Monday, November 21, 2011

On Giving Thanks & Eating Turkey

My guess is that if you’re a product of the American public school system, at some point in your early years, you paraded to the cafeteria in either a floppy white paper hat or a brown construction paper headband with orange and brown feathers. Who doesn’t remember learning about the story of the first Thanksgiving when the grateful pilgrims sat down to a three-day-long feast with their friends, the Wampanoag Indians?

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I read in Andrew Smith’s Eating History that Thanksgiving has much less to do with pilgrims and Indians than it does with two women novelists I’d never even heard of: Sarah Josepha Hale and Jane G. Austin (no relation to the far more famous Jane Austen of Pride and Prejudice fame).

Yes, a meal was shared by the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Colony in 1621, when then Governor William Bradford declared a holiday after the harvest, but the day in question was in no way considered to be one of thanksgiving. Anyone who knows anything about the pilgrims knows that a day of thanksgiving would have been spent on one’s knees thanking God in church, not gluttonously feasting around a groaning board. They were Puritans after all!

Our first president was no Puritan but he agreed that thanksgiving was one thing and a celebratory meal quite another. Washington frequently declared days of thanksgiving, but he also went out of his way to recommend that “such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.”

All things considered, you have to wonder how such solemn days of thanksgiving managed to turn into our Thanksgiving extravaganza, complete with the Macy’s Day Parade, football games galore, and enough food to sink a ship.

Well, people being what they are, festive thanksgiving dinners were celebrated around the country, although not necessarily on the same day and not necessarily with the same food. In her 1823 novel Northwood; or, a Tale of New England, Sarah Josepha Hale—later known as “the Mother of Thanksgiving,” devoted an entire chapter to one such dinner, complete with roast turkey, gravy, and pumpkin pie. Shortly after, she made it her mission to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. For the next forty years, she lobbied any and all politicians she could, ultimately appealing to President Lincoln himself. In the summer of 1863, on the heels of the decisive battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he granted her wish. Thus it was that the last Thursday in November became a national holiday, celebrated in both North and South.

Some twenty years later, another writer provided the newly nationalized holiday with its colonial history. In her Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, Jane G. Austin sent the Thanksgiving feast back in time: straight back to that 1621 harvest holiday declared by William Bradford. All of sudden, the pilgrims and Indians sat down, not to a bountiful harvest celebration, but to a Thanksgiving meal of clam chowder, oysters, turkeys stuffed with beechnuts, venison pasties, not to mention all manner of roasts, vegetables, ales, and root beer.

Thus it was that the pilgrims’ harvest festival was transformed into a national day of Thanksgiving signed into law by President Lincoln in his desire to unite a war-torn country.

But still there’s the matter of the turkey. Why “Turkey Day” in particular?

Well, on the one hand, it’s symbolic. Native to America, the wild turkey was Benjamin Franklin’s choice for the national bird: "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character . . . The Truth [is that] the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.”

On the other hand, it’s affordable—at least as compared to a standing rib roast or beef tenderloin—as are stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. In this regard, TV chef Sandra Lee couldn’t be more in the spirit of Thanksgiving with her cost-cutting menu that promises a festive dinner for eight for no more than $45.00 (as she says, “that’s less than $6.00 a person!”).

Symbolic and affordable. It united our country and still does. Every immigrant group makes the turkey its own, stuffing it with basmati rice, jasmine rice, fried rice, sauerkraut, and even refried beans—foods those long ago pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians could never have imagined!

Does it bother me that Thanksgiving turns out to be as much literary creation as historical fact—and perhaps a little bit more? Not in the slightest. What would Christmas be, after all, without Charles Dickens and his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge?

 As I’ve often had reason to conclude, never underestimate the power of the pen!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Munchkins, Gherkins, Napkins, and . . . Pumpkins?

At this time of year, you can’t ignore them. They’re everywhere. There’s not a doorstep in my neighborhood that doesn’t boast at least one of them. They line the entrance to the supermarkets and the farm stand up the road may as well be Noah’s ark bobbing about in a vast expanse of autumnal orange.

Pumpkins, of course. The undisputed king of the season that begins at Halloween and extends straight through Thanksgiving. What other vegetable is so . . . well, so big? “The blue whales of the vegetable world”—that’s what John Ayto calls them in his The Diner’s Dictionary.

So here’s what I don’t get. Munchkins are little bites. Gherkins are little pickles. Napkins are little cloths. Manikins are little men. And pumpkins? Little . . . what? Who could ever have looked at a pumpkin and called it little?

My etymology dictionary tells me the word traces back to the Greek pepon, which meant melon—but that doesn’t really help me very much because as far as I’m concerned, pumpkins and melons have little in common except their size and the fact that they’re both filled with lots of seeds. In Latin it was a pepo, in Middle French a pompon, and in England for quite a long time it was a pompion, also spelled pumpion. Sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth century someone had the bright idea to add the –kin suffix which in virtually every other instance you can think of denotes either smallness or affection, as in “oh, my little lambkins” and “what a sweet little babykins.” But why would a vegetable known above all else for its sheer size have acquired such an endearingly diminutive suffix? As I said, I don’t get it. Apparently no one else does either because not a one of my reference books hazards so much as a guess. Hasn’t anyone else ever wondered how the pumpkin got its suffix?

Maybe it’s that it’s hard to take such an enormous vegetable seriously. For centuries people have been using it to mock pretensions of grandeur. The Roman writer Seneca referred to the deification of the Emperor Claudius as his “pumpkinification”—not all that different, when you think about it, from the pumpkinification of the pumpkin itself into Cinderella’s magic coach. And no one has ever relished being called a “pumpkin-head”: “They ain’t got two ideas to bless themselves with, the stupid punkin-headed consaited [sic] blockheads!” wrote the humorist Thomas Chandler Haliburton in the mid-nineteenth century.

All this said, I’ll confess to an affection for the oddly-named vegetable. It’s hard to think of another that can compete with that other gargantuan of the season: the ginormous turkey. Because my Thanksgiving table has a sizeable contingent of vegetarians, there’s always an entrée just for them and it almost always features the pumpkin. One year it was pumpkin-stuffed ravioli with a sage brown-butter sauce. Another time it was a Native American vegetable stew served in a hollowed-out pumpkin. But this year, I’ll once again make my daughter’s favorite: a Cheddar-Pumpkin Tart with a Whole-Wheat Parmesan Crust.   

Cheddar-Pumpkin Tart (makes one 9” tart)

For the crust:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
¼ cup grated fresh Parmesan
½ tsp salt
8 tbsp cold unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
¼ cup cold water

Mix the dry ingredients together in a food processor. Add the butter, cut into small pieces, and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Add the egg yolk and water, and pulse until the dough just comes together. Wrap the dough in wax paper and refrigerate until firm. Roll out between wax paper and place into a 9” tart pan with removable bottom; double over the outer edge to make a thicker outer crust. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Line with aluminum foil, fill with pie weights (or dried beans) and bake for 10 minutes at 400. Remove foil and weights, prick the bottom and sides with a fork and bake 10 minutes longer, until golden brown. Cool on wire rack.

For the filling:

2 tsp butter
1 tsp canola oil
1 medium onion or 2 leeks, thinly sliced
½ tsp salt
¾ cup pureed pumpkin (canned is better because drier)
2 eggs
½ cup cream
½ tsp dried thyme
¼ tsp white pepper
3 ½ ounces sharp Cheddar cheese (about 1 ½ cups)

Melt 1 tsp butter and the oil in large skillet over medium heat. Cook onion or leeks 10-12 minutes, until soft, stirring often. Sprinkle with salt and set aside.

Beat pumpkin and eggs together in medium bowl. Add the cream, a bit of salt, thyme, and pepper to taste.

Assemble the tart: scatter the cooked onion or leeks on the bottom of the cooled crust. Sprinkle the cheese over the onion. Pour the pumpkin mixture on top and spread over the cheese. Dot with remaining teaspoon of butter and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. (adapted from DeeDee Stovel’s Pumpkin: A Super Food for All 12 Months of the Year)

Note: Because Thanksgiving itself is a bit crazed around here, I make this tart a day or two ahead of time and keep it wrapped in foil in the refrigerator. Then, when the turkey comes out of the oven on the big day (it needs a bit to time to rest anyway), I just slip the tart into the oven to reheat.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!"

Perhaps it was the freakish snowstorm that blanketed the northeast last weekend that got me thinking about soup. Of course there are summer soups—and I like a good gazpacho as well as the next person—but somehow it’s when the weather turns wintry that visions of soup bowls dance through my head. Thus it was that Sunday afternoon saw me standing at my stove (very luckily I was not one of the thousands who lost power), stirring up a big pot of dried mushroom and barley soup (dried mushroom because I had no fresh ones on hand but remembered a few mason jars of dried porcinis and shitakes in the cabinet).

And as I stood there stirring away, I got to thinking. There are two types of people in the world, I decided, those who like soup for dinner and those who don’t. Compare the following two soup memories and you’ll see what I mean.

My brother-in-law, whom in almost every respect I like very much, asked me what I was having for dinner that night. “Soup,” I replied, to which he turned to my sister (his wife) and said, “Know what I’d do if you served soup for dinner?” “Yeah. Send out for pizza.”

Only a few days later, a friend of mine collapsed in a chair by my desk and told me of her domestic tragedy: someone who for obvious reasons later refused to identify him or herself arrived home, saw a pot of what looked to be a whitish-grayish liquid, and, believing him or herself to be lending a helping hand, poured the entire pot of what turned out to be a potato-leek soup down the drain, very considerately washing up afterwards. My friend was crushed. She’d made the soup, left it on the stove, gone out to the gym, knowing that a warm comforting supper would be waiting when she returned. The thought of that nourishing liquid vanishing down the drain reduced her to tears. The food of sustenance sustaining no one.

I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m solidly in the camp of those who regularly have soup for supper. In fact I’ll go so far as to make the claim that soup is the quintessential supper: the two words are related after all, both tracing back to the ancient sup, from which we get our sop (the piece of bread used to soak up the broth, the ancestor of our croutons), soup (as the broth or pottage came to be called), and our supper.

It’s not at all uncommon to find me on a Sunday afternoon stirring up a pot of soup. I have no ethnic or national loyalty in this regard and am equally happy with Cuban black bean soup with sherry and lime; North African lentil soup spiced with cumin, coriander, turmeric, and ginger; Greek avgolemono, that puckeringly lemony chicken soup fortified with eggs and rice; Ezogelin Çorbasi, a Turkish red lentil and bulgur soup flavored with Aleppo pepper, paprika, and mint; Thai tom yam redolent of chili paste, limes, and cilantro; French onion soup laced with a splash of cognac; Hungarian mushroom-barley soup served with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill; Italian minestrone simmered with the rinds of parmesan cheese I freeze just for the occasion;  or a good old traditional Jewish chicken soup with matzo balls. As I stand there peering into my United Nations-of-a-soup kettle, I can often be heard reciting lines to myself from the song of the Mock Turtle from Alice in Wonderland

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Soo - oop of the e - e - evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

On the other hand, you might just hear me humming the words of a Maurice Sendak poem that Carole King later put to music: “I told you once, I told you twice, all seasons of the year are nice for eating chicken soup with rice!”

To my mind, the soup kettle should rightly be called a soup cauldron for in it the vital essences of bones, legumes, vegetables, grains, herbs, and spices are slowly but surely extracted—as though alchemically—and transformed into something far greater than the sum of its parts. The odds and ends found in the vegetable drawers of the refrigerator and the shelves of the pantry are transmogrified into an elixir of life.

You might think of the old folktale called “Stone Soup” in this context. Some travelers (or, in some versions of the tale, soldiers) turn up in a none-too-hospitable village with nothing but their appetites and a big empty soup kettle. Desperate to fill their stomachs, they announce they will brew up a broth of nothing but water and stones, and the villagers are so intrigued that they are hoodwinked into donating a bit of this and a bit of that to “enhance,” as the travelers say, the flavor of the stones. What more perfect illustration of our belief in soup’s almost magical ability to extract more-than-something from less-than-nothing?  What more perfect illustration, as well, of soup’s ability to bring out the best in people?

You try it. Invite some friends over for supper. Serve them soup. Try the recipe for Moroccan Lentil Soup, from Annie Somerville’s wonderful Fields of Greens. See what happens. Who knows? You might even win over my brother-in-law.

Moroccan Lentil Soup (8-9 cups)

1 cup lentils
6 cups cold water
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
cayenne pepper
1 carrot, diced
1 celery rib, diced
1 small red or yellow pepper, deced
1 tsp cumin seed, toasted and ground
½ tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp turmeric
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
8 oz can tomatoes with juice, chopped
2 tbsp chopped cilantro

Place lentils in a soup pot with the cold water. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until just tender (but not mushy), about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in sauté pan and add the onions, ½ tsp salt, and a few pinches of cayenne. Cook over medium heat until soft, 7-8 minutes, then add the vegetables, another ½ tsp salt, and the spices. Cook for 5 minutes, then stir in the garlic & ginger, and cook for another few minutes. Add the vegetables and the tomatoes to the lentils. Cover & cook for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and cayenne. Garnish each serving with a sprinkle of cilantro.

Note: These are Annie Somerville’s quantities; I almost always double or triple the amounts of everything, figuring that leftover soup is like money in the bank. Besides, it freezes very well & there are few things more comforting to me than the knowledge that in my freezer lurk single-serving containers of home-made soup, just waiting for me to heat them up when I’ve got an evening to myself.