In Search of Thanksgiving

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I used to think that the  endless proclamations of gratitude and blessings around this time of year were a bit disingenuous.  I was cynical at best, and not terribly convinced of the goodness of humanity at worst.  Why today, and only today?  But something changed – maybe it was my children’s arrival in the world.  Maybe it was the recognition that cynicism is the worst of all things, creating a false sense of superiority that prevents us from really enjoying what’s in front of us.  Maybe it was the return of an eternal sense of wonder when I took up gardening.  I don’t know – but whatever it was, it was a gift.

Thanksgiving is a funny holiday – like many things, the stuff we celebrate and what actually happened are kind of different.  A bunch of white people – including a couple ancestors of mine – arrived after a long boat ride to a place they had never been, getting here too late to plant anything to feed themselves.  They assumed that the land was theirs for the taking without, you know, ever asking.  Turns out that was the gift of a smallpox epidemic arriving in advance of said boat full of people, which left the land empty.  A lot of the boat people starved.  Also turns out that lack of food leads to tragedy – half of them died, and only 5 women were left at the end.  You would think we could have held on to that lesson and made feeding the hungry our top priority going forward, but humanity has short memories.

In 1621, the first full year of the Mayflower settlers, there was a successful harvest in Plymouth, and the settlers did feast.  Whether this was the first Thanksgiving or not is in question – other players include Virginia in 1619 and 1623, or when, in 1637 Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop did declare a day of Thanksgiving after colonists slaughtered 700 Pequot men, women and children.  I’m not sure killing people is much to be thankful for, but that is what happened.  While the colonists would have starved some more if not for their native neighbors, the goodwill between the parties didn’t last long, and it’s never really returned.

All that history aside though, I still think Thanksgiving is a thing to celebrate.  First, it’s our one holiday here that revolves around family and food, rather than gift giving or candy.  It’s literally a celebration of coming together with those different from you, which has a lot of good lessons for all of us about building bigger tables, and the discussion about who belongs at them.  It’s a message to stop and take stock of what you have, not what you are missing, and who you have.   It’s a reminder that some folks are lonely and have nowhere to go, and you can help with that.  It’s a reminder that the sharing of food is one of the building blocks of human society.  And it’s a reminder that most of us in modern society need to stop and make a list not of the things to acquire on Black Friday, but of the things that make our lives full and rich and blessed.

And for me, one day out of 365 days each year isn’t quite enough for that, but it’s a good start.  I think today should be for remembering and acknowledging that American history isn’t just red, white, blue and success, but also one of tragedy and oppression – and a commitment to doing better.  Let’s not just pardon some turkeys here, let’s actually figure out how to pardon – literally and figuratively – some of our fellow humans.  The ones with less than us.  The ones who said or did something cruel.  The ones we have no emotional charity for on a typical day, whomever those are.

I try to remember at least one thing I am grateful for, every day.  Whenever the litany of life’s annoyances take over, I make a list – my children, my husband, my home, my family, that I am warm and safe and well-fed, when so many aren’t, the sunset after the rain, my wonderful friends who make my life so much more beautiful and colorful.  And it works.  Whatever it is, whatever is on my mind, slowly becomes less powerful.  Gratitude, thankfulness – they have huge power to change the human perspective from what you lack to what you have, and to find strength to bring that gratitude into the world.  Thanksgiving becomes an action rather than a single day of the year.

For all the people and possibilities that have brought me to where I am in life, I’m so grateful.  For all of it, thanksgiving.

And to you and yours as well.  Whether you are eating turkey and stuffing or just sleeping in, may it be a wonderful day for you and yours.

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In-Between Days

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Like most of the northern United States, we got whacked with bitter cold temperatures for a couple days this week.  I have never been more grateful for the time I spent tearing out the remnants of the garden last weekend before the freeze set in, and for the help with yard cleanup that Eli and I had.  Other than a few things that need to be put away here and there, and obviously the shoveling that’s to come, our work outside is done for the next several months.

The lack of weeding, harvesting and preserving leaves empty space that wasn’t there before.  This time, of course, will be filled with other projects,  but the space is one of the key joys of winter.  By spring I’ll be antsy to get outside, but for now, after 7 months of work out of doors, the peace is pleasant.  This is that in-between time, before the busyness of the holidays and the relatively pleasant desire to be busy that comes of post-holiday winter boredom, that few weeks where we have no plans, few commitments, and very little desire to add either.

Of course there’s still stuff to do.  Important stuff.  Like making Gingerbread Turkeys.

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Or rushing outside to capture the breathtaking sunset that came with the colder temperatures.

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Making popcorn and chocolate chip cookies also hit the list of necessary things.  Wood stove fires, warm soups, and reading cookbooks as we plan some upcoming meals.  I never stop being grateful for the moments where we pause and center ourselves again around home.  Here’s to many more in-between days to come!

Early Holiday Preview

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Garden Gate at Dusk – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

November arrived, and with it the cold.  The other night it rained, and in the morning I found ice pockets in the downed leaves in the front yard.  The chickens seemed confused by the cold when we let them out to roam, and the heat lamp in their coop is on full-time now.

There’s nothing left to do outside other than tidy up the garden and yard for next year and prepare for the winter holidays, which are my favorites.  It’s time for a pot of chili and a fire in the wood stove.

It’s almost time to start baking for the holidays.  Maybe it feels early, but this is the time to start thinking about it.  There’s a few things that we always make – my friend Claire’s gingerbread cookies, sugar cookie cutouts, and others that I’ll blog about, but most important is our very simple Peppermint Bark.  This is a great thing to make early and store in the refrigerator until it’s time to give gifts.  And it’s SO easy, and even small kids can do it with a little supervision

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Here’s what you need:

A double boiler or two pans, one with about an inch of water placed below one that is absolutely dry.  If water hits melting chocolate, it will make it grainy, but the water in the pan below will keep it from burning.

3 cups milk chocolate chips
3 cups white chocolate chips
Crushed candy canes
Sheet pan
Wax paper

Cover the sheet pan in wax paper.  In the double-boiler, over low heat, melt the chocolate chips.  Spread onto the wax paper-covered sheet pan, and wash out the chocolate pan.  Dry it completely either using an oven burner or a towel.  Repeat with the white chocolate chips, spreading carefully on top of the milk chocolate so they don’t combine.

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While still warm and soft, sprinkle in crushed candy canes.  Place in the fridge to chill.  When ready, break up into 2-3″ chunks and put in goody bags or boxes.   Let the kids eat the scraps and shards that aren’t big enough to give away.

 

Final Harvest

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November arrived with a huge windstorm that both postponed Trick-or-Treating until Saturday and brought down the leaves in volume from the maple, oak and ash trees.  Their final display of gold and red regularly causes me to catch my breath, but the weather is turning cold this weekend, with our first frost, so that beauty will turn into the beginnings of winter, more stark than lush.

Our lawn has a leaf coat on it now, but I don’t really like to rake, and honestly leaving it until spring is the environmentally sound thing to do, so I’m considering whether to leave it messy or not.  I try not to trade environmental soundness for appearances, but I hate being the only messy lawn on the block.  Still, I’m working on living with my discomfort.

The last pumpkin is out of the garden, and I pulled the last batch of Tomatillos, plus a few ripening tomatoes this morning in advance of the upcoming cold.  Tomorrow, we’ll wrap our fledgling fruit trees in their winter fleece coats, and next weekend I’ll be pulling up all the plants and vines, spreading a layer of compost on the beds and calling it a day until next spring.

I feel like a squirrel at this time of year, stocking up for the winter.  A bushel of apples from our local orchard is in the fridge, while I wait for the delivery of my new dehydrator, bought with a wedding gift card.  I love dried apple chips, on salads and just to munch on, and I will make a batch of apple sauce, which we mostly use for baking.

In a few weeks we’ll head to a farm near my sister in upstate New York and buy bushels of squash, sweet potatoes, and at least 20 lbs of onions, which should hold us until around February.  Our farm share ended last week, and the last of the kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, garlic and shallots are being used up.  In October, November and December the food bill spikes while we stockpile and fill the kitchen with holiday goodies, and then it winds down through February.  While I know the grocery store will still be there, I think this is the way we humans are supposed to live, storing and preserving our food.  I do it imperfectly.  We can’t live on what we put up and store, and we’ll never have enough land to grow it all.   And that’s ok, because part of the strategy is investment in local farms.   This year, Vermont cheese fills my fridge, my vegetables and apples vary between zero and 6 food miles, I haven’t actually purchased an egg in months, and my meats now come within a 150-mile radius, which while it sounds like a lot, is 1/10th of the average of transported food and vegetables.  That doesn’t necessarily outweigh the chips in the pantry or the other purchases, but I’d rather do this imperfectly and incrementally than all at once.  For the same reason that diets fail, so does massive lifestyle change.  My daughter and I spent some time at the local grocery store last weekend, and this weekend we are headed to HMart to stockpile some our Asian pantry and freezer staples.

The cold draws me to the kitchen, always.  With the onset of chill, I feel pulled into the warmth of the oven.  Last weekend it was cold and rainy, so I spent as much of my time in the kitchen as I could.  This weekend will be the same – one last batch of Salsa Verde for holiday gifts, homemade potstickers, maybe a pot of chili.

One thing that happens at this time of year is that my fridge is filled with root veggies. With the final CSA pickup, and me not cooking as much due to some back-to-back travel it was time to use some things up – leeks, a very large golden beet, red and yellow onions, parsnip, carrots, mushrooms, a fennel bulb and a couple sweet potatoes went into the oiled pan, got covered in more olive oil and balsamic vinegar and then into the oven at 400 degrees F under aluminum foil. Roasted veggies are simple and delicious, needing only time and just a tiny bit of seasoning.

After about an hour, I tossed them a little, but left them covered.  After hour two I uncover them, and then roast them for another hour or two more, until the veggies are soft and caramelized.

While they roasted, I moved on to the pint of Peppadew peppers I picked at the farm this week.  Marinated stuffed Peppadews are a favorite of mine, but they are expensive.  These, on the other hand, are not and it’s the same thing.  I used this recipe, and now they are in the garage fridge waiting to be seeded and stuffed with goat cheese.

None of these recipes are particularly complex, which is part of the appeal.  There’s a place for intricate food preparation, but during stocking up season, the key is to keep the food moving into it’s final form, so when winter comes, you still have a touch of spring and summer to sustain you, literally and figuratively.