Connie Montgomery plans ahead for festive Thanksgiving ideas

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By Ann Cipperly

Nestled under towering trees, the Williamsburg style home of Connie Montgomery is welcoming with a festive wreath of fall leaves on the front door, flanked by urns of colorful chrysanthemums banked at the base with pumpkins. The house reflects one Connie took a photo of in Williamsburg years ago and is decorated throughout with pumpkins, fresh fruit and autumn foliage.

Connie has been busy getting ready for Thanksgiving, which is her favorite holiday. She cherishes having family and friends in her home for an abundant dinner of homemade dishes to celebrate and give thanks. She has kept handwritten records of menus and guests at Thanksgiving, as she adds new dishes while keeping traditional favorites.

Her love of Thanksgiving goes back to her childhood with holidays spent at her grandparents’ home. Connie grew up in south Georgia in a town called Moultrie. At holidays they traveled to her grandparents’ home in north Alabama.

Connie’s grandmother was her inspiration. “When we visited our grandparents’ home,” recalls Connie, “my grandmother was always up early every morning getting our breakfast ready. She had a large kitchen and always wore her apron until the meals were cooked.

“She let me stir the batter for her cakes or pancakes, and during the holidays she sometimes had eight grandchildren to feed as well as several grown children. Everyone was welcome in their home, and she somehow could turn a dinner for six into a dinner for 12.”

Thanksgiving was a joyous time for Connie and her sisters, Barbara and Kathy.

Connie would often gather eggs from the hen house down the hill from her grandparents’ house to use in baking cakes and pies. Her grandfather loved sweets. When the family gathered at their house during the holidays, her grandmother had no less than three cakes on the top of her china cabinet. There would be a fruitcake for her grandfather, a coconut cake for her father and uncle and at least one pound cake.

There would also be pecan pies, pumpkin pies and fruit pies, along with ham, turkey, dressing, vegetables and salads.

Connie remembers her grandmother lived her whole life like every day was Thanksgiving. Her refrigerator was always overflowing, as well as the pantry, and the basement shelves overflowed with “jewel-colored” mason jars of her canning.

Later, when her grandmother was asked about letting someone else cook the Thanksgiving meal, she said, “This is my Thanksgiving. I do this for you because I’m grateful for you.”

Her grandmother’s love of Thanksgiving and family stayed with Connie. While she had enjoyed painting in school, Connie became interested in cooking in her 20s and began collecting recipes.

While she was a student at the University of Georgia, Connie came to Opelika one weekend to visit her sister Barbara Whatley, who had married and was living here. Barbara’s husband arranged a date for Connie with one of his friends, Penn Montgomery.

After both Barbara and Connie were married and living in Opelika, their parents, Anna and Ben Kirk, decided to move here. Their father accepted the position of headmaster at Lee Academy.

In 1973, Connie and Barbara opened a gift shop in downtown Opelika called High Cotton. They operated the popular business until 1998.

These days Connie is busy preparing dishes to put in the freezer for serving with a smoked and baked turkey at Thanksgiving. When freezing dishes, she says to make sure it is cool, and wrap tightly in two layers of plastic wrap and then two layers of aluminum foil.

“One of the best tips I have,” she says, “is to put a strip of freezer tape on top of the casserole and write the instructions for cooking in a waterproof marker. I do this for the casseroles I make for Thanksgiving. It keeps from searching through cookbooks to find the directions.

“Always bring a frozen casserole to room temperature before cooking. You will be surprised how long it takes to thaw a casserole in the refrigerator.”

Connie always has collards on the Thanksgiving menu, and serves them in a silver chafing dish with small bowls. They are one of the most popular dishes.

She is looking forward to gathering two of her three children and their families in her home, along with their in-laws for 14 dinner guests this year.

Her daughter Anna and her husband, Blake Stevens, and children, Benjamin and Sarah, won’t be able to attend this year. Martha and husband, Will Herndon, of Opelika will attend with children, Maggie and William, as well as Connie’s son, James, and his wife, Anne Morgan.

While daughter Martha’s father-in-law, Banks Herndon, will say grace before the meal, Connie will remember her grandmother’s prayer at Thanksgiving.

Be grateful without judgment. Say thanks for those things you have, be appreciative for what you don’t. What you don’t have might enrich your perspective.

Share with others; it is the best way of giving thanks.

Be happy for those who are with us now. Be happy for those who are not. Don’t feel sadness, no, instead celebrate their being here, for it was a very great gift.

Ann Cipperly can be contacted at recipes@cipperly.com.

Recipes:

Granna’s Dressing
This is Granna’s recipe for dressing. Granna always put chunks of cooked chicken in her dressing, which was called Chicken and Dressing. I usually make it about two weeks before Thanksgiving and freeze it.
6 cups white bread crumbs
12 cups cornbread, crumbled*
3 – 4 eggs, beaten
1 cup melted butter
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped onion
4 chicken breasts cooked in salt, pepper, 1 small onion and celery tops
Broth from chicken
1 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. sage
2 tsp. poultry seasoning
Salt to taste
Cook chicken and remove to a bowl, saving the broth. Drain broth and set aside. Combine bread and cornbread; add eggs. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Add extra chicken broth (canned) to make a really ‘soupy’ consistency like a thick soup.
Bake in a large greased casserole dish for about 40 minutes at 425 degrees, or until lightly browned around edges. If frozen, it will take about 6 hours at room temperature for it to completely thaw before cooking.
Cornbread: Double recipe on the cornmeal bag to make enough for this recipe. Mix cornbread according to directions on cornmeal package. If you have an iron skillet, bake the cornbread in that. If not, use a metal baking pan. Always heat skillet with shortening or bacon drippings for 10 minutes before pouring cornbread batter into baking pan/skillet.
Don’t over bake since soft cornbread with a crust makes the best dressing. The hot grease and hot pan will create the nice crust you want. Let it cool, or make it the day before and wrap in foil after it cools. You can also crumble bread a day before and put in a Ziploc bag.

Green Bean Casserole
This is a favorite at all large family gatherings. James doesn’t think a Thanksgiving meal is complete without this dish.
Three 14 oz. cans cut green beans, drained
1 or 2 strips bacon
Small amount of onion or 2 tsp. dried minced onion
Salt and pepper to taste
1 small carton sour cream
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 lb. sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Garlic salt (makes all the difference)
Crushed Ritz crackers mixed with melted butter
I learned this trick from Mary Jo Whatley years ago to make canned beans taste like fresh green beans. (I use Allen’s cut Italian flat beans, but you can use whatever you prefer). Drain liquid from cans and fill them again with water and put into a saucepan. Add 1 or 2 strips of bacon, a little onion (I like dried minced onion or 1 or 2 chicken bouillon cubes.)
Add some salt and pepper to taste (but don’t forget you are going to add garlic salt later) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain beans.
Combine sour cream, cream of chicken soup, sharp cheese and garlic salt; add to beans, mixing gently to coat.
Bake at 300 degrees in a baking dish until bubbly. About 10 minutes before serving, put Ritz cracker topping on the casserole and return to the oven to brown.

Fresh Cranberry Sauce:
1 bag (4 cups) fresh cranberries
2 cups sugar
1 cup orange juice
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick
Dash of nutmeg
1/2 cup golden raisins
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Cook 5 minutes or until the cranberries pop. Chill until ready to serve.

Best Collard Greens
I have served these for the past few years, and everyone loves them. I think the secret is in long, slow cooking. At Thanksgiving, they are served in a silver chafing dish with small bowls.
2 large bags of collard greens (* I use 2 large bunches and cut the stems out) or equivalent in fresh, trimmed collard greens
2 cans chicken broth
1 green bell pepper, seeded and quartered
1 red bell pepper, seeded and quartered
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded
4 cloves garlic
1 large onion
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 pieces smoked turkey (one large drumstick or 2 wings)
1/4 cup olive oil
Combine all ingredients and cook until they’re done. (You can cook them in a crock-pot for several hours.) When done remove from heat and bone the meat, discarding bones, onion, garlic and peppers, if desired. The red pepper looks pretty in the presentation.
(*Bagged greens are pre-washed, so be sure to wash the leaves carefully if using fresh bunches. I always fold the leaves together, cut out the stem, and then soak for 10 minutes in salted water, swishing them around to remove any sand and dirt from the leaves. Then cut them into wide slices, which makes them easier to serve, and they’re also tenderer without the stems).

Yellow Squash Casserole
This is a staple on the table for all family gatherings, especially at Thanksgiving. This recipe was originally from a hotel in north Alabama, which was known for its great food. Lucretia Mann gave me the recipe after she served it at a dinner party in the 1970s. It is delicious.
3 cups cooked yellow squash
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 cup evaporated milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups cracker crumbs
Drain water from cooked squash; add butter, salt, pepper and milk (a small can of evaporated milk is a little less than a cup, so you can add whole milk to make it a cup).
Mix the above together. Add beaten eggs, onion, cheese and cracker crumbs. Pour into a greased casserole dish and bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes.
This can be made ahead and frozen, but make sure it comes to room temperature before baking. You can also freeze the leftovers after baking. That’s assuming you’ll have any! Serves 8-10.

Potatoes Dauphinoise
This is a really rich and delicious way to serve potatoes.
4 cups thinly sliced potatoes
1/2 stick butter
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 cup light cream (half and half)
Pinch of nutmeg
1 clove garlic, crushed
1¼ cup grated Gruyere cheese
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
Place 1/3 of potatoes in a shallow buttered casserole dish. Sprinkle with 1/3 of Gruyere cheese and 1/3 seasonings. Dot with 1/3 of butter. Repeat twice. Mix eggs with cream and garlic and pour over potatoes. Sprinkle with Parmesan; cover.
Bake 45 -50 minutes at 375 degrees. Uncover and bake until brown and set (20 – 30 minutes). Serves 6-8.

Fudge Pie
The pie is delicious served with a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream. Prep time is about 5 minutes.
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour
Dash of salt
3 Tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Whipped cream or ice cream for topping
Mix sugar and melted butter. Beat until creamy. Add eggs, flour, salt, cocoa and vanilla. Beat well. Stir in pecans. Bake in a greased 8″ pie pan for 30 minutes at 300 degrees. Test until a toothpick comes out clean. Don’t over bake. It’s better under baked than over baked. It’s like a soft brownie cut into pie slices.

Norma’s Mac and Cheese
1 cup elbow macaroni, cooked according to pkg. directions
2 eggs, well-beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pt. milk
1 lb. grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 lb. cheese for topping
Mix all ingredients together except extra cheese for topping. Bake at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. Top with extra cheese and turn up temperature to 400 degrees. Continue to cook until brown.

Pecan Pie
Here’s a Pecan Pie recipe that is the very best. I’ve been baking pecan pies for years, but this one is unbelievablely delicious. I think it’s due to the extra eggs, etc. Whatever the secret, it’s enough to make a pecan pie lover faint.
3/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. all purpose flour
Pinch of salt
5 eggs, well beaten
1 cup white corn syrup
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
6 Tbsp. butter, softened
1 cup pecan halves or coarsely chopped pecans
1 unbaked 9″ pie shell*
Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bowl. Add eggs, syrup, vanilla and butter. Beat with an electric mixer until blended. Stir in pecans. Pour into a pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 55-60 minutes.
(* The pre-made pie shells in the refrigerated section that are already cut to fit a pie plate are as good as homemade, in case you haven’t tried them). Can be frozen.

Toasted Pecans
This is Nanny’s recipe, and they are easy with no butter or spices. They cook in their own natural oil. They are delicious. They make a great Christmas gift for friends or to serve at a holiday get-together.
1 quart pecan halves
1/3 cup salt
Put pecan halves into a quart jar; pour 1/3 cup salt over. Fill the jar with water. Shake. Let the pecans soak in the salt water for 30 minutes.
Pour into a colander and do not stir.
Let them sit for 2 hours, and then place them on a cookie sheet. Cook for 1 hour at 275 degrees.

Cheese Spread
This is good for a starter and is also a great Christmas gift for friends. Put it in a small mason jar, tie a ribbon on, and put it in a bag with some good table water crackers. It is really yummy and so easy.
8 oz. shredded cheddar cheese (bring to room temp. to make it easier to mix)
3 oz. cream cheese
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup butter (also better at room temp.)
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. dried chives
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. celery seed
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. dried dill weed
Mix all together either in a food processor, blender or even with your hands. It is best when made a day ahead, but it’s good no matter what.

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