Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thanksgiving all year round

Call it a dress-rehearsal. Or a dressing rehearsal, if you like.

Last Sunday, my family and I had Thanksgiving dinner. And I’m looking forward to having it again in a month. I love Thanksgiving. I don’t know if it’s my favorite holiday – I’m pretty fond of Christmas and Halloween, too, and Easter’s not bad. But I love them all for different reasons, and with Thanksgiving, that love is perhaps the most pure – it’s a holiday predicated on feast and family and, really, not much else. I guess there are some sports programs on TV that a lot of folks get excited about, but I loathe professional sports. So when you strip away the sports and the pilgrims and any ancillary mythology that most folks don’t give a thought to on the holiday anyway, you’re left with a harvest feast. A really, really big meal. A bounteous bevy of entrees and side dishes that you’re expected, nay encouraged, to devour until all that’s left are a few crumbs. Whatever is left goes into the fridge as leftovers and you get to enjoy it again and again for the rest of the week. I may have to pause here for a moment and go make myself a turkey sandwich.

My kids don’t appreciate Thanksgiving, which is sad. I clearly remember that I did when I was their age – we used to go to my father’s parent’s house where my uncle and his family would gather and we’d all sit down to a lavish meal. After my grandfather died the two families held their own celebrations, but up until I was about nine, it was always Thanksgiving at Grandma and Grandpa’s. My grandfather would put black olives – the pitted ones with the round hole on one end – on the ends of my fingers and I’d walk around waving at everybody before I ate them. My uncle taught me how to mix my corn with my mashed potatoes because it made it easier to scoop up. And after dinner, there were always thin mints on the sideboard, in addition to the pies and whatever else. By and large, my kids eat none of that stuff.

My boys, for dinner this time, had no turkey, no potatoes, no squash (which I make with so much cinnamon and brown sugar that it’s practically candy), no bread and no peas. My older son ate some stuffing and corn. My younger son ate only corn, and that under duress. My daughter’s come along as a good, varied eater and she had an ample meal, but I can’t help wonder what’s different today where kids think it’s ok to not eat what I put in front of them? Where did they learn that? I certainly didn’t teach it to them. I grew up eating what was made, as did my wife. If you didn’t like it… tough. That’s dinner. Mangia.

But not my sons, no. They’re still young, though, and I imagine that by the time they’re teenager’s I’ll have changed my tune, howling “Stop eating! Please – there’s no food left in the house! You’re eating my magazine and I haven’t read that issue yet!! Stop putting Tabasco on the gerbils and set them down carefully!”

I’m not really a great cook, but I like preparing Thanksgiving. My kids prefer boxed potatoes to my home-made, but for Thanksgiving they’re out of luck. I skin, cut and boil about four large potatoes, then whip them with electric beaters, adding a quarter-cup or so of 2% milk and a tablespoon of butter or margarine. I also prepare an acorn squash, which my daughter and I eat. Yeah, mostly me, but she pretends to like it. I take the whole squash, wash it, pierce the skin a few times, and microwave it on high for about 4 minutes. Then I cut it in half and put both halves face-down on a microwave-safe plate. I cover the whole thing tightly with plastic wrap and microwave for another 4 minutes. Careful when you take it out, it’ll all be pretty hot and you’ll get a face-full of steam if you’re not careful removing the plastic. Holding each half with a towel or potholder, I scoop out the seeds and the stringy part with a spoon and throw it away. Then I scoop out the squash from the skin into a bowl, where I mash it with a fork or spoon, adding cinnamon and brown sugar to taste. No, go ahead and add some more. That’s it! I’d say I use around a teaspoon of cinnamon and a third of a cup of sugar, but that’s a very rough estimate – I just keep adding and tasting them as I mash until I’m happy with the flavor. A single average-sized squash makes enough for about 2 people, so add more as needed to serve everybody (who’s willing to eat this delicious ambrosia).

Both of those recipes are exactly the way my mother always made them. Preparing and eating them, and serving them to my ungrateful kids, gives me a warm feeling of generational longevity.

This time, I also tried making’s recipe for Outback Steakhouse Bushman Bread. It was tasty, but it didn’t seem to rise much at all so I probably did something wrong. It came out very dense and heavy, though the molasses gave it a really nice flavor. I had let it rise for about an hour – next time I may have to let it sit longer.

For the entrée we usually get a fresh turkey breast, as there aren’t enough of us actually eating it to warrant getting the dark meat, too. I brush it with olive oil or sometimes margarine and dust it with poultry seasoning, and sometimes with some paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. I like to toss that in a Reynolds oven bag to roast as it always comes out nice and juicy. My wife, meanwhile, takes care of the frozen corn, the stuffing (usually StoveTop, our one acquiescence to the kids’ preference for processed, pre-packaged food), the gravy, and especially the dessert. My wife is an outstanding pastry chef and her desserts are always amazing. This time it was a slow-cooker volcano chocolate cake, served with ice cream, and it was delicious. For actual Thanksgiving, she’ll probably make pumpkin pie, which I don’t care for, but maybe I can talk her into an apple crisp or something, too.

So you take all that food, and you stuff it inside yourself until you pretty much have to roll yourself away from the table, and that’s Thanksgiving. Or at my house, that may just be a pre-Thanksgiving meal if I couldn’t way any longer for the real thing. By the time the real one rolls around, I’ll be starting to get excited about Christmas and we’ll usually set up our tree the weekend after Thanksgiving. And as with all great events, it’s nice to have a dress rehearsal. Or two or three.

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