Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday because it’s all about good food and family traditions…and none of the commercial mumbo jumbo. It’s not a fabricated Hallmark holiday, and there are no obligatory gifts to buy. The entire purpose is to get together with family and friends, give thanks for all that we have, and EAT! Honestly, what could be better than that?!
When I was growing up in Atlanta, my mother would prepare pretty much the same Thanksgiving meal every year…because that’s what we demanded — roasted turkey with bread stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potato souffle, Aunt Fanny’s Squash, scalloped onions, and, of course, pumpkin pie with whipped cream. These requisite items were part of our Thanksgiving tradition year in and year out without exception. Substitutions were not up for discussion. The only area in which my mother had any leeway was in deciding which green vegetable to serve because, let’s be honest, none of us really cared!
My mother made every item from scratch, from the gravy to the whipped cream, and it was all utterly delicious! I don’t know where most of my mother’s recipes originated — some, like the pie crust and gravy recipes, were passed down from her mother; others just surfaced from who-knows-where and stuck around. But there’s one “family” recipe that I’m quite familiar with, and some of my readers may be, as well — the incomparable Aunt Fanny’s Squash.
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was a landmark restaurant in Atlanta in the 1950s and 60s and throughout the 70s and 80s. It was originally started in 1941 by Atlanta socialite Isoline Campbell McKenna as a country store. Mrs. McKenna remodeled one of her father’s old tenant houses and stocked it with “her collection of antiques, conserves and all kinds of farm products…from her 2,000 acre farm.”*
It was a bit off the beaten path, so she decided to offer some good Southern cooking, prepared by her trusty servant, “Aunt” Fanny Williams, to entice people to make the journey out to the “country.”
In no time, word spread about Aunt Fanny’s exceptional cooking, and people began flocking to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin for her famous fried chicken and Smithfield ham served family style with a mess of sides — mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits, collard greens, mac ‘n cheese, yellow squash casserole and more. No one left hungry or dissatisfied!
I remember going to Aunt Fanny’s as a child and feeling almost overwhelmed by the whole atmosphere. Maybe it was because I was so small or maybe because I was a little woozy from hunger (we never ate much the day we were going to Aunt Fanny’s because we knew that supper would be an immense spread), but I distinctly recall the carnival-like atmosphere with waiters bustling about and an animated piano player pounding out old folk songs and show tunes over the cacophony of the crowd. The 1940s cabin, with its wood plank floors and low ceiling, felt a bit claustrophobic, and most of the patrons were smoking. The collection of mismatched tables were crammed with as many patrons as possible (certainly a fire hazard in today’s world, but, hey, this was the 70s and no one cared!).
No sooner had you been seated than a young black boy would come around to read you the menu which was written on a chalk board worn around his neck. The boys would always begin by saying, “Aunt Fanny says, ‘Howdy Folks.’ What’ll it be?”, and then they would proceed to sing the items on the menu in something that rather resembled today’s rap.
But it never really mattered what was on the menu because we knew that we would be ordering the fried chicken before we even left the house. And we knew that the chicken would come with a big dish of Aunt Fanny’s Squash. So many patrons loved Aunt Fanny’s Squash so much that the restaurant started giving out the recipe upon request. That’s how Aunt Fanny’s Squash infiltrated our house and became a staple at our Thanksgiving table.
What’s so special about Aunt Fanny’s Squash, you ask? I honestly don’t really know. It’s rich and buttery and delicious, for certain, but I also think that it evokes memories of an era, before microwave ovens and carry-out, when good, old-fashioned home-cooking was all we had. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, black or white, everyone had their special dishes and their traditions. And meals brought families together. I hope that Aunt Fanny’s Squash will bring your family together, as well. I know that it will be on my Thanksgiving table, and maybe, just maybe, the tradition will get passed down to our kids. Aunt Fanny would be be very proud.
Aunt Fanny's Famous Southern Squash Casserole
This authentic Southern dish evokes memories of an era, before microwave ovens and carry-out, when good, old-fashioned home-cooking was all we had.
- 3 lbs yellow crookneck squash
- 1/2 c. chopped onions (sweet vidalias are best)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 stick butter, melted
- 1 Tbl. sugar*
- 1 tsp. salt, or to taste
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper, or to taste
- 1 c. cracker or bread crumbs
Place a 3- to 4-quart pot of salted water on the stove over high heat and bring to a boil. Wash and cut up squash into 1/2-inch chunks. Place the squash in the boiling water and return to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the squash is fork tender, about 10 minutes. Drain very well in a colander.
In a bowl, smash the squash with a potato masher or the back of a fork until it reaches the texture you desire (some like it chunky, others prefer it smoother). Add the onions, eggs, sugar, salt, pepper and half of the melted butter. Mix well. Add 1/2 cup of the bread or cracker crumbs and blend together. Add additional bread or cracker crumbs, if necessary, to keep mixture from being soupy.
Pour the mixture into a 2-quart buttered casserole dish. Sprinkle the remaining cracker meal or bread crumbs evenly over the top, then drizzle with the remaining melted butter. Bake in a 375 degree oven for approximately 1 hour until nicely brown and baked through.
Make-ahead: The casserole can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated covered. If making ahead, prepare the casserole only up to the point of pouring the mixture into the dish. Do not add the crumb topping and remaining butter until you are ready to bake, as they will get soggy in the refrigerator. Bring the casserole to room temperature before baking.
If you have logistical challenges due to too many items that need to be baked in your oven at the same time, Aunt Fanny’s Squash can be baked earlier in the day, then left at room temperature and reheated 15-20 minutes prior to serving.
*The original recipe called for 5 tablespoons of sugar. Can you imagine? No wonder I loved it as a kid! My mother reduced the amount to 1 Tbl, and trust me, that’s plenty.
This delicious recipe brought to you by 2peasinapod.online
Note: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was an Atlanta institution for many decades, under various ownership, and closed its doors for good in 1992. Aunt Fanny served to preserve and extend the tradition of authentic Southern cooking for many generations, long after it was a common practice in contemporary households. The undeniable success of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin ultimately inspired other family-style restaurants in the Atlanta area and throughout the South and could be considered the inspiration for The Cracker Barrel chain and other casual, home-cooking restaurants that we know today. It would be impossible for a similar restaurant to exist in today’s racially charged society, but it certainly carved its place in the annals of Atlanta’s history and enjoyed an enviable reputation as one of the South’s most respected and beloved restaurants.
If you would like to read more about the history of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, please click on the link below for a well-written and in-depth study.
*Details excerpted from http://tomitronics.com/old_buildings/aunt%20fanny/index.html