Archives for posts with tag: traditions

Well, according to the seed sowing calendar, gardening tradition and conventional wisdom, St. Patrick’s Day is the time to sow the first seeds outdoors.  And not just any seeds:  today is the day to plant peas.

I fully embrace this idea.  It encourages a return to the outdoor garden.  It emphasizes the idea of rebirth and reawakening that is consistent with spring at its most conceptual.  And it involves (for us) sugar snap peas, one of my favorite vegetables, both to grow and to eat.  As an added bonus, it turns out that early sowing during the cusp season between the deep of winter and the peak of spring is actually good for the plants.

Cold weather (and it is usually cold in March) means that the pea shoots will grow slowly.  The restrained growth combined with the accompanying stress results in stronger leaves and stems (although too much stress is problematic; like any other plant, peas must be protected from freezing).  When planted in warm weather, peas can grow too quickly and weakly.  Worse, the period during which the peas are sweetest—fleeting at best—is even shorter.

Sadly, for the second year in a row, conditions will not allow us to sow any seeds outdoors today.  The garden beds, although again fully visible (see February 14, 2014 for a photo of when they were not), are still surrounded by a deep layer of snow.  The soil surface is overlain by a thick blanket of ice.  Preparing the garden in spring might involve turning soil but it should not include shoveling snow.

So, nothing going on outside.

What about inside?  All of the herbs have sprouted (the new seeds yielded seedlings about a week ago).  The second round of lettuce seeds have also started to germinate while the gangly lettuce seedlings from a month ago are almost ready to pot up (the taller ones were pushing up on the cover of their tray so I removed it).  The eggplant and bell peppers, seeded last week, should pop up any day now.

It’s more than enough to keep me going until the weather warms up.

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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.

We were treated to a crashing thunderstorm this evening, a summer tradition after a long, hot day.  Up until about six o’clock, it did not feel like impending rain even though the cloud cover had increased to a deep overcast.  Then, it got suddenly darker and, boom!  The thunder commenced.

Storms usually pass by us at a distance of two miles or more (based on the delay between lightning flash and thunder clap) but this one was closer, a mile perhaps.  Consequently, the thunder was very loud and literally shook the windowpanes.  It was dramatic and very exciting.

Like a typical storm, the light and audio show carried on for 15 to 30 minutes before the rain began.  And when it finally started, it was as if the rain were trying to make up for lost time.  It intensified from a light sprinkle to a raging downpour in an instant and then dumped a huge amount of water in a short time.  Deluge is the word that comes to mind.

Such intensity cannot last, however, and soon the rain slowed to a steady fall, eventually tapering to a mist and finally trailing off.  By eight o’clock, the storm was over and the clouds cleared out.  Judging by the rise in the level of the swimming pool, an inch of rain fell in about two hours.  While the storm itself was not unusual (they inevitably occur after heat spells), such a high rate of rainfall is rare.

The good news is that we will not have to water the garden for a few days.  The not-so-good news is that the rain fell much faster than it could drain away from the garden.  When we went down to the pool for a late night swim—and garden inspection—we found that the mulch had been redistributed by the flowing waters.  One of the only downsides to cedar chips is that they float.

The surface runoff did not cause any damage and no mulch or debris ended up in the pool, whose perimeter is higher than the surrounding areas.  As we have learned too many times before, a benefit of raised planters is that the vegetable plants they contain are elevated well above potential floodwaters.  No threat there (not this time, anyway).

We do have squash and cucumber plants on the ground this year, though, and they are a bit more exposed.  Fortunately, the squash plants were completely undisturbed; apparently, the water drained through the fence and out onto the lawn.  There was some impact to the cucumbers (they are located along the fence) but the soaker hose that waters them acted as a barrier; the plants look to be okay.  Still, the mounds of soil and mulch will have to be replaced.

Luckily, storms of such intensity occur infrequently.  Nonetheless, we will have to take another look at possible drainage improvements.

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.

The traditional January thaw has begun.  After about six inches of snow on the Saturday after Christmas followed by almost two weeks of near- or below-freezing temperatures (including a record low of 3 degrees last Thursday morning!), the days have warmed into the upper 30s and 40s; highs of 55 degrees are expected this weekend.

Consequently, the passing of sunlight hours is punctuated by the steady drip, drip, drip of snow melting from the roof.  Occasionally, there is a loud clunk as a chunk of ice breaks free and falls to the ground.  Snow resists melting (it reflects most of the light and heat from the sun) but once a patch of roof or ground is exposed and the temperature remains safely above freezing, it quickly disappears.

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.