook with butter when we had meat.
EL: Got it, got it. At what point did Grandma Albert stop hosting Thanksgiving?
JR: When she sold that house in Newark and moved to an apartment in Irvington—they no longer had the room for a big family dinner, so that was the end of it.
EL: Do you remember what year that was?
JR: Oh, boy. [Both laugh.] Oh, I wish Jane [her sister] was here, so I could ask her. She would remember. I would say probably…1944 or 1945. She was getting older by then, you know.
EL: Do you know what year she was born?
JR: No. But! She would talk about coming to this country in the blizzard of ’88. And she was about 12 years old when she came. So I’m guessing she was born around 1876.
EL: Wow. That’s a long time ago.
JR: A long time ago! Yes.
EL: Who took over Thanksgiving after Grandma Albert stopped hosting?
JR: My Aunt Lil in New York City. She lived in an apartment on 84th Street—
EL: You remember what street she lived on?
JR: Wait a minute…she lived at…36 West 84th Street. Oh my God!
EL: Oh my God! [Both laugh.]
JR: Her husband, my uncle Sal, was a surgeon in Manhattan. He was Canadian. Jewish, of course. Educated in Canada, but came to this country and married Aunt Lil. I was five or six when they got married. I remember going to the wedding because Aunt Dodo, you know who that is—
JR: You know, my mother’s sister.
EL: Right, right.
JR: Aunt Dodo took my sister and I to the wedding, which was in my grandmother’s apartment in Newark, and we left the ceremony, because we weren’t invited to the reception, and we got a flat tire on the way home.
EL: Who fixed the tire?
JR: Oh, I don’t know. She called somebody.
EL: Wild. So, Aunt Lil took over hosting and—oh! [Call failed.]
JR: [Picks up phone.] I lost you.
EL: I lost you. I found you.
JR: Anyhow, he always carved the turkey.
EL: Who always carved the turkey?
JR: My uncle Sal. Because he was a surgeon.
EL: He carved the turkey because he was a surgeon?
EL: What kind of surgeon?
JR: General surgery.
EL: Makes sense.
JR: And then after I got married and had children and we moved to South Orange, I had Thanksgiving, and the whole family came to me.
EL: You were 19 when you got married, right?
JR: Uh-huh. After Amy was born, we bought the house in South Orange, and then I had Thanksgiving.
EL: Oh! [Call failed.] What the fuck?
JR: [Picks up phone.] Why does it keep cutting off?
EL: I don’t know.
JR: Wasn’t me!
EL: Wasn’t me! Okay. You were 19, you got married, had John, then Margie, then Amy, and then you moved to South Orange.
EL: So it was 1955, you were 25, with three kids. What did you serve?
JR: Very traditional, very traditional. Some appetizers, turkey, stuffing, string beans probably, apple pie, pumpkin pie. Very traditional!
EL: Where did you get the recipes?
JR: From my grandmother and my mother—my mother was a good cook!—and I guess from cookbooks. You wanna know which cookbooks?
JR: The Joy of Cooking. And from magazines. Good Housekeeping. Gourmet.
EL: How do you think your Thanksgivings were different from Grandma Albert and Aunt Lil’s?
JR: They weren’t. Not much difference. All very traditional.
EL: Did you like hosting Thanksgiving?
JR: Yeah, I loved it. My favorite holiday.
EL: Why is it your favorite?
JR: Because there’s a lot of good leftovers. [Laughs.] And the family being together. It’s special.
EL: Did any of your husbands ever help with the cooking?
JR: [Laughs.] I did all the cooking.
EL: Did you host all the years that your kids were growing up?
EL: So you hosted from 1955 until you, me, Mom, Dad, and Jake moved in together?
JR: The last Thanksgiving I hosted was when Arnie [her husband] was so sick. We had 18 people at the house in West Orange.
EL: Eighteen people? Why?
JR: Well, I think we knew it was his last Thanksgiving.
EL: What year did he die, 2001?
JR: Yeah. You know—the following year, I did have Thanksgiving. And then the following year, we moved here, in 2003. And your mom hosted Thanksgiving.
EL: How did you feel when Mom started hosting? Relieved, or sad?
JR: I was relieved. By that time, I wasn’t so young anymore. It’s a lot of work! What I most of all missed was not doing my own recipes. My stuffing. I don’t like the stuffing your mother makes. [Both laugh.] Too avant-garde for me. I liked making my recipes, my carrot pudding.
EL: I don’t know if I remember the carrot pudding—what was that like?
JR: It was grated carrots, like a carrot soufflé, but heavier. Sweet because carrots are sweet, but not sweet like a dessert.
EL: What are your thoughts on Thanksgiving this year, Thanksgiving during quarantine?
JR: I’m hoping we can go into the garage. Your father bought heaters!