Thanksgiving began as a Christian holiday, famously exported by Plymouth Puritans to our side of the Atlantic, where it stuck big time. The idea of the “holy day” was to thank God for the bounty of the harvest, a more or less universal sentiment among religions since the dawn of written history and (I guess) even before then.
This tradition surely remains, among all kinds of believers of all kinds of things. But there’s also a secular aspect to Thanksgiving as we practice it in Canada (and as our American cousins do a little later in the fall). It’s a kind of general thanks for our relatively sweet position in the world. We count our blessings and marvel how much better things are here than in the Horn of Africa or Haiti or, well, pretty much anywhere. This is all very good, but I’d like to bring the giving of thanks back home. This year, let’s thank the women and men who actually grow or raise the food that we put on the table on Monday.
I suppose I should give thanks right away, since one of the perks of my job as a food writer is to meet farmers all the time. And I’m doubly blessed, because many of the stores (or more obviously farmers’ markets) I shop at carry the meat or animals that come from farms I have visited across the province of Ontario. I swear these items taste better to me for having seen the soil on which they sprung. Likewise, when I see the name of a farm cited on a menu, like Vicky’s Veggies in Prince Edward County or Soiled Reputation in Perth County, I am inclined to order those things, if for no other reason than I’ve met the folks with the dirt under their fingernails and know they made this food as much out of love as for profit. (Actually, I am very sure that they make our food for much, much, much more for love than barely breaking even.)
Anyway, If you’ve seen it coming out of the soil, or even have an idea of where a farm is located on a map, it’s just going to be a better tasting carrot. This is why, by the way, that wineries spend so much money on visitor centres and pay staff to take tourists on cellar tours: once you’ve seen the vines growing, you have been romanced, and you’ll have a personal connection to the wine. I think it’s great, as long as it’s honestly done.
Speaking of which, while I am not going to cook a turkey this Thanksgiving (nothing against the noble bird, I just have my eye on a leg of lamb), I am definitely going to have Brussels sprouts. A very unfairly maligned vegetable: they’re just little cabbages, and if they’re not overcooked, they are quite delicious. (Steam them for about 10 minutes and dress them with olive oil, lemon and grated parmesan cheese.) They also happen to be perfectly in season: last week, I stumbled on the Brussels sprouts harvest at Bill French’s Lennox Farm on the 124 Road between Shelburne and Collingwood, more or less just west of Creemore. I was there because Chef Michael Stadtlander made me lunch (which included Bill’s Brussels sprouts).
Stadtlander’s top-rated restaurant at Eiginsinn Farm is just up the road, and he and the Canadian Chefs Congress have managed to get 100 serious, marquis-name chefs to cook for free at an event called Foodstock on Bill French’s farm and his neighbour’s potato farm. The point of the event, which will include musical performances by Sarah Harmer, Jim Cuddy and Ron Sexsmith, is to raise awareness against a gigantic quarry proposed to be put in literally next door to the farms on this bucolic spot on top of the Niagara Escarpment.
At issue is the local soil, prized for being particularly fertile and the water table, which will be completely screwed up. Bill is pretty much convinced that his market garden farm will wither away, if the “mega quarry” comes to pass, never mind the drinking water for 1,000,000 people downstream. That the quarry is the project of a Boston hedge fund adds an ironic twist to this Thanksgiving story. That all the food at the event (which is pay what you can) has been donated from farmers from near and far in Ontario is not surprising at all. The good food farmers do what they do for love, and they’re willing to fight and sacrifice to keep their way of life and preserve a Canadian countryside that can sustain a family farm. And all they’re asking is that folks come out and show they’re on their side by enjoying what the chefs do with their produce and meats. So, what’s not to give thanks for?
Three Thanksgiving Hard Truths (That will probably get me in trouble, but I’ll tell you anyway.)
1) The only way to keep your turkey moist is not to overcook it. Putting water in the pan, or foil on top does nothing. Boiled meet is as dry and tough as any other (See Harold McGee). Once applied heat has cooked the moisture out of the bird, it ain’t coming back, no matter how much steam is around. Err on the side of underdone — you can always put it back in the oven, if the juices are not running clear.
1) Wine pairing to holiday meals is futile. Although, as a wine writer, I will cheerfully tell you that light reds like Gamay or Pinot Noir or fuller body whites like Chardonnay or Viogner match well to Turkey, I cannot tell you what will match with the gravy you’ve made from your Grandmother’s recipe, which you and your kin will (I hope!) slather all over the bird — and let’s not even talk about adequate butter quantities for mashed potatoes. Just drink what you like and relax.
1) Turkeys became Thanksgiving and Christmas “feast” meals because they’re really big, but if you have less than 10 people at your table, or are not super enthusiastic about turkey sandwiches three meals a day until nearly Halloween, you might want to consider a smaller bird or joint to feed the group of loved ones you’ve assembled. I like lamb, since “spring lamb” is born in that season and ready to eat in this one. Turkey’s great, but there’s a lot of other proteins lurking around, waiting to be gobbled up.