By Kelly Adams of Adams Blackland Prairie Farm
Our holiday traditions change yearly because I get bored and can’t do anything the same way more than three times, but usually Thanksgiving means turkey and dressing with the usual sides … just with some twist: we had Cajun Thanksgiving once with Spicy Turkey and seafood stuffing, Gumbo, Corn Maquechou, Etouffee of vegetables, and fried marshmallow-stuffed sweet potatoes. Another year we used Early American techniques like baking the pumpkin whole with spices in the cavity. (For more history on pumpkin pie, check out this interesting article from manyeats.com.)
Growing up, my mom always cooked a beef roast as well as turkey, and of course, mashed potatoes in addition to sweet potatoes, and I did this a couple of times early on when I wasn’t actually in charge of the menu. The first Thanksgiving meal I cooked came my sophomore year in college when my brother announced he’d Invited everyone to his house – two doors down from mine … and I’d be cooking! He didn’t actually do anything. My mom took me shopping, and his girlfriend cleaned and did the table. That went on for a couple of years, and he added Christmas in to boot.
To escape this ritual, my husband and I went to New Orleans for Thanksgiving in 1989. I had Crawfish Etouffee and he had Stuffed Red Fish with sweet potatoes – a lovely dish that I was envious of until I tasted mine and realized one could experience heaven in a restaurant. It was bright orange and smooth – the consistency of a thick bisque and served with an inverted timbale of white rice in the center; nothing very visually impressive compared to the plate of Red Fish, but the taste was better than any I’ve ever had since. I was truly thankful.
In ’90 we were in California on our honeymoon and stopped at my sister’s-in law for Thanksgiving. Her husband kept saying he wanted tea-smoked duck, but all he had was a 20 lb. raw turkey sitting forlornly in an empty kitchen; someone had to do something. I’d have happily gone out for Chinese in the Bay Area!
Since then, I’ve cooked here on the farm every year except one. Our first child was 8 months old, and both sets of grandparents wanted us to visit so we went out of town instead. This had worked before when we went to New Orleans. Unfortunately, all we had the time or energy for was a trip to Tyler, Texas, where we found a Blackeyed Pea restaurant open – no plan; we just fled with the excuse of wanting to see the Christmas lights at the Rose Garden. We remember it fondly.
Our second child was born two days after Thanksgiving ’95. We stayed home and no one came, but we still had a tableful of food. There is a photo of me in my tent top sitting in front of it all. She was born two days later, and we had plenty of leftovers.
My daughters and I figure we cooked eight holiday meals on hot plates after our cooktop went out in 2004. Due more to an excess of farm work and pickiness than to procrastination, it was 2009 before we replaced it. That fall was the wettest on record, and we could do no farm work, so there was finally time to put in a stove: gas with closed burners and continuous grates. Straight from hot plates to stainless steel! When we first got it, we had to get used to cooking more than one thing at a time. Our technique needed tweeking, too: with a hot plate you start water boiling for supper in mid-afternoon.
The girls took over most of the cooking as the years went by, holidays included, and they have the same restlessness as me about changing the menu – we get a lot of French recipes, especially at Christmas, but they are planning macarons for Thanksgiving this year. I asked if they’d be pumpkin and pecan; they’ll be lemon-raspberry.
A Local Thanksgiving
Before the word “Locavore” was coined, if a travesty can be coined, we had a Home-Grown Thanksgiving. The idea came when we bought some wine from a West Texas vineyard – we’d grow everything or get it from the people who did … or do without. Like all great ideas, this just popped into my head, and I didn’t have the sense to forget it. My husband just smiled and said it sounded good, probably thinking since it was July, it wouldn’t bear fruit.
I had the commitment of a true believer and wrongly assumed everyone else would be more than happy to just show up and eat as usual. At first everyone did say it was a fine idea, but then some questioned that this surely couldn’t include foregoing cranberry!
That’s what tradition is – not family and feasting, going home and gathering and being thankful – but the framework, the tableau that outlines the event. It is what we are used to – a habit. Apparently, without cranberry, Thanksgiving cannot be! No alternatives would suffice: grape and green tomato chutney, corn chutney, grape sauce – nothing. It was as if I’d suggested having popcorn and toast.
Opting not to drive to the Northern Tier of states to find a cranberry bog, I acquiesced and moved on – on to Ambrosia. Pronounced with a very long “O,” and you might as well add “MG” behind that. Nothing says holidays like tiny canned oranges! My mom always brought the Ambrosia (looong O) to Thanksgiving and Christmas; surely the most versatile of dishes, she’d have three customized containers: one with everything, marshmallows included, one without coconut, and one without marshmallows. Pecans were in there sometimes, too. This was her contribution, and she took it seriously and even made sure to find unsweetened coconut, for which I was grateful because I like Ambrosia and this is the only way I can eat it. But it is not possible to source these ingredients locally – no coconut trees nearby, and I know no Mandarin orange farmers.
Without this then, what would she bring? I had to give in and churlishly put it and the cranberry in small containers to the back of the buffet, keeping a glancing eye on anyone who reached for these.
We didn’t grow a turkey that year, and local heritage turkeys were not as plentiful as they are now, but we had our chickens in the freezer – two lovely big roosters would work just fine. There was some blowback on this, but I held firm and promised turkey for Christmas.
I was able to source almost everything: honey, wheat, vegetables, nuts, dairy, and eggs from our farm but no dent corn, only sweet, so no corn meal. I guess I still feel like I shouldn’t have, but I bought corn meal with the excuse that I grew corn … just not the right kind. I didn’t tell anyone.
A friend had grown onions on his farm, so the only thing missing from a standard dressing was celery. We had apples and peaches from orchards in East Texas and Arkansas.
It was great. There were still green tomatoes on the vines for relish, and we had giant curved butternut squashes that are called Tahitian Squash or Pennsylvania Pumpkins. Butternuts make a superior pie because the flesh isn’t as juicy, meaning you don’t have to cook a gallon of water out first to make the filling like you do with pumpkin – just cut in two lengthwise, remove the seeds (soak overnight in saltwater then dry for “pumpkin seeds”) and bake sliced-side down on an oiled rimmed pan until roasted. The squash will be very soft and the juices that cook out will blacken around it; this caramelization will add a lot of flavor.
Roasted Homegrown Chickens
Cornbread “Cheat” Dressing sans celery
Green Tomato Relish
Sliced Peaches (from the freezer)
Sweet Potatoes and Apples
Squash and Corn Casserole (again, from the freezer)
Whole Wheat Rolls
Pecan and Faux Pumpkin (butternut) Pies
This Thanksgiving we have a new member of our family; a daughter-in-law who loves all things Japanese; I’m sure I could figure out how to work cranberry and Mandarin oranges into Sushi. That and the macarons should round out our tradition of a Changeable Feast!