No other holiday seems to hold such firm sway over the hearts -- and stomachs -- of Americans as Thanksgiving. Between an enormous feast shared with family (or friends), an entire day of television devoted to parades and football games, a dash of fervent patriotism, and three more days off for leftovers and Christmas shopping, Thanksgiving represents the American Dream (for better or for worse, depending on your views).
Most of all, Thanksgiving gives us an entire day to stop and consider all that we hold dear, to share stories, and to give conscious thanks, something we probably do too little of during the rest of the year. It's a time for tradition, and it's no wonder that it holds such deep appeal for so many of us.
For many people, the ideal Thanksgiving dinner fits into a time-honored mold. As the folks at Culinate asked in a recent article, "Can you find anyone who doesn't eat turkey for Thanksgiving, or Tofurky, the turkey's processed vegetarian cousin?"
Um... hello? Over here! Yes, that's right, I'm one of those odd ducks (like some of those mentioned in the article) who don't feel the need to place either item on my Thanksgiving table. Even before going vegetarian, I didn't feel much affection for the dry slices of turkey breast on my plate. I wanted a sky-high pile of mashed potatoes, and I wanted pie. (I also want to avoid the football games and the shopping, but that's another story altogether.) Others have felt this way, too; Bonnie offered her perspective as a former vegetarian last year.
Since becoming a vegetarian, however, I've been more inclined to celebrate Thanksgiving according to its original intent: to give thanks for a successful harvest by eating the results of that harvest. And while the term "harvest" can and should be equally applied to the seasonal slaughter of animals raised or hunted for food, I like to look to the garden or the farmers market and celebrate the rich bounty of vegetables available at this time of the year -- as well as the stories behind them.
Over the years, I've featured different vegetables on my holiday table, some of them more memorable than others. All the good northern Ohio produce I was able to find at my farmers market this fall means I'll be able to celebrate a 100-Mile Thanksgiving, at least in part, and to share more stories about the good food we'll be eating. Now, I just have to decide which of these recipes I'll take to the holiday feast:
During my college years, I spent a fall semester studying in Grenoble, France. Since I had no way of going home for Thanksgiving, I joined with other students from my school in heading out to a local restaurant for a French variation on our traditional holiday meal. The turkey there was about as dry as what I could get at home, but the potatoes far outshone even homemade mashed.
Gratin dauphinois is a classic regional French dish combining potato slices with an abundance of garlic, butter, cream, and fragrant cave-aged Gruyère cheese. I learned the recipe from my host mother, and every fall or winter since then, I've tried to make the dish to share with others, whether at Thanksgiving or for another occasion. It never fails to win rave reviews. But then, how can you possibly go wrong with such good ingredients? While Gruyère is made only in France and Switzerland (and the debate rages on as to which is better), the rest of the ingredients are ones I can find locally, making this one of my favorite cold-weather dishes.
After returning home to Ohio several years later as a newly-converted vegetarian, I invited my parents to a vegetarian Thanksgiving at my apartment. Determined to show off seasonal produce, I pulled out a vegan recipe for fettucine with squash sauce, served with greens on the side and pear-and-blue-cheese tarts with raspberry jam sauce for an appetizer. Even my meat-and-potatoes-loving father bravely tried everything on the menu, and my parents appeared reasonably satisfied with the meal. (Of course, knowing that they would have turkey at home the next day made it easier to enjoy an experimental meal, I think!)
I hadn't revisted the squash sauce since then, but when I made it again this weekend for a friend, I found that it still satisfied me -- especially since I could add more local vegetables to the sauce and pour it all over homemade spelt pasta. But as I look back, I have to admire my parents' courage in accepting such a radical departure from the traditional Thanksgiving menu. (I owe them big time this year.)
A few years after that, my parents headed to warmer climes for the winter (they assure me it had nothing to do with my cooking), and I started sharing the Thanksgiving cooking with friends in town, creating our own family traditions. I always take a loaf of homemade whole-grain bread, an easy winner in a family that loves all bread, and my most popular contribution over the years has been the Vegetable Filo Roll found in the "Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites Cookbook" (seen in last year's variation here with local carrots, broccoli, onions, and garlic).
In return, my friends have always guaranteed a couple more vegetarian side dishes to make me happy, and their favorites (and mine) reflect their own family traditions. Sheryl makes a fantastic sweet potato souffle with praline topping, based on her aunt's recipe, and Paul trots out his mother's Southwestern cornbread stuffing. (I never, ever liked stuffing until I tried this version. Now I can't get enough!) Together, we've put together a good twist on the traditional Thanksgiving menu to share with their boys as they get older.
When it comes to a holiday dessert, I do tend to stick close to the traditional offerings. The part about Thanksgiving I loved the most when I was younger was the opportunity to have two desserts: pumpkin pie and pecan pie. Unfortunately, pecans are not grown here in northern Ohio, and my "local" source for them (a friend living near pecan farms in Springfield, IL) couldn't supply me this year due to the late frost damaging the entire pecan crop.
I decided to combine the two desserts on a smaller scale this year, anyway, and to use as many other local ingredients as possible. By combining the pumpkin filling with a crust made from ground toasted oats and pecans, I ended up with a beautiful, flavorful, and not-too-sweet pie sure to please both pumpkin and pecan pie fans.
Of course, after all that food, it's hard to think about anything else for the rest of the day or evening. If the Thanksgiving feast takes the place of the evening meal, that's not a problem, but if dinner comes in the early afternoon, there's always the chance that later in the evening I might want just a little something to tide me over until breakfast. That's when I pull out my personal favorite, influenced by too many years of watching a holiday classic on TV: popcorn (though not slung onto my plate by a happy beagle). That, too, is a local treat, as I find Ruby Red popcorn at the farmers market every year and top it with local country butter.
Some have argued that the food is not the main reason for celebrating Thanksgiving, and while that's true, I would point out that the recipes we use for this one celebration each year and the food we share at table with family and friends create the link between us, our shared stories and histories, and our impulse to give thanks for all that we have. For me, local food, then, is an ongoing act of thanksgiving: by connecting more consciously to the origins of our food and to the people who produce it, we learn more about the stories and the histories of our food... and we are grateful for that knowledge and sharing.
Whatever graces your table this Thanksgiving, whether vegetarian or not, I hope you will join me in giving thanks to all those who brought that food to our plates, from the healthy soil and the hard-working farmers to the tireless and creative chefs. And I hope you will have many stories to share about your food and your traditions, both old and new.
Southwestern Cornbread Stuffing
The cornbread recipe is modified from "Stocking Up," my favorite book on food preservation, and the stuffing recipe comes from Sue Edmiston, with my additional variations.
Preheat oven to 425 F. Whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, cumin, and chili powder. Add remaining ingredients and stir just to mix. Bake in greased 9 x 13" baking pan for 15-20 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool.
Reduce oven temperature to 350 F.
Spread cornbread squares on baking sheet and toast in oven until dry (about 30 minutes). Add cumin, chili powder, and salt, and mix to combine.
In saucepan, combine onion, celery, garlic, red pepper, and stock. Bring to a boil and simmer until vegetables are soft. Allow to cool slightly.
Add beaten eggs, vegetables, and stock to the crumb mixture. Mix well. Add water if mixture is too dry. Spread in greased 9 x 13" baking pan. Bake at 325 F for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how dry you like your stuffing.
Pumpkin Pie with Pecan Crust
Based on two recipes in the "King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking" cookbook, with variations.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Spread oats in a shallow layer in an ungreased cake pan. Bake until they start to brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and grind in a small food processor.
Spread pecans in a shallow layer in an ungreased cake pan. Bake until they smell toasty, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven and grind in a small food processor. (The oats and pecans can be ground together if your food processor is large enough.)
In food processor or medium mixing bowl, combine oats, pecans, sugar, spices, and salt. Drizzle butter over dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Press mixture into the bottom of a 9" regular (not deep-dish) pie plate. Bake crust until just barely beginning to brown, 14 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Raise oven temperature to 425 F. Make filling.
Puree pumpkin pulp with eggs and half-and-half. Add remaining ingredients and mix until smooth. Pour into prepared crust. Bake at 425 F for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 F and bake 35-40 minutes more, until a knife inserted 1" from the edge comes out moist but clean. Cool to room temperature before serving.