When it comes right down to it Thanksgiving is as much about memories as it is about food. That’s why it’s no child’s favorite holiday – they’re in the process of making memories, not looking back wistfully upon them. Making memories can be fun, too, in the actual event, but anticipation? That has to be learned!
Standing on tiptoes, peering through the window above the sink in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching the big Buick full of Flint relatives pull up the drive – that was Thanksgiving to me. Grandma turns from the window and, drying her hands on her apron, trots across the linoleum floor to welcome aunts and uncles as they stream through the kitchen door, stomp snow off their boots, hold out covered baskets, platters, and bowls, offer chill cheeks for kisses.
Thanksgiving was standing at Grandpa’s elbow as he carved the turkey, offered choice slivers from the flat of the knife, paused it while I tore at crisp skin. Grandma shared the gizzard and liver with me, pre-dinner, at the kitchen counter.
Thanksgiving still is the mincemeat pies she fashioned of venison neck from the family’s latest hunting season and apples from her tree, and flavored them with pinches of the cinnamon and nutmeg she hoarded in her small spice cabinet. The pumpkin pie was made of her own pumpkins, the cherry from cherries “stolen from the birds” in her orchard. When asked for their choice of mincemeat, pumpkin, or cherry pie, all the menfolk in that house said, “Yes, please.”
Talk about Localvore – we grew up that way long before the word was coined, though there were notable exceptions, and ‘bought’ ingredients collected through the year, hoarded, mostly in the little cupboard behind the kitchen door that I would raid as often as I dared – raisins, Campfire marshmallows that came perfectly formed in little white paper boxes with two layers of them, boxes of bouillon cubes I would nibble on while reading my latest book, getting my daily MSG quota. No matter how sneaky I was, Grandma would often hear those low doors open and would appear, snatch up the yardstick that stood on top of them, and flail it at my fleeing legs.
One of the notable exceptions to home-grown food was the White Salad – a special treat, it was composed of cans of white cherries and pineapple chunks, marshmallows, almonds, and a curious dressing that I have never seen elsewhere: The juice of one lemon is combined with a little thick cream and the beaten yolks of 4 eggs and cooked very slowly until thickened; cooled, then folded into the scant pint of whipped cream. We loved its elegance, as we thought, then, and it was good. My mother developed the tradition of Broken Glass Cake – probably a recipe from a woman’s magazine, it was composed of squares of different colored jello held together with whipped cream and crisp, sweetened graham cracker crumbs. That became a favorite, too.
Those early Thanksgivings were, in a very real sense, localvore, but out of necessity rather than intellectual or economic decision. And that’s where our wild hunger for exotic foods such as pineapple and marshmallow originated – because they WERE exotic to us. Modern. Just Like Downtown! But the turkey and stuffing and mincemeat pie were also cause for excitement, for they were reserved only for the holidays.
As we get older, and have cooked so many Thanksgiving dinners that we can’t count them, that desire for something different has developed full-blown, so that many of us scour magazines, google wildly away, and search the supermarket shelves for different ways of preparing different foods. Preparing Thanksgiving dinners is tremendously time consuming – we want to come out on the other side with something to show for those hours.
...no brainer: a localvore thanksgiving...
So when Carol Tashie came up to me at the Winter Farmers’ Market and, with that inimitable flashing smile, asked me to sign up for the Sustainable Rutland Thanksgiving Localvore Challenge, I said, “...Sure! Piece of cake! It’s what we always do!”
I hadn’t made plans yet – all the old people, who had began to pull into MY Vermont driveway years after those youthful ones I’ve told you about, are gone; but not the memories, including ones of that year when a whole circle of friends whose extended families were arriving for Thanksgiving decided to do it together. We took over the Back Home Café – the original one – and made it a community day. That was special. But then most Thanksgivings were – and are – communal, there’s always room for one, or six, more. Those first Vermont Thanksgivings were full of children – our children. But nowadays my daughter calls from North Carolina for cooking advice, and my son is often with his girlfriend’s family. Still, these are days when we have friends to be thankful with and for, either at our house or theirs. And, fingers crossed, maybe their grandchildren will be at the table, forming memories galore.
...wait, now what is this localvore challenge?...
By definition, it would appear that the locavore, localvore (Vermont’s down-to-earth twist on the word) way of buying and preparing food that is grown or raised, or even prepared, within a hundred miles of one’s kitchen and dining room, would prove an insular way of eating, one without the awareness and practice of using certain worldly ingredients and techniques. But, not so!
The term ‘a terroir’, in widespread use just now, is certainly insular in that it refers to food that is more than just grown or raised on a certain soil, but prepared, too, by people who have lived on that soil for generations, and have learned the best way – or their favorite way – of growing and preparing, say, a little lamb grown in the hinterlands of Benson, that munches on the microflora of one pasture, with that pasture’s particular microclimate of rainfall, elevation, exposure to sun or shade, and that is bathed by a particular little creek that winds through them bringing micronutrients from upstream. That lamb, or it’s milk or it’s cheese, will be prepared in a kitchen in which certain bacteria and yeasts have developed over years, and served with the herbs, vegetables and fruits grown right beside it. And if this land was farmed by people who learned their techniques from parents and grandparents, or an insular village of people, often over centuries, a micro-cuisine might have grown up from it. Amazing meals can grow out of that insularity, and they are hard to duplicate by new owners and new farmers without the availability of advice from people who have lived on that land, for their time and mindset are diluted by google, the telephone, cooking shows, and cookbooks written by people with no sense of that place.
So, while terroir can denote a cuisine in itself, localvore cooking can borrow to the cook’s heart’s content from techniques, if not ingredients, of other cuisines.
Therefore, if you have taken up Sustainable Rutland’s Thanksgiving Localvore Challenge, or are tempted to do so, don’t despair that your Thanksgiving dinner MUST be boring and ordinary, for localvores have many alternatives to adapt their home-grown foods into special treats you wouldn’t make every day.
And it’s not totally exclusive to local foods – the Challenge allows 3 non-local foods, as well as the Marco Polo exceptions of salt, pepper, and spices.
...and now to dinner...
I have, as always, ordered a locally grown turkey. It can grace whichever table we sit down to on November 27. I always use Baba-a-Louis bread for the stuffing, and local onions and celery, as well as sausage, all of which are available at the Winter Farmers’ Market, or the Co-op, which are the pre-eminent markets for finding local foods.
This last Saturday I made a bit of an inventory of suitable ingredients there, and found absolutely no lack of potential excitement and good taste. Of course there are potatoes and turnips galore. And since I seldom make mashed potatoes during the year, the prospect IS exciting to me. I like to cook potatoes with turnips in a 3 to 1 ratio, and then mash them together with lots of butter and some buttermilk. I could use the rest of the buttermilk for a delicious and idiosyncratic buttermilk pie. There’s a tremendous variety of root vegetables, of course, and a nicely seasoned casserole of roasted root vegetables is nothing to sneeze at.
Kilpatrick Farm has big purple heads of radicchio, which could be cut in half and seared in butter, and served with a sprinkling of pan-roasted pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, and blue cheese, and dressed with a balsamic and port reduction – a deconstruction of a dish I had at a Portsmouth restaurant last spring. Perhaps that could take the place of the White Salad on my table. I wonder how a waldorf salad, made of local apples, would taste with the White Salad’s creamy dressing?
Nancy, at Tweed Valley Farm, has little, immaculately-dressed quails that could be incorporated here somewhere, as well as oyster and shiitake mushrooms that could be used in the stuffing or as a separate dish, perhaps creamed, or in a risotto.
Tweed Valley also has little jars of quail eggs hard-boiled, painstakingly peeled, and pickled in beet juice, which turns them red, of course. Quail eggs have a sumptuous richness, which contrasts nicely with the sweet/tart pickling solution, and My, don’t they look festive! You know Nancy – she’s the cowgirl from whose homemade peanut brittle you must avert your eyes each Saturday. She’s taking orders for gift boxes of it now!
The Co-op carries butter from Vermont Butter and Cheese, Vermont-grown cranberries and dried cranberries, and Jasper Hill Blue Cheese, as well as a locally aged balsamic vinegar. Too, they have Heleba sweet potatoes. No marshmallows (where do they come from, anyway; shapeless, and in bags; and what are they made of) on the sweet potatoes, but I’d rather have a bit of maple syrup cooked into them anyway. Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, are in stock at both places.
I guess we’ll have to do without scalloped oysters, unless I can get my ocean-side sister to bring them. Or they could be a wild-card.
...thanksgiving through the ages...
After centuries, as it seemed to me, of growing up and getting to and then beyond the age of five, Thanksgiving became me driving into the yard, diving through that kitchen door – first from college, then from whatever desultory far-flung place I was living at the time. Later, still, all that extended family drove a thousand miles and into my Vermont driveway, Grandma still carrying the mincemeat pies, and the suet pudding if it was Christmas. By then I’d learned to roast a turkey, to assemble Grandma’s stuffing, and could even make the White Salad.
I’ll never forget the feeling of inevitability, of sadness, when Grandma suggested it was time I learn to make the mincemeat pie and suet pudding for myself. It was unthinkable! “No, I can’t,” I said. I was intimidated by the mysterious chemistry of the dishes themselves but also by the hateful knowledge that she wouldn’t always be here to make them. These were special – nearly arcane – dishes. No one made them but Grandma. “You’re gonna have to do it sometime, Kid,” Grandma said with sad surety, and I had to admit that she was right. I’ve been making them since 1987, when she segued out of this world and into the next on Halloween a few weeks before her 88th birthday.
It turns out that they are the simplest – if time-consuming – things in the world to make. But they take arcane ingredients, and arcane tastes. Here are a couple of simpler ones – albeit ones that you might not think of making – with all ingredients produced locally.
- 1 ½ cups (6 ounces) unbleached flour
- 1 scant teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup (4 ounces) butter (or lard and butter)
- 3 tablespoons (+/-) cold water
Cut the shortening into the flour/salt mixture, stir the water in until the dough starts to come together into a ball, scrape onto a well-floured surface, knead lightly into a patty, roll out and fit into a nine-inch pie plate. Fold the overhanging edges under and crimp. Set aside in a cool place while you make the filling.
- ½ cup butter
- 1 1/3 cups sugar (now there’s a wildcard, come to think of it!)
- 3 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 ½ cups buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream butter and sugar together until light. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then stir in the flour, buttermilk, lemon juice, nutmeg, salt and vanilla. Pour into the pie shell and sprinkle with more nutmeg.
Place in the oven and turn heat down to 325 degrees. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until golden brown, and when gently shaken proves not to be jiggly.
The following is by the wise and practical Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City.
- 1 ½ lb sunchokes, washed and peeled
- ¼ cup chopped dates (definitely worth a wildcard!)
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- Generous grind of black pepper
- ¼ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp butter
- 1 clove garlic
2. Using a Japanese Mandolin or the slicer attachment of a food processor, slice the sunchokes into 1/8” rounds.
3. Toss the sunchokes in a large bowl with the dates, cream, milk, thyme, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
4. Gently smash the garlic clove and rub the inside of a shallow, 1½ qt casserole dish to season with the garlic. With your fingers, rub the casserole dish with the butter.
5. Add the sunchoke mix to the casserole dish; press down on the sunchoke slices and, if desired, shingle the top layer of slices. Pour any remaining cream mixture from the bowl over the sunchokes.
6. Cover with foil, place on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 25 minutes.
7. Remove foil, increase the heat to 425 F, and cook for another 15 minutes, until the sunchokes are tender and the top of the gratin is golden brown.
If you haven’t signed up for the Thanksgiving Localvore Challenge you can do so by stopping by their booth at the Winter Farmers’ Market on Saturday, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
I have a lot to be thankful for this year! The entire world has a lot to be thankful for this year! Let’s make some joyful and sustaining memories!
*since my column appeared several people have asked me what a sunchoke is. It is a tubor that looks like a misshapen potato, that grows underground under those tall tiny plants that look like sunflowers except that the flower is only about 3 or 4 inches in diameter. It is also called Jerusalem Artichoke. They are available at most farmers' markets and co-ops. Though they are starchy like a potato, they are sweeter, and slightly softer, I think. I have them growing wild in my yard.