Autumn has always been a special time of year for my family. As a New Yorker, I don’t always see the signs of the seasons changing, like colorful trees or falling leaves, but I’ve always felt the heart of the season through the time spent together with family.
Growing up in the produce business, fall was one of the busiest times of year for my dad, because it kicked off the season of food holidays. It wasn’t uncommon that he missed dinners and worked weekends this time of year, running the family business and managing the holiday rush. We missed him when he was gone, but we were proud of how hard he worked, and thought it was really cool that he had such an important job: to feed people.
No matter how busy things got, my dad always made it home for Thanksgiving dinner. It was the one holiday where the whole family took a break, slowed down, and enjoyed each other’s company. Fall wasn’t when we had the most time together, but it was when we had the most special time together, and it’s one of the things I remember most from my childhood.
I remember how my mom would start Thanksgiving prep on Wednesday each year, getting as much chopping and slicing out of the way as she could. Thursday morning started bright and early for us kids, with a whole plan laid out for the day of what and when items needed to be mixed, put in the oven, and set out to cool. My family and I were a well-oiled machine.
Turkey was first on the list, so it had plenty of time to cook and cool, and make room for everything else. My mom’s turkey is the best. She has her secret recipe of delicious herbs and spices, and the best part of the recipe was passed down from my dad’s mom, Grandma Phyllis, who taught us the best way to cook a turkey is in a brown paper bag. And, boy, was she right!
After the turkey, we’d move on to the sides. We cooked sweet potato casserole, lo mein, and noodle kugel (one savory and one sweet, because each of us kids had our favorite). We made fresh cranberries, sorting through them before they went into the pot (that’s right, I learned how to QC and pencil product at a very young age!). We used fresh apples and cinnamon to make applesauce from scratch. Preparing stuffing was the most fun because we got to use our hands to mix together all the bread, eggs and onions. Each dish was an experience to make and to eat.
My dad would come downstairs, tell us how good everything smelled, make his famous “so is it OK if I order pizza for lunch?” joke, and finally sit down, after days of working around the clock, to enjoy the parade and some football with us. He always looked so happy and relaxed on Thanksgiving morning. Work was finished for now, and the next few days were just about time with the family.
As the years have passed, our Thanksgiving has evolved. As we invited friends and families to join us, the table kept getting bigger and bigger. We eventually decided one day wasn’t enough, and we started to host a second “Friendsgiving” celebration the day after Thanksgiving. And I’m not talking about inviting people over the next day for leftovers — I’m talking a full Thanksgiving meal with everyone prepping, cooking, eating and having fun together. It’s so great sharing our family traditions with the people we care about.
My siblings and I have grown up, and my brothers Sam and Robert, my brother-in-law Paul, and I all joined the family business. There’s now a new generation of kids in the family, too. My sister Cheryl and her husband Paul have three beautiful children, and we’ve moved Thanksgiving and Friendsgiving to their house each year. Now it’s my niece and nephews who sort through the cranberries, grind the apples, mix the stuffing, and debate whether the savory or sweet noodle kugel is better.
Our business has also changed. S. Katzman Produce was built on handshakes, integrity, our reputation and our word — and staying true to these values has enabled us to grow over the years. We’ve developed, strengthened and expanded partnerships with amazing grower-shippers and customers. We’ve attracted unbelievable talent and have surrounded ourselves with a team that’s capable of accomplishing visionary things. We also have technology to help us work more efficiently and effectively. I’m so optimistic about leading our company into the future, and sustaining these values as we embrace new ideas and ways of doing things.
So, as the summer heat transitions to autumn chill, and I start to see local New York apples, pomegranates, pumpkins and hard squash all around S. Katzman Produce, I know autumn is upon us. It’s the kickoff to the season of food holidays, and it will also be the most special time of year spent with my family.
Now that I’ve been in the produce business for over 20 years, I can truly understand and appreciate how happy and relaxed my dad looked on Thanksgiving. So many things have changed, but the values and traditions from when I was younger are more important now than ever.
And no matter what, I’ll always make it home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Stefanie Katzman is executive director at S. Katzman Produce, a wholesaler and distributor on the Hunts Point Market in New York City for more than 100 years.