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Holiday dinners are more than turkey By J. Faith Peppers

Thoughts of Thanksgiving dinner most often turn to turkey. “Last year’s bird was so dry. Perhaps we should try frying it this year.” But, there’s more to a memorable holiday meal than just the meat in the middle. Many family traditions are found in the trimmings.

For as long as anyone close to him can remember, Charles Fleming has opened the doors of his Atlanta home to family, neighbors and friends on Thanksgiving morning in what he dubs his “Family, Friends and Outcasts Feast.” By his estimation, it’s the dressing that makes or breaks a holiday meal.

Fleming’s oyster dressing is legendary in his circle of friends.

“My grandparents on my father’s side were from Pensacola, Fla., so oyster dressing was their family tradition,” Fleming said. While many Southerners swear by traditional cornbread dressing, along the Gulf coast oyster dressing is a staple on holiday tables.

“You definitely want fresh oysters if you can get them,” he said. A dash of salt, pepper, cayenne, sage and basil give Flemings dressing flavor. “And, don’t forget the Cajun trinity: celery, bell pepper and onions,” he added.

“You have to start with a good French baguette that you let go stale and then cube,” he said. The bread holds the dressing together and soaks up all the rich flavors.

For other’s, holiday meals are a time to enjoy special twists on everyday vegetables. From green bean casseroles to corn puddings, there’s no shortage of tempting treats to try. “I never ate a sweet potato I didn't like,” said Wayne McLaurin, a retired UGA Cooperative Extension horticulture specialist who now makes his home on the Mississippi coast.

“Growing up with the greatest cook in the world, we learned early to eat pretty much everything. In the blending of French, Italian, Creole and Cajun, though, there was always true ‘Southern cooking,’ which involved sweet potatoes,” he said.

“Mamma fixed them french fried for breakfast with cinnamon and brown sugar. For other meals, she baked, boiled or candied them with marshmallows. She made mouth-watering pies and sweet-potato chips. We ate many cold sweet potatoes, too, as a snack after school,” he remembered.

But his favorite, often reserved for special occasions, was the sweet-potato surprise.

“Mamma made them from baked sweet potatoes she mashed with spices and rolled into golf-ball-size pieces,” he said. “Poking her thumb into the ball made just enough space to insert one or two miniature marshmallows.”

“Then, she reformed the ball, rolled it in fresh-grated coconut and chopped pecans and baked it until the outside was crusty and the marshmallow melted inside,” he said.

The names "sweet potato" and "yam" have been used interchangeably over the years. “We called our sweet potatoes yams because the variety we grew was the Puerto Rican type that was moist-fleshed and very sweet,” McLaurin said.

By any name, the sweet tubers are rich with Vitamin A, provide a high-energy staple to many diets and are instrumental in preventing childhood blindness in developing countries. And, they are an important Georgia crop. Tift, Tattnall and Colquitt are Georgia’s largest sweet potato-producing counties, growing more than half of the state’s 684-acre crop.

Including a colorful, nutritional mix of locally grown vegetables in your holiday menu is a healthy choice and good for Georgia’s economy, too. Georgia farmers grow more than 150,000 acres of vegetables in more than 40 different varieties. Just over 90 percent of them are sold at fresh markets. Georgia-grown vegetables had a 2008 farm-gate value of $850 million.

Holiday meals provide the perfect setting to celebrate heritage, to honor loved ones with traditional recipes and to try new trimmings to dress up the tried-and-true.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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Photo of cooked turkey on a dinner table.

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