Ok, I have had absolutely no time to perform my annual Thanksgiving rituals involving manic cooking this year. I have barely finished even the most basic of preps. Thanks to my lovely bulldog, Bruno, who decided that 5:15 am was a perfectly fine time to get up today, I am a walking zombie. I have before me a full shift of prep tonight alone. I have already had to make the pepita/pecan/candied ginger/brown butter cake topping twice because a moment’s inattention filled the kitchen with the decidedly unsavory smell of burnt butter. Why do I do this you may ask? Why do I decide on a menu that must all be from scratch, that must involve a variety of pre-preparations of broths, brines, and sauces? I do it because I persist in loving the process. I persist in loving my family this way, although some of them may think it is a strange love that leads me to dissolve in tears of weariness barely 48 hours before “the big day.”
Fine. Be that as it may.
Today as I wandered the grocery store aisles at 6:30 am, unable to actually focus on what my list in hand said, and frequently backtracking for an item I walked right by, I thought of something in local writer Jeff Ricker’s just published first novel, Detours.The narrator was talking about his just deceased mother and how she hated the music that was played in stores, how she didn’t want to shop to someone else’s personal soundtrack. It was a great detail that made his character come to life so to speak. At the moment I was haunting Schnucks, the music was tending toward Karen Carpenter and I wondered whose soundtrack I was in. I wondered also, how I would be remembered. She told us she loved to cook for us but the way she brandished that chef’s knife, we would back away slowly, smiling and nodding.
Ok, maybe I do bite off more than I can chew sometimes. But I would be bored to another kind of tears if I didn’t have a challenge. This year’s Thanksgiving challenge feels olympic to me. I worked longer hours and some of them were on my sacred Wednesday off. I had to juggle the bad timing of payday with shopping for items I usually need the week before. Our house is still in recovery from the exterior paint job we did this October. We still have yet to dust some surfaces for the first time even though we created an enormous amount of paint dust everywhere. And now family is coming. They will be able to write their names on the dining room window sill. I would advise against using the 3 second rule if you drop your dinner roll on the floor. And truthfully, I am going to have to bar anyone over the age of 20 from the bedroom currently belonging to the nephew. It’s heart-stopping and not in a good way.
But as I say, I have a strange way of saying I love you. And I do. I love them all. Ferociously. Tenaciously. With all of my heart, the heart that misses the family of my childhood: especially my wonderful maternal grandmother whose roasting pan will hold this year’s turkey and whose silverplate I will lovingly set the table with; and my mother, my dear dear mother who knew the right way to do everything and whose voice I still sometimes hear correcting me as I chop garlic with her knives or mash potatoes her way. These two women are at the heart of everything I do in the kitchen. And cooking with them in my heart and their kitchen ware in my hands is how I stay connected both to them and to the family I have made. But sometimes, when I grow weary, and women do grow weary, the voice of my paternal grandmother creeps in just a little bit.
Let me tell you a story. My paternal grandmother was a slightly bitter–scratch that–exceedingly bitter, Polish woman from a gigantic family that emigrated to Chicago a long time ago. When I knew her, she lived with her third husband at the motel they built and ran for 25 years in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. My step grandfather was a very pleasant and agreeable fellow who emigrated from the German part of Switzerland a long time ago. We didn’t spend much time there because I suspect she and my mother were not the best of friends. My mother once called her a woman who didn’t like other women. It seemed the harshest of criticisms, even to me at the tender age of 14. Years passed and I grew up and made visits of my own to Eureka Springs. One particular visit many years back I came to breakfast at my grandparents with my then partner, Sue Hyde. My grandmother encouraged us to cook our own eggs because, “you’ll cook them how you like them.” So Sue tended to some easy over eggs while my grandmother waited to cook her husband’s eggs. “That’s the right way to do it,” she told Sue. “WIth a low temperature so you don’t ruin the eggs.” Sue served us up and it was my grandmother’s turn at the stove. She immediately flipped the burner to high and proceeded to completely immolate my grandfather’s eggs, which she served without comment, and he ate without comment.
What kind of love was that, I wonder?
That is who I thought about when I tossed the first round of cake topping and started anew. I have already had a semi-traditional Thanksgiving meltdown, so theoretically, the only way is up. (No meltdown can compare to my award-winning performance some years ago when, at the exact moment that I should be stirring broth into my gravy roux, I was standing in the shower sobbing. But that’s another story for another time.)
No, I am ready for this Thanksgiving, even if it isn’t exactly going according to plan. Really, what matters more, that I have every last menu item ready for the food stylist, or that there is a more or less guarantee that in about 24 hours from now, a group of people I love so much it makes my heart burst will be sitting around my table laughing and eating. For this, I will be thankful.
And, as promised in a recent facebook post, here is the menu:
Brought to you by Harr Family Farms, brined and roasted per Alton Brown’s recipe
The classic method, made lighter with the addition of homemade chicken broth.
This item is the Thanksgiving necessity that often brings down timid cooks. We make it according to the master, B. Ann, using a broth made from stewing turkey parts in housemade chicken broth.
Roasted Garlic and Shallot Sauce
A lighter alternative to turkey gravy that makes those second and third helpings seem totally doable. The rather simple name belies the lovely complexity and unexpected rich taste of this sauce.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Sage
Sweet potatoes were called for. Today we served them cubed and gently roasted with fresh sage from our garden. Sage that cares little for the changing seasons and kindly makes itself available nearly the year ‘round.
Pole Beans with Miso and Almonds
Normally, it’s green beans. Often, they are cooked to within an inch of their lives in a can of mushroom soup. Not this time! Our friends at Kruse Farms inIllinoishad fresh picked pole beans at the market. We’ve dressed them up for the party in a Japanese-inspired sauce.
Chestnut Stuffing with Dates
Back by popular demand, this is now the Kleindienst/Steele/Mooney family classic. Well, it’s Jo Anna’s favorite so that makes it the family classic. We hand roast the chestnuts, painfully peel them, and bring them together with the rest of the stuff. Sorry, we are too lazy to make the bread for the stuffing. We outsource that part.
Cranberry Sauce with Pears and Ginger
We don’t really care if no one likes this. We will happily eat it in the days to come. We will mix it in yogurt. We will pour it on ice cream. We will stand in front of the refrigerator and eat it out of the Tupperware with a spoon.
Parker House Rolls
Another family classic back by popular demand. We don’t speak of the butter that gave up its life so that we may partake of this sinful (Sorry, recipe provider Father Dominic) indulgence.
Après le Repas Principal
(Sounds fancier in French)
Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake
This is the real reason we eat Thanksgiving dinner. Words cannot describe this cake. Everyone who needs to, may request a moment alone.
By the time you read this, we will have mastered, or at least passably faked, our way through the Alton Brown pie dough.
Jo Anna’s Peanut Butter Pie
Another family classic. In case your annual calorie intake has fallen short, eat one piece and call Jo in the morning.