I’m not convinced I completely understand what Thanksgiving is about.
It’s a holiday that is not particularly holy, carrying with it no particular religious precedent. Nor is it distinctively American, expressing its national character more through the setting of an opaque genitive narrative than any common national-character-expressing practice.
If we set aside the increasingly philistine ritual of Black Friday shopping stampedes, one might argue that eating is the central act of the great American eucharist (i.e. thanks giving).
If that’s true, I’ve been pretty holy this year.
For Thursday’s communion, with a family of choice I went to the home of a friend of a friend where we met the friend’s friends and those friends’ visiting German doctor. In our entourage, we brought along too an up-and-coming Polish politician who was in Vermont for a dozen hours. The ties that bound were tenuous, but inevitable and with intention. Perhaps like the pilgrims and the Wampanoags?
Our menu was a strange melange of disparate family traditions: coquilles St. Jacques, Kansas City style green bean casserole (not contributed by me), tart de pommes (a last minute contribution by me).
All was jolly and recognizable, but also living, evolving – not just faithful observance of a hollow ritual, but full-throttled participation in an ongoing act of creation.
For Friday’s repast, I was charged with recreating the great Lyonnais speciality: quenelles de brochet. These uber-traditional fish dumplings served with a crayfish cream sauce, require an arsenal of skills: grinding fish into a paste, shaping with two spoons the paste into footballs (quenelles), poaching the footballs, and a few others that would deserve mention in any lesser line-up.
The hand-cranked meat grinder dug out of the attic required a part from the hardware store that didn’t arrive until cocktail hour. Thankfully, I had made gougeres (cheese puffs) earlier in the day with extra pate choux, and served those while forcing chunks of cod through a once rusty grinder. The final grind was coarser than I thought preferable, but surely not disastrous.
I juggled the two spoons, shaping the fishy paste into ovals, before sliding in to slightly simmering salted water. Ragged and spherical, they didn’t exactly resemble footballs, but they also weren’t falling apart. Something to be thankful for. In case of disaster, I found a phone number for pizza delivery and packed some ramekins with extra fish mousse for baking. As the footballs became more ragged, the fish mousse in the oven appeared unchanged by the its heat and the gougeres dwindled. I then made the decisive executive decision to plate a single soggy fish dumpling per person, douse in tasty mousseline sabayon and garnish with an artfully placed shrimp (in place crayfish) instead of waiting who knew how long for the baked, molded mousse.
It was elegant and adventurous, but not particularly hearty. The next four courses (salad, cheese, fruit, dessert), I would improvise in real time from the pantry. Employing knowledge and observations from past lives.
On the third day, we went out to a place of creation to eat. Cloudland Farm in Woodstock Vermont, now serves two meals a week in their very bourgeois barn (think: fireplace and chandelier). Their chef prepares a single three-course menu for all; on the back of the menu card is a comprehensive listing of each ingredient’s origin (see below).
The meal was fecund with creativity and creation. The cows that gave their ribs for our balsamic-glazed short-ribs had lived their entire lives on this bucolic farm. The dessert course was a reinterpretation of a cheese course (e.g. chevre ice cream, mascarpone panna cotta). The entire concept was original and ballsy. A lot of risk too.
I didn’t eat much turkey in any of my remembrances of Thanksgiving this year nor did I spend time with anyone listed on my family tree. If those are the markers of Thanksgiving, I failed.
I did, however, support and enable and engage in adventurous creation: socially, culinarily, economically. If Thanksgiving is about something, if it says something what America is and what it’s becoming, I’d like to think it’s this.
Saturday, November 24
Roasted Red Kuri squash soup, toasted baguette, creme fraiche and sage
Cloudland Farm balsamic glazed short ribs served with a root vegetable mash, and sauteed brussel sprouts and carrots, black currant gastrique
Honey-mascarpone panna cotta, chevre ice cream, and Mossend blue mousse, with poached quince, candied pistachios, and port gelee.
Tonight’s Local Ingredients
natural angus beef
Hurrican Flates, S. Royalton
Red Kuri squash
Pete’s Greens, Craftsbury
Cherry Hill Farm, Springfield
Butternut Mountain Farm, Morrisville
Scott Farm, Dummerston
Bonnieview Farm, Craftsbury
Mossend blue cheese
Vermont Creamery, Websterville
Cabot Creamery, Cabot
Monument Dairy, Weybridge
Pete & Gerry’s, Monrow, NH
King Arthur Flour, Norwich
unbleached white flour
whole wheat flour