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From Harriet Fasenfest’s A Householder’s Guide to the Universe comes this no-nonsense take on turkeys, Thanksgiving, and Holiday Hoo-Ha.
Now you’d think, given all the work involved in putting up the quinces (quince paste this year), walnuts (we shelled and froze fifty pounds), and pig (at least the trim bag), that I would be ready for a rest. Silly you. Remember, this is November, and every contemporary cook I know is facing off with the same question: to brine or not to brine? Turkey, that is—Thanksgiving turkey. A Red Bourbon turkey, to be specific. I have to admit that somewhere in this process I begin to feel a little, well, precious. Even I can feel a little overwhelmed by my capacity to separate out the good from the good-ish. Did it matter that I was getting a Red Bourbon turkey at a price few would be willing to pay? Certainly, I understand the importance of raising heritage breeds in an effort to resist the rise of varieties that are bred for one quality or another at the expense of the animal’s well-being. Take, for example, those poor big-breasted chickens. Bred to be the buxom babes of Silicon Valley, these girls can barely walk anymore. Talk about back problems. Today’s industrial chickens have been selectively hybridized to give Hugh Hefner what he wants—big boobs on a small body. So I get it: heritage breeds are important, and every year I get the Red Bourbon, and every year I brine it, cook it, and add it to the rest of the Thanksgiving feast.
Precious or not, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I can haul out the bounty from my pantry, from the garden, and from my stores, and that connection to the harvest makes this holiday a little less surreal for me than for most folks. Others—most Americans, in fact—approach this day with the madness of sailors lost at sea.
Swimming in a Sea of Silly
There’s something frantic about preparing for Thanksgiving. Considering this year’s recipes, what to order, what to buy, how to set the table, whom to invite, and what to wear can be exhausting. Honestly, though, once you start living as a householder, the focus of your concerns will shift to something less influenced by magazine layouts. Thanksgiving in Householderland is about hauling out the goods from the pantry and paying tribute to the harvest. Not by continuing the oddly nuanced traditions of store-bought pumpkin pie, canned cranberry jelly, and Uncle Aldo’s famous Waldorf salad, but in recognition that none of it—not the meal, not the family, not even the roof over our heads—would be there if we did not care for the soil. It was from the soil, the healthy fertile soil, that the foods and opportunities sprang forth for those who came to this land such a long time ago. Only if we remember our responsibility to take care of the soil can we experience the full measure of thankfulness this harvest holiday offers. But even with that understanding—in fact, especially with that understanding—it is not necessary to go overboard. A return to the true foundations of the holiday, to the virtues of common sense and stewardship, will spare you all the hoo-ha of the season.
I think a lot about the fussing around Thanksgiving—why we have gotten so far away from the simple act of cooking what we have, with silent blessings and thanks. Why we do not just cook—not in the spectacular fashion of celebrity chefs and fancy recipes—but in our own quiet moments, in our own simple kitchens, and with our own skilled and experienced hands. Why do we resort to a slavish dedication to one ingredient and recipe or another (this can apply just as much to the local and sustainable crew, present company included), rather than something that would be a little easier to manage. In the end, what matters is not how well you can follow a recipe, or how many fancy cookbooks you reference, but how inclined you are to cook from the available bounty in the first place. My advice on this matter is to take it easy. Set a simple table and cook a simple meal. Roast a squash and cook some cranberries and a flat-chested chicken if that is more in line with your budget. Then give blessings for the soil and the amazing way it continues to supply our needs, despite our tendency to neglect it. If you can do that honestly, I’m sure your meal will taste great.
These are the promises of a November kitchen. It is the beginning of serious pantry cooking and the start of a holiday season that can lead you to a deeper understanding of what gratitude means. Watch out for your own twisted mythology—it can be subtly influential and weighted with the silliest of notions. November is a great time to give thanks for the work that is behind you (if you are a farmer or householder) and for the peace and joy of the season ahead. Like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and the Solstice invite quietness and appreciation. If you are inclined toward traditions, keep them simple and keep them real. Keep them linked to the soil, since everything springs from it. Giving gifts from the pantry is a great thing to do, because they, too, are of and from the earth. My personal favorite is the backyard fruitcake I make each year. It is a creation born of the gleaned fruits of the season and the politics of the movement.
Harriet Fasenfest is an avid gardener, food preserver, homemaker, and lover of the soil. Born and raised in the Bronx, Fasenfest currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two sons, and the occasional “stranger.” At fifty-six, Harriet officially fled Main Street (and her restaurants) for the greener pastures of the backyard, where she teaches classes on householding.