Archives for posts with tag: Thanksgiving

Another installment in the Food as Art series…

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There gets to be a point when it is just weird to still have vegetables growing in the garden.

I mean, it’s November already. My thoughts are turning to Thanksgiving—only a few weeks away—and its menu of turkey, gravy, and stuffing. Tomatoes and bell peppers seem completely out of place.

And, of course, there is the weather. It was warm much later than usual this year but it has finally turned cold and frost will be here soon. It’s time to clear things out.

Thanks to the late fall and the crazy growth that came with it (see October 17, 2014), we have many green tomatoes. There are probably as many green cherry tomatoes now as there were red and yellow cherry tomatoes in the entire season up till now. I’m not exaggerating.

And I’m not complaining, either.

A funny thing happened to our tomato plants as the growing season started to wind down for the year. They went berserk!

Usually, production of new fruit diminishes at this time of year. Fewer flowers blossom and once the weather gets colder, the pollinators stop visiting them. The fruit that remains ripens only slowly, if at all (often, it doesn’t).

But this year, the number of blossoms has actually increased as we have moved later into the fall. And, apparently, the bees haven’t packed it in yet. Most of the blossoms have been pollinated and many fruits have set.

This is particularly true of the Black Cherry tomatoes. All of the remaining branches are supporting multiple clusters of dozens of tomatoes. Most of them are green but each cluster includes a handful that are starting to turn red.

With no signs of frost in the short-term forecast, it looks like we’ll be eating tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

No holiday is given shorter shrift than Thanksgiving.  The run-up to it is short—it is practically non-existent, in fact—and the celebration is sandwiched between two holiday grandstanders:  Halloween—one of the flashiest holidays—and Christmas, whose season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  On the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving does not get much attention.

In supermarkets (for example), the Thanksgiving items often will occupy only a narrow section of seasonal shelving and then only for a week or two.  During that same period, the canned pumpkin and stuffing mixes will share the space with half-price trick-or-treat candy and a vast selection of Christmas goodies.  The brightly-colored candy canes and foil-wrapped chocolate Santas visually dominate the muted earth tones of Thanksgiving packaging.

And once the turkey has been consumed, the Thanksgiving holiday is almost instantly forgotten.  After all, the next morning sees the dawn of Black Friday, an event which has become almost more spectacular than Christmas itself and which has stretched through the weekend and into the following week to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  For some retailers, the sales extravaganza begins Thanksgiving night (talk about no respect).  Ads may make brief, comical references to Thanksgiving leftovers but that is usually the extent of it.

Really, it’s a shame.  And not just because Thanksgiving is overshadowed by commercial activities.  It’s too bad mainly because Thanksgiving is such an elemental celebration.  It is observed by essentially everybody, has no religious affiliation and is almost entirely about family.  Yes, food is the central physical component—the equivalent of the presents at Christmas—but the holiday focuses on sharing that bounty, rejoicing in belonging to a social group (not just a traditional family), and expressing our gratitude for everything we have.

 This Thanksgiving, in addition to everything else I am thankful that the holiday has not (yet) been entirely crowded off the calendar.

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

Greetings from the future.

What’s that, you say?  Today is January 6, 2014 so how can this post be from the future?

Well, it may be January 6, 2014 in the real world but in my blog’s timeline, the date is currently October 24, 2013 (my most recent post).  In fact, the garden engineer calendar has been stuck in October for quite some time now.  This is mainly because in the last two months, there have been many things to which to chose to say “yes” or “no” to.  With the garden fully dormant (spoiler alert:  the growing season has ended!), I elected to say “no” to it and its blog and “yes” to some of those other things.

But now that the holiday season has passed (another spoiler alert:  Thanksgiving and Christmas have already occurred and were the best ever!), I have time to loop back and fill in some of the missing posts from the end of 2013.  My brother made the excellent suggestion that I simply do a single, catch-up summary but I’m afraid that I am much too literal- and serial-minded to be able to do that.  Besides, some of the posts were already (mostly) written.

Instead, over the next week or two I will continue the chronology that garden engineer has been following from the start, including only those posts that pertain to actual events during year’s end.  For topics that are less temporally fixed, e.g., season recap, soil testing results, planning for this—I mean next—maybe I do mean this—year (time travel is difficult), I will wait until after I have caught back up to the present day.  With luck, that will be soon.

For those readers who feel that 2013 ended too quickly, this might be a welcome extension of the fall and holiday seasons.  Others may wish to skip ahead.

So Happy New Year (when you get here).  Until then (to paraphrase Doc Brown), “Back to the Past!”

It has formally been summer since last Friday (June 21) but if I had to base my assessment of the season solely on the weather, I’m not sure I’d agree that it is summer.  With the exception of a few days at the beginning of the month, it has been as cool as it was back in April and May.  And then there’s the rain:  Almost five inches so far this month.

Weather aside, not everyone would agree that summer started on the summer solstice, especially those living in the southern hemisphere where the seasons are the opposite of ours on the north half of the planet.  I was reminded of this by a recent post (from Australia) by BetR2 (see “Am I Learning or Just Confused??? When is the first day of the season again?”).  For her, the start of winter was the source of her confusion.  It seems that there is no consensus as to what officially starts (or ends) a season.

Growing up, I was taught that summer occurred during June, July and August; fall spanned September, October and November; the winter months included December, January and February; leaving March, April and May for spring (although spring almost never lasts three months, even in the northeast US!).  BetR2 was similarly instructed, it appears, although of course, the seasons—and not the calendar—are reversed where she lives.

Others (such as the folks at Google) base the seasons on the astronomical milestones:  the summer and winter solstices and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes.  Followers of this philosophy tend to be staunch despite the irony that summer begins with the days getting shorter and winter with the days getting longer.  I think there is some meteorological basis for this, however, due to heat lag.  In summer, the nights are not long enough for the day’s heat to dissipate and as a result, it continues to accumulate after the shortest night occurs.  The temperature gets hotter even as the days grow shorter.  Eventually, though, the conditions reverse and we start heading back towards cooler days and, eventually, winter.

Another practical approach is to use holidays as the demarcation points.  In the US for example, summer “officially” begins with Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and ends on Labor Day (the first Monday in September).  Christmas often considered a good time for winter to start (although some would argue for Black Friday, which follows Thanksgiving and opens the holiday shopping season).  To round out the seasons, Easter makes a nice transition from winter to spring, with its obvious connotations of rebirth.  Naturally, there are strong cultural, ethnic, and religious influences on this practice.

However defined, it is now summer (in the northern hemisphere) by any calendar.  All we need now is for Mother Nature to catch up.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

The only leftovers from the holidays are some unfinished thoughts that are still sitting in a container in the icebox of my mind.  I could try to make them last until the next appropriate holiday but they might spoil by then.  Putting them into the freezer might also work, but I’d probably forget about them.

Traditions are important to me.  Whereas Michael Chabon would say that to follow them too closely or rigidly is to deny that things change (see “Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is” in the November, 2012 issue of Bon Appétit), I would counter that traditions provide grounding, a fixed point of reference.  I agree that change occurs frequently—if not continuously—but having a tradition to come back to can be very reassuring, especially when a change is sudden and unexpected.

In the fall of 2001, things were definitely changing.  We had all just been through the attacks of 9/11 and everything seemed unsettled.  That Thanksgiving was not the time for anything new and I fully embraced the traditional meal and its preparation.  Rachel’s parents were here with us and we spent the first half of the day in the kitchen, slicing, dicing, sautéing and mixing.  By early afternoon, the turkey was roasting aromatically in the oven and all of the side dishes had been prepped.  This is probably the calmest time of the entire Thanksgiving weekend and that year, it was particularly restorative.

But then our oven decided to mix things up.  With at least an hour left before the turkey was done, the oven beeped, displayed an error code, and shut itself off.  We all converged in front of it and, in shock and disbelief, attempted to get it cooking again.  Turning it off and then back on did not work nor did resetting its circuit breaker.  Tenaciously, the oven clung to its error code and would not let it go.

We next tried calling repair services in the hopes that someone could provide emergency troubleshooting.  One repairman actually answered his phone—we were simultaneously impressed by his commitment and sorry to have disturbed his holiday—but he could not help us.  Our other calls were similarly in vain.  If we had needed advice on how to dress the turkey or wanted to know to what internal temperature to cook it, we would have been all set.  But instructions on how to revive our oven?  That would have to wait until the next day at the earliest.

Our turkey, on the other hand, could not wait.  Even if we had decided to postpone our meal, there would be no way to get a half-baked bird back into the refrigerator.  So, we decided to pack everything into the car and drive two hours south to Rachel’s parents’ house.  Almost all of the dishes were already containerized—waiting for their turn in the now non-working oven—and the turkey, wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil, retained much of its heat.  Traffic on the roads was light (who would be crazy enough to be traveling at dinnertime on Thanksgiving?) and we made the trip in good time.  Our meal was back on track by late afternoon.

We had more than our fair share of change that year but in the end, we had a Thanksgiving dinner that was as successful—and otherwise traditional—as any other.  In spite of the turmoil, both locally and globally, it felt good to have something that seemed permanent and enduring to fall back on.

Every year in my household, we say “Best Thanksgiving ever!” or, like today, “Best Christmas ever!”  We say it sincerely but with some amusement because regardless of how this particular holiday may stack up to the celebrations of years past, we always say the same thing.  The oven may have broken down while the turkey was roasting (this actually happened to us a few years ago) or the tree may have fallen over and crushed all of the presents (I’ve heard stories but so far we have avoided this) but even so, it is the best ever!

And, of course, it is true.  Because the holiday we are celebrating today is the current one, the one in the immediate present, the one being actively experienced.  Last Christmas is now only a memory and next Thanksgiving a future possibility but today is happening now, and that is truly the best, whatever the details.

I hope everyone had the best Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year) ever.