in which we ponder our American Thanksgiving Tradition

in which we ponder our American Thanksgiving Tradition

For a special holiday treat and insight into the hearts and traditions shared by our fellow Americans at Thanksgiving, visit and check out their special Thanksgiving features. What a great way to spend that long holiday drive....

As a kid (and an only child), I have to admit not feeling any special enthusiasm for holiday dinners. It was usually a long day of waiting, being polite,  car rides and lots of hanging around (I’m not a football or holiday parade fan).  Our tiny family didn’t have reunions of long missed cousins and relatives, so our holiday dinners were usually pretty much the same as our regular ones. Just with more food and a relish tray which was always a highlight for me.

Often the quiet day after Thanksgiving was the one I really enjoyed – a fridge full of holiday leftovers to graze from all day, no pressing business, a good book and the freedom to get lost in it.

I find myself wondering what Americans are really doing today? I know what we’re supposed to be doing and feeling, because TV tells me so. Frequently. And, probably not so accurately.

What Thanksgiving traditions are we passing on that actually have authenticity and significance? Most of us have cobbled together some hybrid of Norman Rockwell American mixed with the immigrant traditions from our own families. Throw in the latest features from popular magazines,  office water coolers, TV and internet and you have an American Thanksgiving.

Oh sure, if you have kids in elementary school there’s some dolled-up tales of Pilgrims and Indians and turkeys, but let’s face it – the holiday really has more to do with retail than with honoring our Pilgrim roots.

Sadly, I have no idea how my great-grandmother and grandfather went about shaping their Irish lives into American ones. My family hasn’t been one to dwell on the past, but instead to adopt the modern. The old ways, old dishes, and old stories of my ancestors have vanished without a trace. Today’s “old” ways are actually pretty new, compliments of Butterball, Pilsbury, Libby’s, Jell-O and Reddi-whip.

Magazines show in full color the traditional Thanksgiving we are all supposed to strive for; varnished oversized turkeys with lots of buttery, starchy side dishes and plenty of pie at the end. Now that was modern, stylish and sanitary and the inspiration for my modern career granny and her daughters as they set out to create their own version of Thanksgiving.

My mother and her two sisters are good cooks who started their adult lives with no binding holiday traditions. Each cooked somewhat similar meals, with a slightly different spin created by their different life experiences and magazine preferences. Three sisters, same childhood, different Thanksgiving tables. What could be more American?

I am not at all qualified to offer any factual sociological wisdom about the celebration of our national holiday, other than my fascination with people-watching and media.  I can’t help but see definite Thanksgiving variations that can now be considered actual traditions for many Americans.

A Menu of American Thanksgivings: pick one or mix & match

The Food Pantry Thanksgiving two ways: Volunteer or Guest: this tradition has lots of heart-warming variations and some sobering truths we prefer not to think about most of the year.

The All American Can & Jar Method: These traditions have been created by the marketing efforts of Big Food companies. Recipes featured in magazines, on the backs of cans and jars and now websites.  Canned green beans and cream of mushroom soup topped with dried onions and baked. Canned yams topped with brown sugar and mini marshmallows. Butterball turkey with the pop up hickey and prepared mashed potatoes and gravy from a jar. Prepared pastry crust filled with Libby’s prepared pumpkin pie filling and topped with Reddi-whip or Cool-whip. Pillsbury crescent rolls, jello salad, and please let me be wrong about this – Stove Top Stuffing?

The Store Bought All Inclusive Meal Method: all-inclusive, already cooked and ready to go. Does it come with plastic utensils too?? Am I really surprised to learn that this option is growing fast in popularity?

The Restaurant Method:  You don’t need me to explain this one do you? Family gets to meet in central location, split costs and no one is burdened with clean up. Beautiful in its simplicity??

Williams Sonoma Inspired: nostalgia for other people’s imagined &  staged traditions. Fun for cooks, expensive and guaranteed to be completely different next year. Requires storage space for the carcasses of never to be used again appliances and gadgets.

The Best of a Bad Deal Method: eating what you’ve got and feeling grateful to have it. Best when shared with upbeat friends and family and plenty of love. Can be bitter when seasoned with too much obligation and self-pity.

Black Friday Focus: this one may be extreme, but this girl has been camping outside of Best Buy for days now, and plans a picnic Thanksgiving dinner in her tent… I feel myself being a bit judgmental, but really, she seems pretty enthusiastic about her holiday. Maybe I’m the one who can use an attitude tweak….

A Long, Boring Day: don’t know what to do with self because everything’s closed. If this is your tradition, thanks to Target, things are looking up. Hopefully you have a strong internet connection and the biggest shopping day of the year starts earlier all the time.

A Prayerful Day of Gratitude: TV and holiday shopping don’t have much of a role in this spiritual friend and family oriented day. Menus vary.

Orphan Thanksgiving: You find yourself in a strange place with people you don’t know well who are also separated from their people and place.  Can be delightful and meaningful with a serendipitous pot luck menu…

The Anti-Consumer Thanksgiving: filled with buying nothing. It can be time-consuming to not shop, so it’s a good thing you don’t have to go anywhere. Do it yourself foods of varying quality and oddity and ranges from oddball to sublime.  Leads to either the ruination of America or her salvation depending on your source of news media.

Did I miss any? Am I delusional? I am pretty full having enjoyed a right sized meal made from things I either bought from local farms or grew and preserved myself.  Of course I still haven’t learned to make sugar yet, so I’m still leaning on the man a bit, but I’m working on it.

Wherever your Thanksgiving falls along the spectrum, the important thing is that it’s YOUR holiday to be celebrated however you most enjoy it. Deliberately and with intention. Best wishes for a true holiday that’s exactly that.

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Which We Extend the Turkey Day Challenge….

In Which We Extend the Turkey Day Challenge….

Heritage Breed Narragansett Turkey

Prepare With Loving Care

If you have in fact stepped up to the plate and purchased yourself a bonafide, free range, heritage breed turkey, pat yourself on the back.  We applaud and thank you.  You still have a few details to tend to however before the star of your dinner makes his grand entrance.

If you don’t pay attention before the Big Day,  your heritage breed turkey could throw your whole game off at the worst possible time.  Just ask my mom – she’s still a bit out of sorts about the turkey I contributed last year. At the end of the day, it was hands down the best turkey we remember.  It was just the struggle to get to the end of the day my mom remembers….. her timing was thrown WAY off, lol.

Heritage breed turkeys aren’t like the Franken-turkeys (Broad Breasted Whites) we are familiar with.  Since your Heritage Breed bird actually had a life, it will need to be cooked a bit differently than your Butterball.

Here are some really great tips about your turkey from Local Harvest and Sandra Kay Miller of Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, PA.  Although in hindsight, these tips make perfect sense, I have to admit I would have learned this stuff the hard way.  Check out her recipe for Heritage Turkey here.  Here’s a synopsis from the Local Harvest site:

  1. Often, heritage turkeys are sold fresh. Either fresh or frozen, bring the bird to room temperature before cooking.
  2. You won’t have to cover your heritage turkey’s breast with foil to keep it from drying out while the rest of the bird cooks. Their smaller breasts create a better balance between the dark meat and white meat, which means roasting a bird to perfection is much easier since white meat cooks quicker than the dark meat. If the breast is covered during roasting, it should be done with oiled parchment paper — not foil — which is then removed 30 minutes before the turkey is finished roasting.
  3. Heritage turkeys are also much leaner and smaller than sedentary commercial birds. This means that fast cooking at high temperatures is a better method than slow roasting — another big plus since you won’t have to set your alarm to get the bird in the oven to be done in time for an early dinner. Heritage turkeys should be cooked at 425-450 degrees F until the internal temperature reaches 140-150 degrees F. Butter or oil can be added under the breast skin to add flavor and moisture during roasting.
  4. The USDA recommends turkeys be cooked to 160F-180F, but these temperatures will dry out a heritage turkey. Heritage birds carry much less disease and bacteria than commercially raised birds and do not need extreme temperatures to make them safe for consumption. That being said,  use your own judgement – I am not a microbiologist and am just passing along what I have learned.  I tend to be less fearful than the average bear about these sorts of things.
  5. Cook any stuffing first and put inside the heritage turkey before roasting. Due to the reduced cooking time, your stuffing won’t become fully cooked. Alternatively, try adding a quartered orange, apple and/or pear inside the cavity instead of stuffing.
  6. Let the roasted bird rest 10-15 minutes before carving.

Next, be prepared to make use of every precious bit of that prized bird since you have invested about ten times what you would have paid for that tragic supermarket specimen.

I love this post from CheapHealthyGood.blogspot (dot com) :1 Chicken, 17 Healthy Meals, $26 Bucks, No Mayo for inspiration about what to do with all those leftovers.  I take issue with one fact only, well actually two.  She’s left out the stock you’ll want to make from the carcass, and she used a Perdue store bought bird.  Oh, plus the fact that we’re talking Turkey here… these things do not diminish the awesomeness of this post one bit; and, with the addition of your stock, you can make at least one if not two more meals raising the total to a possible 19.

Turkey Stock Recipe:

This recipe is really more of a guideline adapted from Darina Allen’s great classic, Forgotten Skills of Cooking. Stock will keep for several days in the refrigerator.  If you want to keep your stock longer, boil it up again for 5 -6 minutes every couple of days; then allow it to get cold and refrigerate again.  Stock also freezes perfectly.  I use it to make risotto, use in place of the water in rice, soups, sauces and gravies.  Am I cheating if on Meatless Mondays I make veggie fried rice using rice I’ve made with chicken or turkey stock? You decide…. I’m doin’ it anyway.

  • Raw or cooked turkey carcass(s) and/or a mixture of giblets (neck, heart, gizzard – save the liver for another dish; it will make your stock taste bitter
  • 1 onion, studded with 6 whole cloves (cloves optional)
  • 1 leek, split in two
  • 2 outside celery ribs
  • 1 carrot scraped and cut into chunks
  • a few parsley stems
  • sprig of thyme
  • 6 peppercorns

Chop up the carcasses as much as possible. Put all the ingredients into a large pan and cover with about 3 ½ quarts cold water.  Bring to a boil.  Skim the fat off the top with a tablespoon. Simmer for 3 – 4 hours. Strain and remove any remaining fat (I strain into a bowl and place the bowl into the fridge overnight. The fat hardens on the top and is then easily peeled away and discarded.  Do not add salt; you can do so later depending on the recipe you use your stock in.

Slightly Advanced: For a stronger flavor, continue boiling down your stock in an open pan until it reduces to about half of the original volume.  Again, do not add salt.

I hope you’ll consider it a challenge and apply a little Iron Chef style of ingenuity in the days following Thanksgiving….. We’d love it if you’d share any of your best tips for Turkey Day leftovers!


In which we locally groan

In which we locally groan

Eat Turkey Responsibly

I wish I could say I thought Locally Groan up myself, but I have to fess up and give credit to Tim Philpott of Grist,  a favorite site of mine.  In Philpott’s blog post this week, he referred to the New York Times blog of Peter Meehan’s, Grass Fed. Do read both please, you won’t regret it.

Anyway, Philpott writes, “Insofar as the sustainable food movement is about consumption — buying this and not that — then snobbery, over-earnestness, and tsk-tsk-ing of people’s personal choices is devastating. It turns off out-of-the-know consumers; and there goes the growth prospects of your consumers’ movement. Memo to judgmental and/or snotty locavores: meet people where they are.”

So, as I write this, please accept my sincerest effort to not be THAT food tyrant/bully.  My interest in your shopping choices is not about impressing you with my on trend coolness. It’s because food is not just about eating; food is a whole package of politics, civil rights, worker rights, animal welfare, environmentalism and corporate watchdogging packed into every yummy bite.

The holidays are the perfect opportunity for me to slap you around with my horrid statistics about the true cost of the free gift turkey from your big box grocery store, how chemical laden cranberries aren’t good for you or anybody and don’t even get me started on the Stove Top Stuffing. But I won’t because those foods are now an actual holiday tradition for lots of people, not just a rushed homage to the Norman Rockwell original.

Pittsburgh is really stepping up to the plate where food choices are concerned.  Check out this link to Slow Food Pittsburgh’s Farmers @ Firehouse Market and consider ordering your holiday meat from the Laptop Butcher Shop.  Plus, the market is one of Pittsburgh’s best Saturday morning traditions! What a great holiday kickoff to enjoy now, while you still have time to be discriminating. The market opens at 9, so you have plenty of time for breakfast at Pamela’s or DeLuca’s first.

No, your turkey will not be free. And yes, you may pay $4.00 or more for eggs. But – I served one of Maggie Henry’s turkeys last year and I guarantee you have not eaten turkey until you’ve tried one of hers.  And, while you’re at it, buy Maggie’s eggs – I never knew eggs could be like this.  Nutrient for nutrient, carefully raised meat, dairy and eggs are a bargain at the price.

You, the environment, the animals and the economy are much better off when you choose the least expensive cut of the best reared meat over the fanciest cut of factory raised.

To REALLY up your game, check out the definitive meat guide – The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, my Bible of responsible and delicious meat.  And, Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is a great inspiration.

Like all the best things, unforgettable holidays take a bit of time to plan, so get to it!


Who does not thank for little will not thank for much

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx— Estonian proverb

in which the performance anxiety of another holiday season is upon us once again

in which the performance anxiety of another holiday season is upon us once again

Zig & Axel eating hayDid you hear somebody say “Holiday Dinner”?


I love cookbooks, especially the ones that are less business and more romance. The ones with recipes, pictures and intimate glimpses of the home lives of the Larger Than Life people.  More than the recipes, it’s the stories that I love; a window into a glorious life.  Someone with the life I would have had if I hadn’t been accidentally switched at birth.

In that life, everyone makes the time and has the energy to prepare all that great food from scratch, using ingredients found in some forgotten, earthy way like foraging in European woodlands.  And then they gather to enjoy the goods with plenty of smiling friends and family members in some exceptional setting like a rustic real dining room table and chairs in the middle of a picturesque orchard. With or without a real chandelier hanging from a tree.  Oh, and everyone’s really stylish in that casual, Celebrity wears-muck-boots-to-Saks-Fifth-Avenue sort of way.

We live in a time where 1/3 of our meals are eaten in the car, but we all seem to be a little nostalgic for old-fashioned food traditions. For proof, look at the huge success of the Food Network, Martha Stewart, Williams Sonoma and such.  A good friend of mine even refers to Paula Dean as her real mother.  We don’t really know how to do it anymore, but we love to watch it on TV, buy professional grade gadgets and over attempt in the quest.  Did you ever wonder why there are so many ads for processed convenience foods on the Food Network?

Obviously there’s a pining for something our fast paced lives are lacking –what could it be?  The Williams Sonoma catalog is sure to show you with photos and recipes. The only thing Williams Sonoma has added to my life is stress, pressure and an embarrassingly expensive toaster. Because, after reading the WS catalog, not only am I clearly reminded that my own life lacks this specialness and love surrounding every meal, I now feel called to live up to this challenge. And, my family had darn well better play their part which is showing boundless admiration and delight whether they mean it or not.

I mean, who can enjoy plain old round pancakes anymore?  Everybody knows when your mother really loves you your pancakes are shaped like barnyard animals or Halloween bats & hissing cats.  Come ON – it only takes a few extra major purchases and inefficient time-sucking procedures.  Not to mention the extra storage to store the special pots, appliances and cake pans when their unused carcasses take over your kitchen.

Two books spring to mind as I think towards the season; Little Heathens by Mildren Armstrong Kalish and Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. These books are a charming, nostalgic reminder that eating together is the foundation of family and community. Everyone had a hand in preparing for big meals, even the littlest children. Ingredients had to be planned for well in advance – there was no 24-hour Walmart Superstore.

Anticipation and appreciation surrounded special meals, although everyday meals were nearly as good. And it was further seasoned by the involvement of everyone at the table.  A great meal shouldn’t be a one man/woman performance where everyone else just watches; it is enjoyed best when it is a collaboration and everyone shares the glory and pleasure of giving.

This year I will keep it simple, allow myself ample time to gather my ingredients from local farms and enjoy my holiday unhurried.

How about you? What special things are you preparing to savor this early fall kick-off to the holiday season?