22 November, 2006

Thanksgiving is upon us!

Finally! The real thing is here, not a crazy English use of the word that flummoxes all expat Americans. It's time for figuring out how to make the body of the paper turkey for the centerpiece (although I'm grooving to my fruit and veg bits here), it's time to gather leaves from the garden and let them dry so they can be scattered here and there to please the kitties, it's time to produce mammoth amounts of food for Anna's family, plus Sophia's family, who will be coming tomorrow. So I slept in this morning while John took Avery to school (gee, it's pleasant having two adults in the family, at home!), to gather strength for cooking all day today. That's just about my favorite way to spend the day, in advance of a party: in the kitchen, singing away to the new "Westlife" album, I'm ashamed to say. Their cover of Bette Midler's "The Rose" is to die for!

What a difference a year makes. Last Thanksgiving we were happily hunkering down at our farmhouse in Connecticut, with the Sadoffs and the three Js, all of us making over Baby Jane, not the least David from across the road, since Anne had gone off to spend the holiday with her mother Constance, daughter of Gladys Taber, the great Martha Stewart of the 1940s. Constance is also the author of two of our family's absolute top 10 books: "A Skunk in the House," and "The View from Morningside." They each give the nicest possible vision of a New York City childhood in the 1970s. Anyway, with no significant other, David came over to us for Thanksgiving. I am always flattered when he comes over, especially on his own, because I suspect him of choosing his friends very carefully and preferring often to be on his own. And probably he should have been working on his new book, given the enormous success of his first book, "Crashout," about a breakout at Sing-Sing prison where his family has a tradition of being guards! Fascinating, believe me. But he came, and had my experimental brined turkey, which was such a hit that we're repeating it this year. I remember our first Thanksgiving in London the last time around, gosh it must have been 1990, and I paid some astronomical sum for an organic turkey from the butcher in Fulham Road, only to find that it was... rather purple, had almost no breast, and in general bore no resemblance to the top-heavy American monster that we had all come to know and love. Some things don't need improving on, in my crass opinion. So this year Becky and I conferred and found that we heartily agreed with one another on this point, and a nice overfed unnaturally busty Mr Turkey is residing in his salty, herby bath, outside my bedroom door. The school librarian yesterday alerted me to the very real possibility of a fox in our garden, so the lid is, when our bird is not submitting to a photo shoot, firmly anchored with a flower pot.

It was a morning of good smells. Why does celery always make me think of my Aunt Mary Wayne? I think it must be because we always spent Thanksgiving with them when I was a little girl, in their perfect home in Louisville, Kentucky, surrounded by my Uncle Kenny's Civil War memorabilia (and the very real possibility that he was on The Other Side than we Yankees from up North). When else do you really have celery sticks on the table? I never do. But at Thanksgiving, yes, my Aunt Mary Wayne would have a dish of them, and carrots and possibly radishes, to sprinkle with salt and munch on when you were about to eat your sister's arm off, the turkey smelled so good. This was at the point of the holiday when we were glad to be out of the car, our parents saying to one another in annoyance, "That was the exit! Or is it the next one? We do this every year..." So this morning my celery made me homesick. Then I brushed away my onion-and-sentiment tears and started chopping briskly for a Thanksgiving dressing of my own design, loosely inspired by Laurie Colwin:

Sage and Sausage Dressing
(serves the masses, or maybe 10)

2 loaves of simple white (unsliced) bread, Italian maybe?
1/2 stick butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
4 stalks celery, chopped
8 medium mushrooms, chopped
12 leaves fresh sage, chopped
1 pound sausage (I used pork and leek), out of casings
1 cup cream
chicken stock (at least 2 cups, but depends on bread amounts)
2 eggs, whisked

If you possibly can, TWO nights before you want to eat it, tear the insides of the bread into little bite-size pieces. Feed the ducks with the crusts. Leave to get stale, tossing now and then. It is absolutely essential to do this at least the day before. I tried once the day of, and the bread was too moist (hate that word) to absorb flavors properly and it was a bust. So two days at best, one at least.

The day BEFORE, if you can (the flavors are so much better if they can rest together overnight), make the dressing. Saute the garlic, onion, celery, mushrooms and sage in the butter. Meanwhile, saute the sausage, taking care to break it up as much as possible so it's in small bites. Now, pour the vegetable mixture and the sausage onto the bread, add the cream and at least two cups of stock plus the eggs, and begin mixing. Add more stock as you need it. The mixture should be wet, but not seeping liquid.

Pat into a nonstick-sprayed 9 x 13 pan, and leave overnight in the fridge. Pat on some butter bits over the surface and bake just before serving, 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

OK, I cooked too much today! The dressing, for which I had to make fresh chicken stock from a nice pot of bones I had, plus the jalapeno-cheese spinach casserole I shall tell you about tomorrow, and crazy juices for lunch, and then fresh tomato sauce with ricotta and sausage for dinner (on farfalle), plus a beet and avocado salad! Of course, I think I worked it all off (lots of tasting, of course) ice-skating outside the Natural History Museum with Avery and John, plus Sophia and Susan! It was pouring down rain, so somewhat a non-ideal circumstance, but still great fun, even more so than it was when Avery and I first arrived, last winter. Plus at the Christmas Fair there I acquired a couple of wreaths, in lotus root and a small white blossomy berry, from Jacky Weaver-Pronk, in Stansted, Mountfitchet, Essex (one of those addresses I adore), and a Christmas present that shall go undescribed because someone who reads this is the recipient, but here's the creator's website. We zoomed Susan and Sophia home, crammed into Emmy, and then came home across the Park, golden leaves blowing every which way in the dark, across the windscreen and into the car, with her top down. Glorious.

I shall go collapse with a lovely Calvados and a book. Avery is deep into a story about a stallion for a bookstore competition, so perhaps a bit of a read of that would do. Happy Thanksgiving! I wouldn't trade being an English person, much as I am an anglophile, and for all that some of them have pretty cool lives. Maybe on Friday. But not on Thanksgiving.

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