The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Cooking  / It’s Easy to Eat Local for Thanksgiving Dinner

It’s Easy to Eat Local for Thanksgiving Dinner

squash for local Thanksgiving

A selection of squash for a local Thanksgiving feast. Credit: Terra Brockman

Thanksgiving is the easiest and best time of year to “eat local.” I know, because the count of local items on our Thanksgiving table in central Illinois is up to 36. Of course that’s counting a dozen or so of the many herbs and fruits my sister raises, which find their way into everything from the stuffing, to the sides, to the dessert. Plus dozens of  vegetables that my brother raises. Plus meat items from our father and grains from our neighboring farmers.

But you don’t have to come from a farm family or live in a rural area to eat local for Thanksgiving. It can be as simple as buying one item — a locally-raised turkey, duck, or ham, or local potatoes for the gratin, or a local pumpkin for the pie.

Even if you’re not a regular farmers market person, it’s easy to find local farmers and their products.  Most places now have local food organizations (check out your local Slow Food chapter, for example), or you can go to websites like or localharvest.orgthat make it very easy to find items near you simply by entering your ZIP code and the desired item.

local produce

Local produce in Illinois, ready for Thanksgiving. Credit: Terra Brockman

The first Thanksgiving

was a local affair

Most of what you find on a traditional Thanksgiving menu has its roots in local, seasonal foods. After all, the Native Americans were “locavores” back when “fresh and local” were not marketing terms, but just the way it was.

Yet too often we feel obliged to follow more recent traditions. We fill a Thanksgiving menu with an industrially raised turkey that’s been injected with saline to make it seem juicy, or Jell-O salad with canned fruit cocktail, or green bean casserole with canned mushroom soup, or sweet potatoes from a can, baked with butter and brown sugar with marshmallows on top. That’s what my Grandma made, anyway.

There’s nothing wrong with family traditions, but it’s easy and fun to give those old favorites new, healthy, tasty life with fresh, locally raised foods. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to choose from autumn’s bountiful cornucopia of locally grown foods.

Another reason to eat local for Thanksgiving

And there’s even more to be thankful for, because local foods, when grown without synthetic chemicals, enhance our personal health, the health of our farmers, their farms, and our communities. And the virtuous circle expands as local organic foods benefit the soil, air, and water upon which life depends.

There is just no better way to express gratitude for good food, local farmers, and their active stewardship of the land than to buy one or more local items for the big meal on the day we join together and give thanks. And it’s easy. Try tweaking your favorite family recipes. You’ll have the tastiest Thanksgiving ever, and you’ll help keep local, sustainable farms thriving now, and for many Thanksgivings to come.

Grandma Henrietta’s

Black Walnut Lemon Pound Cake

Some aromas are so unique and replete with memory they immediately transport you to a specific time or place. This one takes me into my grandmother’s kitchen on a dark winter day some 40 years ago, when she had baked a black walnut lemon pound cake, and it was just about ready to come out of the oven. My mouth was watering then, as it is watering now at the memory.

The black walnuts, notoriously difficult to crack in their concrete shells that break into sharp shards, if they break at all, had been somehow cracked by my grandfather in his secret way  in the basement, where he would sit at his workbench and steadily crack one after another, filling up mason jars with the aromatic and oily nuts. 

For the cake:
3 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2½ cups sugar
7 large eggs
1 cup sour cream (or ¾ cup buttermilk)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
Juice from 2 lemons (about ⅓ cup)
1⅓ cups chopped black walnuts

For the lemon glaze:
1¼ cups powdered sugar (sift if lumpy)
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1½ tablespoons hot water, plus more if needed
¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice


For the cake:

1. Heat oven to 350 F. Grease 10 x 4¼ tube pan and dust with flour, shaking out any excess.

2. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl.

3. In another large bowl, beat the butter and sugar at medium speed until the mixture becomes light and fluffy, approximately 2 minutes.

4. Reduce speed to low and gradually beat in flour mixture and the sour cream or buttermilk.

5. Add eggs one at a time, beating 10 seconds after each addition.

6. Add vanilla, lemon zest and juice, and walnuts. Beat on low speed until blended.

7. Turn batter into pan, smoothing surface.

8. Bake on middle rack or oven for 1¼ to 1½ hours, or until surface is nicely browned and springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted in thickest part comes out with just a few crumbs. Transfer pan to wire rack and let cool completely, about 1 hour. Run a table knife around the tube and edges of pan until cake is loosened. Turn onto cake plate.

For the lemon glaze:

1. To make the lemon glaze, in a medium bowl, stir all ingredients together until well blended. Let stand for 2 minutes. If mixture stiffens too much, thin with a little more hot water.

2. Smooth glaze over the cake with a table knife or pastry brush.

Top photo: A selection of squash for a local Thanksgiving feast. Credit: Terra Brockman

Zester Daily contributor Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.