Friday, November 23, 2012

Giving Thanks -- For Food and Fellowship

The sun was just breaking over the horizon. I’d already been up for several hours, preparing the side dishes that would constitute my contribution to an annual Thanksgiving feast among friends which always takes place at the home of my dearest Baltimore compatriots, Robert and Jan. As I took a moment while snipping herbs on my patio to glance at the brightening dawn, I watched a jetliner speed across the cloudless sky, leaving a puffy white contrail in its wake, and I was suddenly struck by the sentimentality of the day.

Raw cranberry and orange relish

That airplane, flying at such great altitude that no sound could be heard from its engines, surely bore individuals who were all going home; folks who would soon be reunited with loved ones, probably a few of whom they had not seen in far too long. It brought a lump to my throat to consider that at that moment there were early morning flights all over this great land bearing home precious souls with a singular purpose – to spend time with their families, in whatever context that meant for each of them.

Candied mandarin oranges and
cranberries in elderflower liqueur

For me, Thanksgiving would be spent apart from my brother and sister and niece and nephew, who all live thousands of miles away in California. I would remain in Baltimore, Maryland, celebrating the day with my east coast acquaintances, a gathering of friends who convene at Robert and Jan’s lovely home every year at this time.

Years ago, I would assist Robert in his fabulous kitchen as he prepared all the dishes for our Thanksgiving meal. But for the past several Novembers, as Robert and Jan have gotten to know me better, Robert has begun to entrust me with more responsibility for preparation of his holiday extravaganza. Now, we meet a week or two before the big day and together we review several foodie publications, like Bon Appétit, Food Network and Food & Wine, selecting a turkey recipe from one, a new stuffing recipe from another, and intriguing-sounding salads and side dishes from a third.

Robert and Jesse sit by the fire
Preparing Thanksgiving dinner has become a wonderful collaboration between us which culminates in setting down before friends and family the products of our mutual affinity for cooking as an expression of love. This is what we do, what we love to do. It is not unlike home cooks all over America who toil for hours and hours to create special once-a-year meals for their families on this day.  Robert and I love to cook for our friends. We delight in trying new recipes. What better way to showcase our respective talents than with a spectacular Thanksgiving repast?

Robert's grandson, Brandon,
and his boyfriend, Mike, flew in
from California

We fed 15 people yesterday. Robert and I chose ten dishes to serve, with each of us selecting five to make. Our dear friends, Faith and Marvin, contributed three appetizers, and another close friend, David, treated us to some of the outstanding wines we drank and procured the all-natural, free-range, organic turkey from a local farm. A trio of memorable desserts were purchased at Baltimore's own Pâtisserie Poupon (www.patisseriepoupon.net), a favorite bakery. 

Me with Jan and her nephew, Jimmy




Wednesday evening I busied myself by roasting red and golden beets to make a luxurious dip spiced with middle-eastern Za’atar and sprinkled with goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts and scallions, having located the signature spice at a specialty market just barely in the nick of time. Late into the night I worked, mincing raw cranberries and unpeeled oranges for my late mother’s traditional relish, a dish Robert now insists be a part of his Thanksgiving custom, and candying tiny whole mandarin oranges and cranberries in Elderflower liqueur for a completely different riff on the classic condiment that neither Robert nor I could resist adding to our turkey-day repertoire. And, finally, I simmered baby carrots in a fennel-infused vinaigrette laced with golden raisins and left them to marinate overnight.
 
On Thursday morning I rose before dawn to julienne fresh green beans and Kalamata olives for a side dish that hails from the family of a man I was married to years ago in California, and sliced red potatoes, celery root and fresh pears into disks for a mouthwatering gratin baked with garlic-infused cream, fresh thyme from my garden and gruyere and parmesan cheeses, that recipe courtesy of renowned chef Spike Mendelsohn.

Having gotten my food responsibilities out of the way, I turned my attention to party favors. I typed up the menu and printed out fifteen copies on stiff parchment. I created festive place cards by inserting personalized name plates into slits cut across fifteen tiny pumpkins. Only when everything banquet-related was ready did I finally ascend to my dressing room to consider what I might wear to dinner that day. It would have to be chic, yet comfortable enough to maneuver in easily, as my responsibilities once arriving at Robert and Jan's would be many.

My sentimental musings about the Thanksgiving-bound airline passengers I’d seen that morning led me to select a family heirloom, a favorite cap-sleeved top of my late mother’s from the 1960s, festooned with sequins front and back by Italian knitwear designer Goldworm Originals, probably from Hertel’s Department Store in Pasadena, California, which I paired with vintage black dress slacks by Cachet, the latter adorned with gossamer panels floating front and back, a purchase in northern California in the late 1970s. I added my favorite platform pumps by Call It Spring for JCPenney and finished my look with a bracelet and earrings of black glass beads and pearls from Fire & Ice Jewelers of Baltimore (www.fireandice.com), and a necklace of gold and silver metal disks on a black cord which I brought back with me from Ireland in July.

Robert and Jan with the carved turkey

As Robert and Jan’s family and friends prepared to tuck into the 28-pound behemoth of a bird, I gave thanks for the bounty of good things in my life: dear friends, fine wine, and a love of cooking which affords me the luxury of enjoying elaborate recipes which tantalize the taste buds as they satisfy my hunger. Multigrain turkey dressing made with almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds and dried blueberries and cranberries, anyone? Families across the land can stick with their tried and true stuffing recipes.  Not me.  While honoring a national tradition of surrounding myself with loved ones on this important day, I also see immense value in celebrating diversity -- in my food, among my friends, and in life.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Lynell
 

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