Fall and winter are my favorite seasons. Something about the days growing darker and colder, the sweet smell of decaying leaves and finally the quiet awe of the first snowfall. Thanksgiving is not far away when the trees grow bare. Fall is the perfect time for reflection and family time, gathering together and growing closer. Nothing brings us closer than a common goal.
To my husband and me, Thanksgiving has become a tradition of work with reward. The big dinner was handed down from my aging parents, just as many families pass on the work to the younger set. Making a meal for the masses takes a lot of time and work.
It really isn’t Thanksgiving, in my mind, if I just go to the store to fill a shopping cart with food and paper plates and plastic forks. The real fun in the holiday is the work. Divvied up and shared by each one of us, we all work together for one common goal. Older kids set up the extra tables and chairs. Younger kids like to chop, peel, grate and stir. Hubby grunts through the hard work of turkey processing. I am there, guiding the group, planning, preparing and cooking. In the end we all reap the reward of a job well done.
The first Thanksgiving I hosted, I started out with making nearly everything by hand, including the pies and crusts. I wasn’t as gung-ho about having everything totally from our own hands as I am now. Gradually, we’ve added more items from the menu that we can make or grow ourselves.
A good garden year will provide nearly all the vegetables for turkey day from our own backyard. Potatoes, carrots, corn and peas are the traditional feast items on my menu and all grown here in the yard. If I don’t have a good year for any particular item, I try to find it locally at a nearby farm stand.
Last year, we added to our do-it-yourself menu with our own homegrown turkey, processed at home too. The broad-breasted white breed is the same breed supermarkets sell and it’s the standard breed from a hatchery as well. That’s OK with me, as it grows fast, and has the kind of large white breast meat that we are used to. Being that this country has grown them as the standard for about 50 years now, we just don’t know any other kind.
|Narragansetts just a few weeks old in 2010|
|Narragansetts in there portable pen made out of an old trampoline and scrounged plastic fencing.|
Cranberry sauce is another item from the store that I have experimented with doing myself. You see, our family is used to the canned jellied kind. No hard bits for us, it MUST be the jellied kind. So in my never-ending efforts to find more ways to make it myself, I worked for weeks ahead of time to get my straining of homemade jellied-style cranberry sauce down pat. On the “big day,” I wanted be sure it would come out right. This year, I was ahead of the game and not only made the sauce, but also preserved it by canning. I can tell you it’s worth every BIT of work to strain and strain again. In comparison, store-bought kinds are very nearly black in color compared to the bright magenta of homemade cranberry sauce. The flavor of homemade is more complex and brighter too.
|Straining the cranberries.|
|Straining cranberry sauce, and more straining and more straining…|
|Finally, the finished product, canned and ready to go! Notice the color. Sometime, open a can of supermarket cranberry sauce and take note of the color. It’s amazing.|
A dessert tradition in this part of New England is chocolate cream pie. I used to use a box mix for my crusts (the shame of it). I’ve even experimented with those prepared kind at the supermarket. To me they have a funny, off flavor. I’ve since taken the plunge and have mastered making the crusts completely from scratch. I have to admit though, I have not yet perfected the homemade version of the chocolate pudding—I am still using the store boxed kind—but it is the cooked one and not the instant!
To make pie crust I use butter from the store, but I’ve taken out the store-bought lard and substituted my own rendered lard. (If I had a cow, I’d be making my own butter.) Each year, we purchase a local whole hog and always take as much from the cut sheet as possible. Which, of course, leaves me with some weird cuts … like back fat, pig ears and even pig feet! I slowly rendered about 6 pounds of pork back fat, which was a big chunk that I was glad to get out of my freezer. I didn’t realize it would take quite so long, just about 12 hours, in a large stockpot on very low heat. When it was done totally melting, I strained out the bits called cracklings, and poured the finished lard into a Mason jar. It did come out very well, with a pure white color and no pork flavor or odor. Amazing. Who knew this stuff doesn’t have to come from the store? I swear pure lard and pure butter make the most crispy, tender, flaky pie crusts.
|Chiefy, one of my Narragansetts, as a young stud!|
A few days before the big day I also make a trip to our local dairy, which happens to be down in Massachusetts, about 10 miles from us. I get as many glass bottles of fresh, heavy cream as I can afford. (It’s expensive.) A chocolate cream pie is nothing without real fluffy whipped cream on top! And real, fresh dairy cream is ultra-delicious.
To get my peas and corn through to Thanksgiving, I freeze both in zippered freezer bags. After blanching, I spread peas on a cookie sheet and pop the sheet into the freezer. That way, when the peas are frozen and bagged they don’t all stick together and I can just pour out whatever quantity I need for that meal.
I freeze corn in a similar way: blanching first, then cutting the kernels off the cob. I use a glass measuring cup to portion about two cups into each bag … about what I would use for a single meal. Laying the bags flat in the freezer means they will freeze into a compact size for easy freezer storage, like frozen corn books! Potatoes and carrots are harvested so much later, and store easily till the big day without special attention.
We also press our own apple cider from our apples (usually purchased from our local orchard). This year with such an abundant crop all over, and the appropriate permission granted, we scavenged apples from neighborhood trees, trees at parks and schools. Using an antique press I have pressed 25 gallons of cider thus far in the season. I use gallon plastic beverage containers and put them in the freezer as well. I should have enough cider to last at least through to January. The cider containers take about three days to defrost, so I’ll need to remember to take them out in time for the Thanksgiving feast.
|Cider pressing, moved indoors to the dining room. See the cider dripping into the white cloth cover pot?|
There is something about setting a beautiful table that makes Thanksgiving warm and inviting. I use dishes of my grandmother’s. I have scoured the Internet, flea markets and antiques shops to add pieces … so much so that I now have a complete service for 25, and it cost me next to nothing. I think it would have cost more to use disposable dishware over the years. I have old mismatched silverware and a very cheap set of antique Hocking glassware (so abundant at yard sales and flea markets that I think everyone has had a set at one time or another). It’s also a tradition every year for my children to make homemade place cards out of things we have already (usually this is a paper craft, or they use items found in the yard, such as pine cones or acorns).
My husband is a yard sale expert. He manages to find the most interesting antiques. He’s brought home many a chicken-themed antique, but he truly shines in hunting down the turkey. Fake turkey that is! I’ve got antique paper turkeys, glass turkeys, pottery turkeys, turkey-shaped bottles, turkey tureens, turkey salt and pepper shakers, even an antique turkey puzzle—all on the cheap! They all get to strut their stuff on the tables and hutches of every room I can get them into.
|Some of my hubby’s finds!|
So we’ve got the antique decorations and table settings, fresh food from the garden, homemade sauces and desserts, fresh local dairy products, and the crowning glory of the meal—the fresh turkey, grown and processed right in my own backyard. Lots of hard work along with satisfaction that hard work brings has brought us pretty close to what I think of as Thanksgiving. What else could get me closer to that “colonial” feel that I strive for with all these homemade, handmade, do-it-yourself items?
|Chiefy, fanning out because I came close to “his” hens.|
Well, a real turkey, of course. Not the usual white Broad Breasted White kind, but a “real” turkey. Only a true Narragansett would satisfy that itch. Purchased over a year ago with, yes, a meal in mind. But as the group of tiny poults slowly grew into edible size, I found myself unable to part with them. I just fell in love with Chiefy’s deep, resounding gobble and his quirky way of fanning out and swaying his butt to and fro to hide his hens from my view, the hens all sleek and slow-moving with their long, slender necks gawking up at me, happy to chirp and flutter behind Chiefy’s protective fanned tail.
So appropriate, to have these magnificent Narragansett turkeys! How much more “colonial” can you get?