Several years ago, while rummaging through kitchen drawers in her grandmother's house on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, Suzanne Lombardi found a recipe for cornmeal scones. A wholesale baker in West Roxbury, Lombardi will make those scones for her Thanksgiving menu -- at home and at work -- with a nod to her late grandmother, Erma Shaw. "When I make things of hers," says Lombardi, "I feel like she has passed on her talent. And I remember what it was like to be with her."
Other cooks agree that recipes link generations. Audrey Wagner of Wellesley makes glazed chestnuts she learned from her husband's German grandmother. "She's been gone a long time," says Wagner, "but she was my first friend in my husband Ralph's family. She was a lovely, bright woman."
With hardly a nod to modern tastes, New Englanders turn to their culinary legacies at Thanksgiving. Onto the groaning board go one grandmother's scones, another's chestnuts, and the stuffing handed down from grandmother to mother to granddaughter.
Gather a family together around a meal of traditional recipes and you have an instant connection among the generations. "As a civilization, we have always prepared food in celebration of life's memorable events, both happy and sad," writes Marcia Adams in "Marcia Adams' Heirloom Recipes" (Clarkson N. Potter). "The memories of those gatherings and the foods we shared link us to our past and collective traditions."
So we have every reason to be predictable. Holly Safford, of The Catered Affair, in Hingham, knows what her mother is cooking without asking. "She makes a mean apricot stuffing, the best apple crisp I've ever had, and my great-grandmother's date-nut pudding."
Safford's mother, Jean, who lives in Ridgefield, Conn., says that when she makes the date-nut pudding, she follows the measurements on the card her mother originally wrote out for her. "The recipe card is so old you wouldn't believe it," says Jean Safford, "The pudding is very chewy, with a wonderful flavor."
Her "mean" apricot stuffing is a combination of pork sausage, homemade whole-wheat croutons, walnuts, lots of parsley, and dried apricots and raisins soaked overnight in apple juice.
Gertrude Cherenson, who just turned 82, and her daughter, Enid, of Boston, have their routine down, partly because they live together and cook together all the time. The Cherensons keep a kosher kitchen; many traditional recipes -- like creamed onions -- don't go with turkey since Jewish dietary laws prohibit mixing milk and meat.
Years ago, Gertrude Cherenson decided that instead of a cream sauce, she could roast small white onions with olive oil. Her roasted onions emerge from the oven caramelized and meltingly good. "I've been making them for years and everyone loves them, so I guess they're OK," says Cherenson modestly. Her candied sweet potatoes are also slightly caramelized. She mixes a glaze from orange juice, crushed pineapple, dark corn syrup, brown sugar, ginger marmalade and candied ginger. By the time the potatoes are done, the glaze is dark and intensely syrupy.
Some cooks maintain that sweet potatoes are sweet enough -- without extra sugar. An accomplished home cook, Sandra Shapiro, an attorney with Foley, Hoag & Eliot, doesn't "candy" her potatoes, but rather beats them with plumped dried apricots and orange rind, then bakes them with eggs and lots of butter. The recipe comes from the mother of a longtime friend.
Both sweet-potato dishes, and many of the recipes for the Thanksgiving table, have an ordinariness to them. "My grandmother got lots of ideas from '50s Good Housekeeping magazines," says Lombardi, whose baking company is called Dancing Deer Co. Indeed, popular women's magazines were the source of many recipes for the bakers of Erma Shaw's generation.
"She had white-haired ladies for tea and set a formal table," says Lombardi. "I think she did it so she could bake. And there was always something like a bread, a biscuit, and a dessert -- a pie or cobbler. She didn't know I became a baker, or that she was a huge influence in my life."
When Lombardi makes Erma Shaw scones on Thanksgiving -- with a handful of grated sharp Cheddar and fresh sage mixed in -- they'll go to the table just as Shaw would have served them: in a linen-lined basket, warm from the oven.