Talking turkey: Asheville chefs reveal their own Thanksgiving dishes and memories

SHARING TRADITIONS: From dry-cured turkey to vegan mac and cheese to Caribbean coconut rum drinks, some of Asheville's most creative chefs talk about their favorite Thanksgiving foods. Pictured clockwise from bottom left at Hector and Aimee Diaz's West Asheville farmhouse are Felix Meana, Katie Button, Beth and Hunter Berry, Aimee and Hector Diaz, Velvet Jacobs and Tre'ona Kelty-Jacobs.
SHARING TRADITIONS: From dry-cured turkey to vegan mac and cheese to Caribbean coconut rum drinks, some of Asheville's most creative chefs talk about their favorite Thanksgiving foods. Pictured clockwise from bottom left at Hector and Aimee Diaz's West Asheville farmhouse are Felix Meana, Katie Button, Beth and Hunter Berry, Aimee and Hector Diaz, Velvet Jacobs and Tre'ona Kelty-Jacobs. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Thanksgiving is an exceptionally personal holiday. Over the last several centuries, the way it’s celebrated has evolved dramatically as the idea was adopted and transformed, both regionally and by individual families. Every new family member, every birth, every death — heck, even new technological advances — can give rise to or alter holiday rituals. For instance, just imagine how the arrival of the kitchen stove influenced Thanksgiving traditions!

At the same time, though, the fundamental principles endure, manifesting in endlessly varying ways.

This year, Xpress asked a handful of local chefs and restaurant owners how they spend Thanksgiving. Amid talk of recipes and cultural differences, we got an intimate glimpse into these food warriors’ lives.

Patrick O’Cain

“Thanksgiving is the American holiday par excellence,” proclaims Patrick O’Cain, paraphrasing Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. “It’s the one time of year where all Americans are brought together to celebrate, no matter their class, color or religious affiliation. It’s stripped of all that. Thanksgiving is almost singular in importance.”

Born and raised in North Asheville, O’Cain graduated from Asheville High School. “Thanksgiving is all about food and community; that’s sort of what I’m doing,” says the owner and chef of Gàn Shān Station on Charlotte Street. The Asian fusion restaurant is conveniently nestled “in the community where I grew up, in the very neighborhood where I grew up, 2 miles from the house where I was raised,” he explains.

A deep sense of community permeates O’Cain’s Thanksgiving Day experience. “We go to our neighbors’ house at 9 o’clock in the morning every year. A group of families in the neighborhood get together, and we all go on a hike, with a picnic lunch and everything.”

After a few hours of savoring nature, everyone goes home to finish prepping their individual side dishes before reassembling at the neighbors’ place. O’Cain’s family is responsible for staples like homemade cranberry sauce, Cajun oyster dressing (see sidebar for recipe), celeriac purée and their own brined and smoked turkey.

“My neighbors actually live in the house that [E.W.] Grove lived in when he was building the Grove Park Inn,” notes O’Cain. “The dining room table is actually my grandfather’s table; it’s the same table my dad ate at for special occasions growing up,” he says.

The meal itself is sacred. “There’s no television: It’s all just conversation and eating and drinking wine. There’s no external stimulus, which is great. We’ve been deliberate in that. Everyone has a couple of hours in the afternoon to watch football and relax, but when we’re at the neighbors’, it’s about community and catching up. A fair amount of wine is consumed as well, which is fun,” O’Cain says with a chuckle.

“To a large extent, this tradition [influenced] what I chose to do with the restaurant — to give back that spirit of community and create a new space for it to live in,” he explains.

Hunter and Beth Berry

Some traditions are steeped in repetition of certain rituals; others leave a bit more space for mystery and imagination. “We’ve moved around so much, we don’t really have any established patterns or expectations for Thanksgiving,” says Hunter Berry, the jovial co-owner of TacoBilly, a family-run Mexican joint on Haywood Road. Berry and his wife, Beth, started the restaurant a little over a year ago. “But now that we’ve settled in Asheville, we’re finally looking to establish some roots and family traditions,” he continues.

Before relocating to Asheville, the Berrys lived in Tulum and Chiapas in Mexico for several years with their four daughters. Before that they were poultry ranching in the Texas Hill Country and building Earthships in the mountains of New Mexico. Those wide-ranging experiences have lent some unconventional touches to the family’s Thanksgiving celebrations.

In Mexico, they celebrated “Friendsgiving” with other expatriates. “A lot of our friends from Spain, and the locals, were really excited to get together for such a big meal,” says Hunter.

Before Mexico, the Berrys used to spend the holiday with relatives in Texas and Pennsylvania. In Texas, Hunter fondly recalls, “Every casserole has a ridiculous name and a cream-of-something in it.” Beth, meanwhile, remembers the fun games her family of origin would play, including dominoes and Nertz (a card game described as “extreme solitaire”).

Nonetheless, says Hunter, “We’re so happy to be here, doing something we chose and really wanted to do.”

The couple’s easygoing, free-spirited vibe is evident in how they’re preparing for Thanksgiving this year. “I’m not much of a planner,” he says. “There’s no pressure for us, though: Dinner doesn’t need to be on the table by a certain hour. We can just cook leisurely and enjoy each other’s company.”

The best part, he maintains, will be “being at home, not having an agenda. That’s been such a rarity for us these days.” Owning and operating a family restaurant has made for “such a crazy year, but a really rewarding one.”

As of this writing, the Berrys’ Thanksgiving menu was still largely unplanned, but “there will be some grumpy kids if there aren’t mashed potatoes on the table,” says Beth. Hunter adds, “If there isn’t pecan pie, I will feel personally cheated.” Other favorites include homemade yeast rolls (a recipe from Beth’s mother), roasted maple-glazed sweet potatoes (see sidebar for recipe) and stuffing. As for the turkey, says Hunter, “We’ll brine it, then inject it with some kind of marinade, then fry it. … It’s easy and quick.”

Velvet Jacobs

“My family is part vegan, part vegetarian and part carnivore,” says chef Velvet Jacobs of V’s Vegan Cuisine, a catering service. Jacobs, who’s been cooking with a nutritional focus for more than 25 years, is also a celebrity chef, having dished it up for the likes of singer-songwriter Erykah Badu and the rapper Common.

Jacobs says she’s always leaned more toward the vegetarian end of the spectrum. “I was always odd. I had a relationship with animals on my grandma’s farm — everything from horses to pigs, chickens, cats, mules and bulls.” But her transition to full-time vegan was inspired by the dramatic impact the dietary shift had on her sister. Jacobs was amazed at the visible changes in her sibling’s complexion and overall health.

As for Thanksgiving, Jacobs is excited to fold vegan options into the traditional mix of foods. “It’s not as hard as you think to make the sides vegan,” she says. “I have a great vegan stuffing recipe. Everybody loves it so much that at the end of the night, they’re stashing it in corners to keep it for later.”

But her signature vegan Thanksgiving dishes are her mac and cheese (see sidebar for recipe) and vegan nuggets. They’re both “to die for,” says Jacobs, adding that the nuggets are a personal favorite of Badu’s.

For Jacobs, though, Thanksgiving isn’t just about the food. When she was growing up, “Everybody would have to go around the table and say what they were grateful for, what they were thankful for. That really instilled the idea of family and other core values in me. We didn’t just take life for granted — it caused us, even then, to be conscious that not everybody’s having a Thanksgiving dinner; not everyone is as family-oriented.”

The holiday, she continues, is “a chance to say, ‘Hey, I love you. So let’s break some bread and eat together.’”

That spirit of gratitude and charity shines through in various aspects of Jacobs’ life. In January 2013, she launched Vegan in the Hood, a nonprofit that teaches underserved communities across the country the importance of community gardens, self-sustainability and a healthy diet. This year, Jacobs will be running a Thanksgiving feeding in Atlanta. “We’ll be in a community which is primarily full of senior citizens, children and single moms,” she explains.

Jacobs adds that she has plenty to be grateful for herself these days. Besides her success as a celebrity chef, she’s close to publishing her first book, working on an upcoming reality TV show and negotiating to place her line of seasonings in a few major stores. And here in Asheville, she’s hoping to open a café, The Vegan Experience, next spring.

Katie Button and Felix Meana

“But why not lamb, pork or beef? Foods that you could make a better recipe with,” wonders Cúrate and Nightbell co-owner Felix Meana, who hails from Spain.

Historically, notes chef Katie Button, his wife and business partner, “The idea was that you go out and shoot a turkey for the meal.” But Meana’s still skeptical about turkey’s central role in the proceedings, and he enjoys injecting a bit of creativity into the holiday staple.

“We made turkey cannelloni three or four years ago,” says Button. “That was Felix’s favorite. You confit the turkey meat and shred it off the bone, wrap it in pasta, like in lasagna sheets, cover it in béchamel and cheese, and brulée it. It just has all these flavors.”

Since then, Meana concedes, “It’s true that Katie’s been improving and taking the turkey as a challenge.”

Her latest thing, says Button, “is dry-curing the turkey instead of wet-brining it. You pack the entire turkey in a salt-and-sugar mixture and let it sit overnight. Brown sugar, salt, herbs, some rosemary and thyme, lemon and orange peel. You flip it half-way through the night and the next day you roast it. It’s perfectly seasoned throughout and the texture is really nice,” says Button. “But it’s got to be really well packed. Last year, I think my mistake was having too big a turkey and not enough sugar.”

Another unusual approach, she notes, is a Spanish recipe that’s “a great way to use leftover turkey. You take the cooked turkey, shred it, mix it with béchamel, let it chill, then roll it and bread it. Then you can keep it in the freezer and pull it out to fry whenever. It’s a perfect appetizer for Christmas or your next holiday party.”

Button and Meana are hosting Thanksgiving at their house, a family tradition in recent years. “Both my mom and grandmother have been cooking Thanksgiving for generations. They’re the ones who have taught me my version of Thanksgiving,” says Button. “Now it’s been passed off to me to plan, organize and orchestrate Thanksgiving dinner. But my mom usually helps me cook and execute in the kitchen.”

Potential sides, she says, include creamed onions, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts, green beans, mashed potatoes, oyster stuffing, biscuits and rolls. “The side dishes kind of get mixed around each year. We’ve moved toward fewer options these days, but we do have this brandied sweet potato soufflé that’s a mainstay. There used to be a sense of pride that came along with stuffing yourself to the point of pain, but we don’t do that as much anymore.” (See sidebar for a recipe from Button’s recently released cookbook, Curate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen.)

For his part, says Meana, “I’m already full before it starts. I like the family, I like the reunion, I like the tradition, I like the sharing — all these things I know and love make me feel really comfortable. Spaniards are celebrating Thanksgiving more, by the way: Spaniards like an excuse to party.”

Hector and Aimee Diaz

“We’ve got four boys: You can imagine how big the Thanksgiving table might be one day,” says Hector Diaz, the executive chef for Salsas, Bomba and Modesto (and, until recently, the now-closed Chorizo).

“We’re pretty deep into parenting,” adds his wife, Aimee. The couple are busy raising a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 5-month-old. “So that’s our focus right now: our family.”

Hector agrees. “We’re a working family,” he says. “We try to teach them that we work for our things. We want them to understand that when you go to the supermarket to buy all of this food, the money comes from somewhere. We want them to understand how everything comes together and to be thankful for it.”

The work ethic was instilled in Hector at an early age. He moved to New York City from Puerto Rico when he was 12 and has many memories of working in restaurant kitchens on Thanksgiving Day. One year, while working at the New York Athletic Club, he helped make 500 pumpkin pies. Another time, he opened a 14th-floor window and could literally reach out and touch the Snoopy float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Aimee’s Thanksgiving memories reflect her multicultural heritage. Born in Michigan, she spent seven years in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border. Her father is Hispanic, and her mother is a blond, blue-eyed Englishwoman. He used to playfully remind people that his wife was the immigrant in the family, not him.

“My British side, being immigrants, celebrated in a very traditional American way, out of respect,” says Aimee. “They were really thankful and grateful to be here in America.”

Still, for the Diazes, Thanksgiving is a hybrid. “I’m definitely the one in the family driving the bus of traditions, but Hector is the one who keeps it fresh,” Aimee explains. Thus, their Thanksgiving feasts include Aimee’s famous cranberry chutney and coquito, a rum drink with coconut milk and spices that’s “almost like a Caribbean eggnog.”

Both parents also take pains to mention that their 7-year-old son delivers the annual Thanksgiving prayer. “He’s definitely the one who leads grace,” notes Aimee. “He says beautiful prayers: No matter how many guests are there, he just goes for it.”

Hector, meanwhile, tries to make sure that there’s also some new ethnic dish on the table every year. “People may laugh, but I try to open the minds of the family,” he says. “Pickled green bananas, for example, or turkey fricassée, which is a French-style dish that people in Puerto Rico tend to eat.”

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About Nick Wilson
Nick Wilson is a free spirited guy who enjoys curious adventures and seeing his consciousness evolve. A native of the Midwest, he attended Indiana University and recently moved to Asheville after 8 years in Los Angeles to focus on writing and deliberate creation. Follow me @njdwo

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