Giving Thanks

- November 14, 2012

" you sit down this year to your Thanksgiving feast, consider the history of the foods you savor"

As we gather together with family and friends at the Thanksgiving table next week, we will be sharing traditions that date back to the late autumn of 1621, when 13 pilgrims from the Mayflower ship and 90 Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth Plantation.

The year had been particularly harsh for the pilgrims, who struggled through a tough winter that claimed half their group. So their feast was about giving thanks that they had survived and they celebrated with a menu that included geese, ducks, swans, turkey, venison, corn, cod, clams, lobster, mussels, bass, eel, leeks, pumpkin, beetroot, wild onions, barley and corn bread. The meal lasted three days and for centuries, it has influenced the dishes that we traditionally serve on Thanksgiving Day.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, and that first meal, I decided to find out people celebrate this holiday today, what foods they choose to give thanks with. I posted a question on Facebook: "What are your favorite Thanksgiving foods, either from your childhood or that you serve today? And what's the least favorite Thanksgiving dish you ever ate?" I got some great answers, which were surprisingly varied and often linked to regional ingredients.

Turkey, of course, was on everyone's list, but after that, all bets were off. Chipotle yams came in from California, while butter beans came in from the Deep South. Succotash was popular with one Santa Fe friend and pumpkin pie with amaretto cream was a favorite from Albuquerque. Oyster stuffing had a few fans, though they admitted it's not for the faint of heart.

Chef Kim Muller said her Thanksgiving feasts are pretty old school. "My mom always used Mrs. Cubbison's but used lots of celery, onions, broth and butter so it was nice and moist. When I cook Thanksgiving at home I do a version of that stuffing, along with whole cranberry sauce, sometimes an uncooked relish with walnuts, oranges and sugar and cranberry, mashed potatoes, roasted yams, Brussels sprouts and gravy."

A friend from my hometown of Princeton, N.J. wrote that his family used to celebrate a West Indian version (Barbados). "Celebrating Thanksgiving for the very first time in a new country, my mom would serve welled-seasoned West Indian seasoning turkey and baked pork, homemade mac'n'cheese, homemade cranberry sauce, lasagna, pearl onions, rice'n'peas and homemade gravy from the turkey drippings with all the odds parts. Ending with pumpkin pie and vanilla ice cream."

Another friend said that ever since Gourmet magazine published a recipe for corn bisque with red bell pepper and rosemary in 1998, it's been a "must have" for her family every Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Astrologer Heather Roan Robbins posted a recipe for one of her favorite dishes, cranberry orange relish and a dear friend and college roommate said she loves cornbread and sausage stuffing. A friend in Chicago raved about the best stuffing ever, made with sweet Italian sausage, walnuts, apples, good bread and fresh spices.

A friend from Alabama provided his aunt's recipe for a Southern Thanksgiving staple, butter beans. "Butter Beans are pretty simple," he wrote. "I prefer them from the freezer, nothing dried. Salt and pepper to taste, bacon grease or butter added for flavor and, if you want to please the folks from Dixie, you add a spoonful of sugar to those beans."

A childhood friend who now lives in California sent a simple recipe for chipotle yams, after a few of my friends requested it. Another recalled sitting at the children's table growing up at her grandmother's house, feasting on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, scalloped oysters, creamed onions, green beans, succotash, jellied cranberry sauce, Parker House rolls, and pumpkin, apple and shoofly pies, followed promptly by a nap.

Other Turkey Day favorites included roasted shallot mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie with hard sauce, rolls, sweet potato pie, baked pearl onions, mashed turnips and potatoes. Oh, and someone mentioned Merlot.

Clearly the least favorite Thanksgiving dishes are one and the same, no matter where you live. People across the board said they did not enjoy overly sweet sweet potatoes with marshmallows or the gloppy cranberry sauce that comes in a can. A lot of people really had strong feelings about not liking creamed vegetables—be it pearl onions, green beans or peas. One person avoids the turkey drumsticks.

So as you sit down this year to your Thanksgiving feast, consider the history of the foods you savor. Each is rooted in that first feast all those years ago, but we have since found ways to make them our own family recipes, handed down through the generations to be enjoyed annually. And even if you don't like the creamed pearl onions, the tough Brussel sprouts or the turkey leg, each dish has a unique past and a reason it's part of our feast today.

Gourmet's Corn Bisque with Red Bell Pepper and Rosemary (Serves 10)

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
2 cups chopped onions
1/2 cup diced carrot
1/2 cup diced celery
7 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed, drained (about 42 ounces)
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
1 cup half and half
1 red bell pepper, chopped

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrot and celery and sauté 3 minutes. Add 5 1/2 cups corn, rosemary and cayenne and sauté 2 minutes. Add stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender and liquid is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.

Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return soup to pot. Mix in half and half and remaining 2 cups corn. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell pepper and sauté until almost tender, about 5 minutes. Stir bell pepper into soup.  Bring soup to simmer. Ladle into bowls and serve.

Emily Dyson Scott's Chipotle Yam Gratin (Serves 8-10)

6 sweet potatoes
3 cups heavy cream
1 chipotle pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Peel and slice sweet potatoes. In a blender, blend heavy cream and a chipotle pepper. Layer potatoes in a baking dish. Season with salt and pepper. Pour some of the cream over. Repeat as many times as needed.

Bake for about one hour, or until potatoes are soft and top is browned. Adjust amount of chipotle pepper according to desired heat.'s Cranberry Orange Relish (Serves 10)

1 navel orange
1 12-oz bag fresh cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Finely grate 2 teaspoons zest from orange. Cut away and discard peel and pith from orange, then cut sections free from membranes.
Pulse cranberries with zest, orange sections, sugar, and cinnamon in a food processor until finely chopped. Chill, covered, at least 2 hours to allow flavors to develop.