I know many who say that Thanksgiving is their absolute most favorite holiday ever. I, too, have a special fondness for a celebration that’s based around harvest and gratitude, and I appreciate that there are so many ways to go with this national meal. You can be very traditional, repeating yet again your family’s immutable menu. Some like to follow the recipes and game plan in a food magazine to the letter. Others want to take the traditional flavors of the Thanksgiving menu and bend them in a whole new direction. I always like the challenge of pulling together a meal entirely from my garden or the farmers market for a truly local feast, or limiting my menu to new-world foods. You might decide to give up on the Butterball and feature an heirloom turkey instead.
Regardless of your menu, Thanksgiving is the perfect meal to share with the company (and dishes) of others. It’s also the meal that easily absorbs the visiting friend of a cousin, the new boyfriend of a niece, a neighbor or someone you’ve just met. But sometimes Thanksgiving just doesn’t come to pass as one might hope. Many years ago our family had such a Thanksgiving, and it stays in my mind as one of the best, and most meaningful.
This was true the year I found myself reeling from a divorce. My mother, too, was alone — my father having suddenly left. My sister was expecting her first baby any minute and was in no mood to cook. Dad, of course, was not around for the first time in our lives, but was on the coast with his new lady friend. Collectively we were depressed, a little anxious, angry and confused. Not surprisingly, no one was the least bit interested in roasting a turkey or cooking even one of all those trimmings. Still, we were together — my mom, brothers, sisters and their spouses — so I threw out an idea in an offhand sort of way (not expecting any takers): “Why don’t we just grill some sausages?” There’s something about the sausage, its silly shape and its very informality that seemed about as far from a turkey dinner as one could get. Plus for us, sausage was a novelty.
We were not a sausage-eating family, or even a bacon-eating family. Pork never figured in our family’s menu, and this was long before you could get turkey sausages with spinach and chipotle peppers or whatever passes for sausage today.
So it was nice, plump Italian pork sausages that tumbled out of the butcher’s white paper. We set the table, lit a fire, opened the wine and grilled the sausages along with some onion rings and opened chewy rolls. In short order we sat down to our Thanksgiving supper. Mustard was passed. The sausages were lodged between lengths of rolls with the onions. We had a salad — coleslaw I believe. Dessert must have been something as simple as ice cream. Whatever the menu (and I no longer remember the details, maybe because there weren’t any details worth remembering), it perked everyone up, brought smiles back to faces that hadn’t been so smiley of late, and afforded our recently altered family a time of intimacy and ease, for which we were all truly grateful.
It’s curious how over a lifetime of big, happy Thanksgiving get-togethers with all the trimmings, the heritage turkeys, the good bottles, old friends and new and all of that, what stands out so clearly from the rest is this peculiar little dinner our family shared.
In giving this more thought, I realize that other Thanksgivings stand out, too, for the reasons that something was unexpected, like celebrating the day while backpacking, or a Thanksgiving in Rome when the chef at the American Academy rolled out a huge turkey covered with the flags of the nations, or the time when our family set out for a long hike in the snow but forgot to turn the oven on and had to make-do with sandwiches until the bird was cooked and fragrant — and we were all fully ready to enjoy it together.
Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is “Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”
Photo: Sausages on the grill. Credit: istockphoto.com / Eric Naud