By Sandy Oliver
Thanksgiving still is the holiday when people gather with family and friends to celebrate, even if it means miles and miles of travel, over the river and through the woods. With a curtailed ferry schedule, getting together on the mainland with family, or having family coming to the island, predicts a midday meal consumed in time to get back to the boat. What a great thing to dedicate a whole day to cooking and eating. I know, there’s always a football game, too.
We hear about “Friendsgivings,” where the nonrelated gather. I celebrated my first Friendsgiving about 48 years ago, before it had a name, with co-workers at Mystic Seaport. A group of us worked that day to keep the museum open for visitors, and we gathered together afterwards to eat. For a few years, I cooked a turkey on the hearth of one of the historic houses, and took that to the dinner.
Our first Thanksgiving on the island marked the end of years of vegetarianism when I cooked a turkey for expected family and a meat-eating friend. The family members were stricken with colds and stayed home. One large turkey outnumbered the remaining three of us, and it smelled awfully good, so that was that. For me, the essence of Thanksgiving Dinner is the leftover turkey for sandwiches and a grand turkey soup days later.
A version of Friendsgiving on-island, observed for decades, consists of retired folks who divvy up the menu and get together at someone’s house for a convivial meal. Another group dinner is served at the Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, a semi-potluck, opt in or out as circumstances require, to accompany a turkey roasted in the huge range.
Around here what happens, or happened, in the garden is what happens in the kitchen. So when Thanksgiving rolls around, garden produce gets full play.
Potatoes, grown this year for the first time according to the Ruth Stout toss-them-on-the-ground-and-cover-them-with-hay method, were numerous, about 120 pounds in the cellar, and provide the requisite mashed potatoes. I cook too many in order to have enough for topping on a shepherd’s pie version of turkey casserole.
The butternut squash were sufficient this year, though a bit late—everything seemed to be two weeks late in the garden this year, until November rolled around when the cold was about two weeks early. I love squash steamed and mashed with brown sugar, butter, salt, and pepper.
I am a creamed onions adherent. I gather up all the small onions that naturally occur when I grow a couple hundred for use all year, too small to be terribly useful, and boil them to get the skins off, then make a rich sauce seasoned with a little curry.
It’s a good time to set out an array of homemade pickles and I use the same relish tray my mom used, and sometimes, for nostalgia’s sake, I add some olives and celery because I recall my grandmother’s table with them set out once a year.
Also, once a year, I make a molded cranberry salad using packaged gelatin and local berries, with apples I grow myself, and celery and orange from away. Turning it out of its mold is for me the only slightly stressful part of what is actually a very simple meal.
Once in a while, I have Brussels sprouts, best roasted, but this year, for about the third in a row, too many aphids attached themselves to the sprouts. The effort of washing them off in order to avoid a side serving of roasted aphids spoiled the fun of including them for dinner this time around.
You have to have pie for dessert. Apple and pumpkin, and sometimes mincemeat. The plain fact is that I make mincemeat less often than I used to because fewer people appreciate it than before. A good green tomato mincemeat tastes sufficiently like the real beef/suet or venison/suet thing that I can tolerate the miss of an unctuous mincemeat redolent of brandy, cider, apples, and spice.
I like the traditional meal. Mainly, as I watch the garden grow over summer and into fall, I think about and plan the holiday meal still months ahead.
Bless its little heart, the garden always comes up with the needed vegetables in sufficient quantities. Some apple tree always has enough for pie. My job is to grow, gather, and be grateful.
Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro.