In Defense of the Glark (and Other Under-Appreciated Thanksgiving Food)

Jenny Rosenstrach, the author of the new book How to Celebrate Everything and the popular blog Dinner A Love Story, explains why we should be thankful for even the quirkiest of traditions.

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Photo by Russell Smith/Getty Images

When I was a college freshman, I remember one night, just before Thanksgiving break, hanging out with my roommates and discussing what everyone was looking forward to eating at their respective holiday feasts. We were in the middle of exams and had been subsisting on watery coffee and bad dining-hall comfort food. “Mashed potatoes,” one friend said in a way that conjured up the scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon where a character stranded on a desert island hallucinates that a palm tree is a rib eye. “My grandmother’s pecan pie,” said another. “Glark,” I said when it was my turn. “My mom’s Orange Glark.” However deep into their food dreams they all were, each snapped back to reality and turned to me. “What on earth?”

Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that other families did not eat any version of Glark–best described as a molded orange gelatin packed with sherbet, canned mandarin oranges, and pineapple—on the last Thursday of every November, even though it was as predictable a sight on my family’s table as turkey or stuffing. My mom hailed from way-Western Pennsylvania—almost the Midwest—where Jell-O-based dishes were once fairly popular, and the recipe had been handed down to her from one of her oldest friends. (The origin of its decidedly unappetizing-sounding name, however, remains a mystery.)

Until that moment, it had also never occurred to me to be embarrassed about the name or the dish, which I was. And which, I now realize, is too bad. I’ve been writing about food and family for a long time, and one thing I’ve learned along the way is this: Just about every family has its own Glark. I’m not talking about only food here, either. I’m just as attached to the oddball rituals that define our tables. (It’s hard not to think of the father of humorist David Sedaris, who stripped down to his underwear before dinner every night.)

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older—and also because everyone in my family is getting older—but in this age where we are all obsessed with the next big (heritage-bred, locally sourced) thing, I suddenly feel the need to preserve and embrace the Glarks in our world. They’re the dishes that connect us to our past, that tell stories; the ones that make our Thanksgivings uniquely ours. The ones that organically infuse meaning into a feast when we all might have been too lazy (or, more likely, too hungry) to go around and say what we’re most grateful for.

This doesn’t mean that our Thanksgiving menu hasn’t evolved since the 80s. The powdered gravy packet and the super-salty (ahem, super-tasty) boxed stuffing have given way to beloved from-scratch versions made with homemade chicken stock. Last year, for the first time ever, we went with a heritage turkey, even though I had to hide the price tag from my thrifty mother. But every year when the family parades through the serve-yourself buffet, it’s tradition for at least one of the grandchildren to ask, “Hey, Nana! Where’s the Glark?” and then double over in laughter. So although it hasn’t made a physical appearance on the table in quite a while now, and the younger generation wouldn’t even know what it looks like, I’m grateful that it’s still part of our story.

Something Else That’s Often Found On Jenny’s Family’s Table?

A homemade version of the famous Mad Libs—a fun way to jump-start the “I’m grateful for...” conversation. You can find a version in Jenny’s book, but she wrote a special one just for Real Simple. Have another person fill it out blindly, or for a more sincere statement, complete your own.