Since I wrote about Thanksgiving Past a couple of weeks ago, I thought I better file a report on Thanksgiving Present, at least how we did it at Greenvalley this year.
I stuck to tradition, more or less, by bringing together a groaning board of species representing the "two great ecologies" (writer Guy Davenport's phrase) that met during the European colonization of North America. The menu included turkey, pumpkin, cranberries and wild rice, all of which were native to the New World, as well as Brussel sprouts, Swiss chard, carrots and peaches, which first arrived from across the Atlantic.
Guests included the family Sternberg, Mathew and Alex, Bettina, Breezy (who laid a beautiful table), Fred from FarmLab/Strawberry Flag, Ariana and Nero, cousin Ezra and the other Alex. We would have been 14 but Haire, bless his heart, had car trouble and couldn't get up the hill.
At the start of the meal, we gave thanks for the love of family and friends that brought us together; for bodily health; for living free in the American democracy, which despite the failings of any given politician or administration in Washington is still the grandest and most noble political experiment in the history of the world; and for the food that came to us through the bounty of an abundant nature and by the hard work and wisdom of career farmers.
The source for our vegetables (both fresh and preserved) was Windrose Farm and Flora Bella Farm at the Santa Moncia Farmers Market. Wild rice arrived via the US Postal Service from novelist David Treuer, an Ojibwe friend of mine who harvests rice every year on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. Other wild foodstuffs also made a surprise appearance thanks to Uncle David in Blount County, Tennessee—but more on that in a moment.
The most fun I had was going through the Greenvalley cupboard to select jams, jellies and pickles to serve with the meal, which is one of the few times in the year when almost everyone adds a little sweet preserve—cranberry jelly or jam—to the savory plate. It's the best excuse I know for saving the season.
an aperitif of vin de pamplemousse
Mama Sternberg's chopped liver
champagne cocktails with homemade cherry vodka
roasted turkey with Sternberg dressing
squirrel stew with thyme dumplings
pumpkin gratin with walnuts and rosemary, inspired by Edna Lewis
brussels sprouts with bacon and caramelized shallots
a warm salad of chard, bull's blood beet tops, slivered carrots and Greenvalley onions pickled in sherry vinegar
Leech Lake wild rice
arugula and frisée with Fuyu persimmons, fennel and Grana Padano
cookies and biscotti
white peaches in lavendar syrup, which we didn't wind up opening because we were too full
And, yes, you read that right: squirrel stew with dumplings. As in a stew made of squirrel, those bushy tailed rodents that bury acorns. They came from Uncle David, a gentle woodsman and avid hunter, who gave them to me earlier this year. I had forgotten about them until rummaging through the freezer last week when I found three of them in a Ziploc bag. "That's a mess of squirrels," I said to myself, using the proper Southern term "mess" to describe an amount sufficient to feed several people. Since the traditional Thanksgiving turkey is a symbolic nod to the abundant wild game that provisioned the early American table, I thought it fitting to feature Uncle David's squirrels as well, proof that wild game is also a contemporary phenomenon. I decided to make squirrel stew with dumplings, a tribute to Gran's chicken and dumplings. I sort of fancied up the dumplings with the addition of cornmeal and thyme, but otherwise this squirrel stew was your basic hillybilly delight.
My Tennessee relatives knew exactly what I was talking about when I told them I was planning to serve "squirrel dumplings." Not that they were particularly enthused. "I think I'll stick to turkey," said my dad, although he admitted that when he was a kid, Gran served squirrel fairly often in the winter. Next I called Nanny to ask her how she makes the dumplings for her chicken and dumplings. ("Well, you roll'em out thin but not too thin, and then you cut'em as wide as you want'em to be.") As for the squirrel part of it, she said, "We used to eat squirrel back when." Then she added with a chuckle, "those were hard times."
It was a more troubling dish for the squeamish LA crowd. Scott stopped by Greenvalley Wednesday night to see what was cooking, and when he lifted the lid on a stockpot to discover three sets of squirrel legs poking up, he nearly fainted. "What's next—kitten?," he said, suggesting to me that the modern urbanite's ancient survival instinct—to eat whatever's edible—had been derailed by a lifetime of seeing the ubiquitous squirrel in quasi-domesticated environments. Wild protein has morphed into a sort of backyard pet, and thus eating squirrel has the aura of transgressing a cultural taboo.
When the dinner buffet was ready Thursday, squirrel was the talk of the party. To eat or not to eat, that ws the question. Mathew, who is vegetarian but grew up in a part of Minnesota where people hunt, thought that he'd be willing to taste the dumplings at least, but at the last minute he faltered. Bettina refused to even look at the serving dish. Fred and Mama Sternberg took the leap, though. "Tastes like dark-meat chicken," she said. Fair enough. I thought it went particularly well with cranberry jelly flavored with star anise.
In the end, I wasn't too sorry that most people slighted the squirrel in favor of turkey. It meant more leftovers for me, and yesterday after washing and putting away all the silver, I reheated the pot of squirrel dumplings for lunch. I ate a big bowl of them served with the hair of the dog: a Greenvalley riff on the classic Manhattan, made from good Bourbon whiskey, angostura bitters and a teaspoon of home-made cherry vodka.
Then I nestled into bed and slept for two hours, as cozy as a squirrel in its den.