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Thanksgiving Traditions

Family feasts and favorites

Jennifer Oakley
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Jack Daniel

Jack Daniel enjoys cooking year-round but especially so at Thanksgiving, where family recipes are shared. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Here at The Buzz, we want to talk turkey with all the trimmings. We want to dish about the best dishes to eat, so we turned to four local families who love Thanksgiving to get their take on the holiday.

“I am the son of a serial canner,” says Jack Daniel, laughing, looking at the jars of blueberry marmalade, chili sauce, bread and butter pickles, tomato chutney and peach butter spread across his kitchen counter. “My mom [Polly] is a lifelong foodie and canner extraordinaire, and these are just some of the foods she cans. I grew up on the corner of Reba and Bellmeade [in River Oaks], and I used to watch my mom in the kitchen, and I learned from her. We know our way around a mason jar!”

Jack and wife Mary’s Thanksgiving meal is traditional, with every branch of the family contributing to the feast. Jack always makes the turkey, which he brines to bring out its fullest flavor and also because they usually drive to Mary’s grandmother’s farm in Camden, Texas. “We want things that are easy to travel with. The beauty of this turkey breast is that you can even brine it in a stock pot for up to 72 hours and can take it with you and air dry in a fridge on a rack. Because of the brine, when it is done it is so nice, with that crispy brown skin.”

Along with their daughters, 18-year-old Claire and 24-year-old Martha, and black Labrador Blue, the Daniels share family favorites of oyster dressing, homemade gravy, cranberry sauce, cornbread with sweet jalapeños and pumpkin chiffon pie.

Inspired by his mom’s canning, Jack noodled around in his kitchen more than a decade ago and created sweet jalapeños to give as gifts. What started as a kitchen hobby grew into a small business when demand for the jalapeño slices grew.

“There is something about gathering around the table and breaking bread that provides comfort and connection and laughter and lore,” says Jack, who named his jalapeño creations JED’s Finest. (Mary is a cross-country coach at St. John’s School.) “It seems like every fun family memory comes around the dinner table.”

Morgan Jankovic

Morgan Jankovic, in her Meyerland kitchen, with a sampling of her traditional Thanksgiving dishes (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Meyerland resident Morgan Jankovic says good food and good memories go hand in hand around a dining table – in her case, a custom-made one. “We had a specially made dining room table made,” says Morgan. “It’s a rectangle, and it’s basically a tree cut in half, and we can seat 12. It’s a great entertaining space where we have the food as a buffet in the kitchen, and we can drink wine and eat.”

Jankovic, along with husband Zach Jankovic, a video producer, and their 15-month-old daughter Sophia, host their extended families for the holiday. “My Thanksgiving is very family-oriented and is kid friendly,” says Morgan, a former personal chef turned full-time mom. “My approach with kids is to give them all that we eat. I cut up a little bit of the turkey, and the sweet potatoes are easy for babies to eat because they are pureed.”

Morgan makes traditional Thanksgiving dishes but recently has switched from roasting the turkey in the oven to cooking a turkey breast sous vide, which is a process of vacuum-sealing food in a bag, and then cooking it to a precise temperature in a water bath.

“The sous vide is a relatively new way for me,” says Morgan, who also trained in the pastry program at  Houston Community College. “When I got the machine two years ago I realized that it made the best turkey ever – it’s succulent and moist and not dry. It’s so hard to mess it up. With gravy added that is the punch of flavor, it’s so good.”

Besides the turkey breast and gravy, her menu includes green beans, a sweet potato casserole, rolls, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. “My mom is from Alabama, and she would make all these wonderful Southern meals, and she loved being in the kitchen, and I would just sit and watch her. I went to college, and that was the time I finally had my own kitchen and I started thinking I really like this.”

Melissa Holton

West University Place resident Melissa Holton, with some healthy dishes she prepares for Thanksgiving (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

West University Place resident Melissa Holton loves Thanksgiving. “Every year I think: I am so grateful for our family,” says Melissa, “and I love all the fun and laughter and making amazing memories.” A full-time mom to 11-year-old twin sons Hudson and Jackson and 9-year-old daughter, Georgia, she has honed her menu over the years.

“Five years ago we decided as family to move towards enjoying the time together, being thankful for our family and health,” says Melissa, who is married to entrepreneur Jason Holton. “We wanted that huge celebratory meal that is enjoyable, but we also wanted to feel good afterwards. It’s all about balance, so we have been evolving and trying new recipes.”

She aims for fresh, healthy fare filled with taste and nutritional value. “Our family’s philosophy is to find beautiful seasonal food to enjoy,” says Melissa, who attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City. “I believe that food you put in your body matters. We like being healthy.”

She created a menu to feed the 19 extended-family members that meet at her in-laws’ ranch. Two turkeys are roasted, there is cranberry chutney, root vegetables (root-vegetable tarts or bacon-wrapped vegetables), a sweet potato mash, “Celebration” kale salad and two bread options: whole grain and dinner rolls.

Desserts get top billing with relatively healthy poached pears and the standout family recipe from Jason’s grandmother: Mama G’s Sour Cream Apple Pie – so beloved that Melissa printed the recipe on tea towels for family members. Another family tradition includes a family “Turkey Trot,” where everyone runs a one-mile loop race on the ranch after they wake up on Thanksgiving – and then go home to rest and eat that feast.

“It’s just blissfully fun and feels like what Thanksgiving should be,” she says.

Brandy Demeris, Yanni Demeris, Andrew Demeris, Caroline Demeris, Emmy Demeris

Brandy, Yanni, Andrew (standing), Caroline and Emmy (seated) have fried turkey for Thanksgiving. (Photo: Dylan Aguilar)

Fun and frying – turkey frying, that is – is the 20-year-old Thanksgiving tradition for Brandy and Yanni Demeris. “Frying turkeys became a fad back then,” Brandy says. “My husband fries all kinds of weird stuff, all kinds of vegetables. So in 1998, he said, ‘I am gonna fry a turkey for Thanksgiving.’ I was like, ‘That’s fine, but I am not gonna serve that. We are having roast turkey and a ham – a traditional Thanksgiving.’”

Yanni did end up deep frying a turkey for immediate-family members. “Oh my gosh. It’s fantastic,” says Brandy, remembering the initial taste of the fried turkey. “He put in Cajun spices and Italian seasoning. It’s just kind of fun.” Their neighbors showed up the next year to have their turkeys fried too.

And so the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Fry at their Rummel Creek home began. What started with just one turkey for each of their brothers has morphed into a full-fledged Thanksgiving frying party that starts before sunrise on Thanksgiving Day.

“We easily have 65 to 75 people who show up with a turkey to fry,” says Brandy, a teacher at Rummel Creek Elementary School (Yanni is in the landscaping business). “Last year we had eight fryers going. Yanni tells people to bring a 10- to 15-pound turkey to fry, and they start frying at 6:30 am in the morning. My husband has a tradition when you come up the driveway you have to have a shot of ouzo – which is a Greek liquor that tastes like licorice and it is horrible!”

With two decades worth of frying parties in the books, Brandy has this down to a science. She provides breakfast for all the guests (“probably 100 come in and out during the morning”), along with mimosas and Bloody Marys.

“My kids live for this event,” Brandy says of their children, Caroline, 23, a Texas A&M graduate, and Emmy and Andrew, a senior and sophomore at Texas A&M. “All of their friends come by, along with everyone else, and by noon everyone leaves. Then our parents and families come over, and we have our meal. Our house is totally trashed. It’s sticky, and oil is everywhere. But it’s so fun.”

  • Morgan Jankovic, Sophia Jankovic

    LIKE MOMMA Morgan Jankovic hopes to pass along her love of cooking to daughter Sophia, pictured here in their Meyerland kitchen. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

  • Melissa Holton

    Melissa Holton relies on healthy foods such as pomegranates and figs to make her Thanksgiving dishes shine. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

  • Yanni Demeris

    Yanni Demeris gets the fryers ready for up to 75 turkeys at his annual Thanksgiving Turkey Fry.

  • Demeris family

    For 20 years the Demeris family has been hosting their annual Turkey Fry. The Demeris children, all Aggies, look forward to reuniting with their friends from high school at the Turkey Fry each Thanksgiving. This photo from 2017 includes former classmates and parents from Stratford High School.

  • Morgan Jankovic, Sophia Jankovic
  • Melissa Holton
  • Yanni Demeris
  • Demeris family

More photos

Morgan Jankovic, Sophia Jankovic

LIKE MOMMA Morgan Jankovic hopes to pass along her love of cooking to daughter Sophia, pictured here in their Meyerland kitchen. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Melissa Holton

Melissa Holton relies on healthy foods such as pomegranates and figs to make her Thanksgiving dishes shine. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Yanni Demeris

Yanni Demeris gets the fryers ready for up to 75 turkeys at his annual Thanksgiving Turkey Fry.

Demeris family

For 20 years the Demeris family has been hosting their annual Turkey Fry. The Demeris children, all Aggies, look forward to reuniting with their friends from high school at the Turkey Fry each Thanksgiving. This photo from 2017 includes former classmates and parents from Stratford High School.

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