Thanksgiving, I remember my mother telling me, takes on a special meaning to immigrants because it celebrates their ties to America. More important than Christmas, because everyone—Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian—can remind themselves what they are thankful for in their own way by focusing on family, friends and food. Yes, the traditional main dish is usually turkey, but you don’t have to serve turkey. Plus, the side dishes provide options for just about everyone’s taste. I think of Thanksgiving as a feast to be shared.
This year’s Thanksgiving, however, to me seems rushed because the Christmas decorations are already up all over my town. Holiday shopping for gifts is in full swing as people scramble to buy items for folks on their shopping list before prices go up and items sell out. The focus has jumped forward to giving and getting, skipping the all important “thanks.”
What happened to a celebration of the fall harvest? I’m not ready to give up the yellow, orange, and purple mums on the front steps. Long ago when I owned an antiques shop I used to set out cornucopias and arrangements to gold and crimson leaves in the front display window in November. Now I take note that the store display windows two weeks before Thanksgiving already have flashing lights and Santa hats. One of our family traditions was to set out a platter of assorted nuts and fruit as a centerpiece on our Thanksgiving table. I wonder how many households are decorating their Thanksgiving table this year with an arrangement of red berries and evergreens. Maybe they’re already hanging Christmas stockings and that “Elf on a Shelf”.
Yes, I get it. As a result of the ravages of the Coronavirus Pandemic, there’s a pent up demand for in person gift exchange; but Thanksgiving is really the better holiday. People matter not things.
Thanksgiving was officially declared a National holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln as the civil war was coming towards a close with a wish for peace, unity and harmony. It’s a good reminder to think on, as United States citizens continues to grapple with opposing belief systems concerning the right to bear arms and a woman’s right to have control over her own body. Much has been made of the so-called original Thanksgiving Feast shared by the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims, but whether such a feast took place is questionable. The Pilgrims who landed on Cape Cod and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts had one primary intention, to take the land as their own and convert the regions into a settlement of farms and European style homesteads. They neither paid fairly for what they took nor did they treat the stewards of the land, the native Indian nations, with respect. The United States still has many amends to make for their behavior towards the native people who still reside among us, but giving thanks and trying to learn from our past mistakes is a beginning.
Turkey is the centerpiece dish on the Thanksgiving table because wild turkeys were plentiful in New England in the mid 1600s when the pilgrims landed. Instead, you could serve venison, lobster, or fish if you desire to harken back to colonial times. The original turkeys were scrawny creatures, but in the 21st century they come in all shapes and sizes. Free range or butterball, fresh and frozen. The internal temperature ( best measured by inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest portion of the thigh and also under the wing) should read 165 degrees when serving.
My mother owned a massive rectangular turkey cooker, a battered two piece steel pan and lid shaped like a box. We always had a huge turkey, approximately 25 pounds to accommodate guests and leftovers. Sometimes Mom put too much water in the bottom. She wanted her bird to be moist. The stuffing would suffer and I’m not a fan of soggy stuffing. However, because stuffing was so popular she usually prepared an extra casserole of stuffing cooked separately and crispier, sometimes with oysters on top.
I love homemade mashed potatoes but they can be labor intensive. If you are hosting the dinner, my recommendation in not to overtax yourself with too many last minute preparations. A simple recipe I learned from my mother were oven browned potatoes. Parboil potatoes. Slip off their jackets. Roll them in oil or grease and let them bake around the turkey. Crisp on the outside, they easily disintegrate in your mouth once you take a bite. Delicious with salt, pepper, and rosemary.
The best Thanksgiving feasts include dishes that appeal to a variety of tastes. Sweet relish. Sour pickles. Hot mustard. And then there are the desserts—many different pies. Pumpkins, native to the Americas have become imbedded into the New England Thanksgiving tradition. More southern in tradition is the pecan pie and the sweet potato pie.
My universal favorite is a an unsweetened apple pie. And here is my very simple recipe. Make your pie crust in the food processor using the steel blade. For each single crust: 1 1/4 cups of flour, 1 stick of cold butter broken into ½” pieces and 1/2 tsp. salt into the processor and have ready a glass of ice water. Start to pulse and as soon as the mixture looks like tiny peas ie. course damp meal and start adding a little bit of ice water—just enough, so that the mixture loosely forms into a large ball and immediately stop. The less you work the dough- the flakier it will be. Chill for 45 minutes in the refrigerator and roll on a floured board until one inch larger than your pie dish. (You can make this in advance and freeze or refrigerate for a few days.) Lay your rolled out disc onto a greased glass or metal pie plate.
For the filling: 45 minutes before rolling out the crust, peel and slice five cups worth of crisp tart apples (your favorite variety) and put the apple in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of brown sugar ( if desired) 1 tablespoon flour, 1 tablespoon of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg and mace. When ready to bake, place the apple piece mixture inside the bottom crust. Dot top with pats of butter. Place the upper crust on top and slit a few vents for steam. Use the edge of a fork or a pie crimper to seal the edges. Bake for approximately 10 minutes in a preheated 400 degree oven and then 45 minutes at 350 degrees (set at convection if available). Because oven times vary, use your eyes and remove the pie when the crust turns a light golden brown. To protect the crust edges from getting too dark, cover edges with a strip of tin foil. (Cut out the center of a very large foil circle to cover only your crust edges). Serve at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or a slice of sharp cheddar.
Happy upcoming feasts and celebrations. If you love food stories and you haven’t read my latest published piece, “Love in the Kitchen” here it is. And don’t forget to follow me on twitter at SN Maril.