By AL THOMAS
Growing up, I had the advantage of parents who had great culinary talent. Dinner was never just “out of the box,” rather it was most likely a complex culinary event that required cookbooks, unique ingredients, cocktails and wine. Most of all it required time, meaning I never got to eat until late in the evening. That culinary talent spilled over into my older sister and brother. I consider sister Anne to be the Martha Stewart of Middle Tennessee, able to create exquisite events from start to finish. While my late brother Dan was a great chef for many years.
One of the advantages of being part of such a great culinary family was the holidays. Both Thanksgiving and Christmas rendered tremendous dishes with extravagant decorations and above average presentation. During the early years, holiday events were held at my grandparents’ home. As they aged, the celebrations were moved to my uncle’s home (also a great culinarian) … and then after my parents’ home was remodeled to accommodate more guests, holiday events were relocated there. In addition to the enlarged entertaining space, my father also added a butler’s kitchen, or so it was called. Since they didn’t have a butler, it was really an area where my father could experiment while my mother cooked dishes for their restaurant, Sperry’s.
The second kitchen was anchored by a rather large commercial stove just like the one on the television show “Family Ties.” To the right of it was my father’s custom rotisserie unit that he built from scratch. It was very elegant and sophisticated with brass handles on black steel doors and a matching exhaust hood adorned with a brass eagle. Inside was sort of a Rube Goldberg contraption that cooked the meats on four or five “spits” that turned slowly in front of a gas flame. Below was a smoker box that added flavor to the meats. My father was sort of a genius when it came to stuff like this, and it was amazing to watch it operate.
If I remember correctly, the first Thanksgiving after the butler’s kitchen was completed, the family showed up for the traditional turkey dinner. The house looked fabulous as usual. The smell as you entered their home was mouthwatering. My wife and I, along with our two girls, looked forward to the traditional holiday meal. Much to our surprise Dad had decided to use the rotisserie for the protein part of the meal. Since it would not hold a whole Turkey, he opted for various meats like elk, deer, Cornish game hens and the like. There may have even been some rattlesnake and ostrich for all I know! Additionally, the sides were altered to fit the menu.
Needless to say, this breach of ‘Holiday Tradition’ did not go unnoticed. Within minutes, my brother and I concocted a plan to leave early and cook our own “traditional” turkey meal. I ran to the grocery store and found a fresh 10-12 pound turkey and gathered the basic fixin’s, while my brother and his wife proceeded to his home to set things up. In no time at all we had an official Thanksgiving “do-over”. Eventually the details regarding our early defection reached our father. Both he and my mother agreed that Thanksgiving was not to the day to introduce new menu items. Bottom line, we are all creatures of habit to some extent with the holidays being the most important time to stay the course. These days my sister and I negotiate each year over who is going to host the holiday meals. We both miss the convenience of just showing up at Mom and Dad’s while we both try hard to create holiday traditions for our own children.
In today’s home-meal-replacement world, there are other options when it comes to special family gatherings, too. Many restaurants are now open for the holidays, with Sperry’s Restaurant’s in Belle Meade and Cool Springs leading the way. It is easier than ever to make a reservation for the entire family and skip the associated hassles of who is cooking what and even more importantly, who gets to sit at the dreaded “children’s table.” Additionally, many components of the traditional meal can be picked up pre-prepared at the Sperry’s Mercantile located next door to Sperry’s Belle Meade. For more information, visit Sperrys.com.
Al Thomas is the owner of the iconic Sperry’s Restaurant, which has been a Nashville tradition for more than four decades. Having worked in the restaurant industry since his early teen years, Thomas purchased Sperry’s from his father and uncle in 2000 and has expanded the business to include a location in Cool Springs and Sperry’s Mercantile in Belle Meade. For more information, go to Sperrys.com.