For a lot of people, Thanksgiving is all about the dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc., etc. That’s fine, but for my family, Thanksgiving Day has always been all about the appetizers. Santa’s arrival at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was the official signal that the time for holiday food was upon us, and we would break out the apps.
The appetizers I grew up eating were pure kitsch: a mayonnaise-heavy spinach dip served in a hollowed-out loaf of pumpernickel bread, massive platters of shrimp cocktail, crudités with ranch dressing, and my personal favorite, Ritz crackers with anchovies and eggs.
My grandma had one of those incredible retro egg-slicers that came out a few times a year, once on Thanksgiving and again once or twice every summer when she’d make her famous potato salad (which, she told me once in confidence, she’d actually gleaned from the label on an old jar of Hellmann’s). That’s the kind of cook she was. The recipes she used as a base for her cooking were nothing out of the ordinary, but her approach made them feel special.
No one really knew where the Ritz cracker appetizer came from. It was just always there. The recipe isn’t even a recipe: You simply take Ritz crackers, place a slice of hard boiled egg on top, and then finish it off with a caper-stuffed rolled anchovy, always Roland brand. It’s meant to be eaten in a single bite, a perfect confluence of fat and salt. You don’t really taste fish, which is how the dish managed to survive for generations in a family of relatively picky eaters. Even my aunt, who refuses to eat seafood of any kind (she can taste the fish in fish sauce), is a fan of Thanksgiving Ritz crackers.
Whenever someone brought home a new significant other, the Ritz cracker was a kind of initiation. For kids in the family, it was a rite of passage: When you stopped being creeped out by the anchovies, you were practically an adult. And for those who weren’t there yet, my grandma would always set aside a few crackers topped only with hard-boiled egg slices so that everyone could participate.
When I started spending the holidays away from home, I realized that this was the one tradition that I simply refused to do without. During the years when I was cooking professionally, there were times when I’d forego the full meal and just eat Ritz crackers with anchovies and eggs. The first Thanksgiving I spent with my husband’s family, I made him drive to four different grocery stores to gather the right brand of anchovies, the right kind of crackers—because organic round butter crackers from Whole Foods are not the same as classic Ritz crackers.
In spite of my attachment to this weird snack, I still didn’t know where it came from. My younger, naive self believed that it was a byproduct of my grandma’s culinary genius, something that only she could have come up with. Because she died when I was a teenager, I never had the opportunity to get an adult’s perspective on her life. I knew that she was from Queens and that she and my grandfather had what seemed like an adorable courtship involving a picture taken at the door before every date, my grandmother always in a different dress. I knew that she was a lifelong devout Catholic, very Irish, who had six children. Beyond that, she was just my grandma, maker of food, wearer of matching sweatsuits, lover of paperback romances and Entenmann’s cakes, and one of my absolute favorite people.
When I became interested in vintage recipes, I started to gain some context for what it must have been like to be a working mother of six in the 1960s. American cookbooks and women’s magazines from that era were filled with recipes that were designed to stretch time and money to their absolute limits while still projecting the image of a perfect, sophisticated home. The more deeply I read, the more I started to see echoes of some of the things I grew up eating, like mayonnaise-forward salads, London broil, and a bland, bright yellow “curry chicken” bolstered by Colman’s mustard powder that was, for a long time, one of my favorite foods.
While working my way through the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, I stumbled upon a Technicolor image of my family’s dish among an assortment of canapés. I had to sit down and stare at it for a while: it was an exact replica, right down to the Ritz. By that point, I knew that the combination of anchovy, boiled egg, and cracker in and of itself was not so unique. I’d come across similar recipes before, but that wasn’t quite the same as actually seeing the appetizer I had grown up eating in its original context.
Fannie Farmer includes a recipe for Anchovy Canapés in the 1918 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook that instructs:
Spread circular pieces of toasted bread with Anchovy Butter. Chop separately yolks and whites of “hard-boiled” eggs. Cover canapés by quarters with egg, alternating yolks and whites. Divide yolks from whites with anchovies split in two lengthwise, and pipe around a border of Anchovy Butter, using a pastry bag and tube.
It is easy enough to see how a publication like Woman’s Day might have adapted Fannie Farmer’s recipe for the busy housewife of the ’60s who wanted something that was at once quick and classy. I can imagine my grandma, or perhaps even her mother, thumbing through a magazine and stumbling across this modernized version of Anchovy Canapés, and thinking that it looked manageable.
It is a kind of gift, to connect a food that has held almost mystical powers throughout my entire life to my adult passion for the study of how home cooking in America is inexorably entwined with the history of how American women have lived for much of the past two centuries. It makes a research interest more personal, and makes history feel less distant. Especially now, as a working woman spending more time than ever in the kitchen thanks to 2020’s endless stream of proverbial punches, I can relate to the feeling of wanting a hint of sophistication with as little effort as possible.
Thanksgiving this year will look different for the vast majority of Americans. It will be a sort of litmus test for which bonds hold the strongest, which traditions, if any, matter most. I am unlikely to have an enormous roasted turkey; I’ve never really cared for it. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will still go on, but without live spectators on the streets of Manhattan. But I know that whatever else happens, I will have that Ritz cracker appetizer, because I have already stockpiled both the proper crackers and the right brand of anchovies.