Every agrarian (or formerly agrarian) culture has some version of the celebration of the harvest, an important seasonal marker throughout the world. American Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the beginnings of the nation, but it’s also a time to be thankful for the bounty nature brings forth for our sustenance and enjoyment, to pay homage to the gradual passage from fall to winter. It is also, perhaps most importantly, a time to share, to open our hearts, to be generous as well as thankful for the generosity of others.
For most Americans, Thanksgiving dinner is a tradition that lingers easily in the mind throughout the rest of the year. Below are a few tips to help you make you meal memorable and delicious.
Treat The Turkey
Choose an organic local bird, preferably free-range. The flavor will be more interesting than the usual frozen grocery-store varieties. Make a paste of fresh herbs, olive oil, and garlic and rub it under the turkey’s skin the day before Thanksgiving, allowing it to marinate overnight in the refrigerator; this will make the meat succulent and juicy.
Select Your Sides
Take your cue from the delicious variety of fall vegetables available in your local market and roast them in the oven as the turkey cooks; with extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and fresh rosemary and sage.
No Thanksgiving meal is complete without the old favorite of mashed potatoes and homemade gravy. But consider adding in something new. Cook local squash instead of sweet potatoes, if you’d like a change of pace. (See my recipe below). Or add a dish to your Thanksgiving table that is distinctly yours; it could even be a food from another culture. Family Eats has some wonderful recipes for other side dishes that you’ll want to check out.
Keep It Fresh
At Thanksgiving especially, I strive to make sure everything on the table is homemade and make a point of using only natural ingredients. No margarine, no cranberry sauce in a can, and no instant gravy. This meal is as much about the time, effort, and love it takes to prepare as it is about the actual eating of it.
Growing up, I remember my grandmother made every single Thanksgiving dish from scratch. If you don’t know where to start with from-scratch cooking, you don’t have to look much farther than two generations back. Refer to old family recipes from your grandparents’ generation, before ready-made, instant food became widely available. During that era, there was nothing but homemade.
A Thanksgiving made with fresh ingredients from nature instead of from a can make for a meal that has something special. The extra effort and mindful attention to detail set this dinner apart from the everyday meals. The long hours in the kitchen are something to take pride in and to cherish. Cooking, after all, is one of the most basic and intuitive expressions of love.
Invite Your Guests
Bringing together family is an important part of Thanksgiving. Being around loved-ones is heart-warming and comforting. Consider inviting someone to share your Thanksgiving who is alone and far from family. Sharing the bounty of the season is the spirit in which the first Thanksgiving originated.
Decorate the table with something that comes from nature. I like to use grapes and vines from our grape arbor. The gorgeous green leaves that have changed colors are beautiful accents for a fall table. I like to personalize the table with homemade place cards fashioned from heavy paper. It not only adds warmth and texture to the table arrangement, but also make each guest feel important. If you have a set of dishes you use as part of your family traditions, make sure to include them. If you haven’t started a tradition, now is the time. A few years back I created the Floriography Collection as a set I wanted to adorn my own Thanksgiving table, and it has become part of our family tradition.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the holiday. It’s very easy to get sidetracked and focused on what needs to be finished than the people you get to spend time with. Let some of your focus be on connecting with others. After all, these are the moments you will want to remember.
Rosanna’s Thanksgiving Squash
One of my favorite dishes from childhood was my mother’s roasted acorn squash. The preparation was simple, but the flavors were complex and delicious. The squash’s bare hint of sweetness and spice makes it a sophisticated but crowd-pleasing substitute for the traditional yams.
4 acorn squashes, halved, seeds removed
8 teaspoons unsalted butter
8 tablespoons brown sugar
Preheat the over to 350 degrees.
Arrange the squash halves cut side up on baking sheets. In each squash half place 1 teaspoon of the butter, 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar, and a dash of cinnamon. Bake for about 1 hour, until the flesh of the squash is soft when pierced with a fork and the sides look slightly caved in. Let the squash rest for 15 minutes before serving.
Note: Recipe from my book Coming Home: A Seasonal Guide to Creating Family Traditions.