In most Jewish families, the recipes passed from generation to generation usually include chicken soup, kugel, or maybe a tzimmes. But in my family, it was the hors d'œuvresthat I always longed to replicate. Maybe it was their fancy French name, or the fact that as a kid I got to eat something before the actual meal arrived, but whatever the reason I knew there was one day each year at the end of November that I was going to experience appetizer awesomeness.
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri a town with basically two separate Jewish communities. The first, where I lived, was University City – the “East Coast” neighborhood where many Jews settled after leaving the urban center of downtown. The second neighborhood is known as Chesterfield, and it was the frontier for many Jews who wanted to really move “out west,” a place with bigger yards and newer homes. Chesterfield is where my Aunt Annabelle lives to this day and it’s where my love of appetizers began. While most Jewish families get together on Rosh Hashanah or Pesach our big family holiday was Thanksgiving, as Chesterfield was 15 miles away and walking there on any Yom Tov was not a feasible option.
My family is full of tremendous cooks. My mom, my Baba, and Annabelle were all queens of cuisine. But on Thanksgiving it was Annabelle’s show. She is my Baba’s younger sister, and on the last Thursday of every November she was our family’s Iron Chef and her house was Kitchen Stadium. As a cook Annabelle could go “old school”, using traditional shabbos recipes given to her by Grandma Bluma, or she could throw down “new school” fare like tofu long before the health food craze of the 1980’s. The one arena where my Auntie Annabelle truly dominated was her Thanksgiving appetizers. Everyone in our family waited each year to see what she would come up with next. Whether it was her mini-egg rolls, her pineapple meatballs, or her crispy chicken pieces, Annabelle was able to delight each and every one of her 30 plus Thanksgiving guests. Hours before the actual meal was served you would be drawn to a table with a palette of colorful dipping sauces, homemade bread, and even a tourine of seasonal soup which would complement those delectable diminutive delights. I am confident the pilgrims never saw a spread like the one Annabelle put together.
Even when I moved away from home and attended college at Brandeis, I always made sure to come home at Thanksgiving time. Sure I wanted to see my parents and play football with my siblings, but it was Annabelle’s appetizers that really brought be back to St. Louis every year. To this very day, I am not a fan of turkey and I think it is because I was so full from Annabelle’s appetizersthat I had no interest in Thanksgiving’s piece de resistance.
Today my wife and I live with our kids in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. Sadly, I am no longer able to enjoy Annabelle’s annual get-togethers as frequently as I used to, so I do the next best thing. I took her love of hors d'œuvres and incorporated it into my own family’s celebration of the holiday. I’ve even taken some of Annabelle’s recipes and added my own twist. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am sharing two favorite recipes: a slight variation on one of Annabelle’s classic appetizers, Crispy Sesame Chicken Pieces and an original recipe from my kitchen, Peanut-Chicken Won Tons.
Feel free to tinker with these recipes for your own family’s preferences, I’m sure Annabelle will not be offended! After all we should be thankful that our families can get together and enjoy an amazing kosher Thanksgiving meal… even if chicken soup and potato kugel aren’t on the menu.
Have a happy, healthy and appetizing Thanksgiving!
Ari Yolkut is a game show producer/amateur kitchen enthusiast who lives with his wife Emily and daughters Noa and Maayan in Riverdale, New York