Friday, November 25, 2011


We just came back from Thanksgiving in Portland; we have been eating our once a year turkey with the same folks for eight or nine years now. The day follows the same pattern—dinner is at two, so Amy and I arrive early and attack the turkey skin—a guilty pleasure from childhood—Mary and Susan arrive at 1:55 in a flurry of cold air and shouted greetings. By two thirty we are lined up at the table for the first round—savories for me, followed by jello and green salads, pickles, and rolls. Susan reads a blessing and asks the same question every year. “What are you thankful for?” We eat for an hour, collapse on the sofas moaning, talk, play games, drink fancy liquors out of tiny glasses, fuss about the state of the world, and digest before the dessert course. Pies and cake follow. Pie fro brunch the next day.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. As a child, my mother cooked huge feasts and set the table with her fancy dishes, lit candles, made me wear scratchy underwear. The night before, we stuffed celery and dates and mixed the stuffing, always adding a little more Bell’s Seasoning. I loved squishing the wet warm bread through my fingers, mixing sausage and onions, toasted cubes and spices. On Thanksgiving morning, I cruised the living room, nibbled nuts and pastel mints from cut glass dishes, and watched the Macy’s Parade with the huge balloons. The house smelled of turkey and perfume. It was heaven for a child.

When I was ten and eleven, I lived on Cape Cod, where it all began, you know. When our class was chosen to perform the holiday pageant, I wanted to be a pilgrim. I WAS a pilgrim in my mind and pilgrims had better parts. Dressed in long skirts and white caps, they dragged the cardboard boat across the stage and had a feast while the Indians looked on. I was a new kid; I was an Indian. And, because I refused to wear make-up, a pale freckled Indian at that. No matter—we sang “There’s no place like home for the holidays” and I hummed the tune while shopping with my mother after the pageant. My cousins were coming down for the weekend; the turkey was thawing in the sink; my mother had made a lemon pie; the stuffing needed to be squished. Life was good.

After college, I took over the cooking while my mother entertained the elders. After Pie Day at Ceres Bakery, when we made 48 pecan, 48 pumpkin, and 24 apple pies, along with hundreds of rolls, loaves of bread, winterfruit tarts, and carrot cakes, I would drive 40 miles south to cook for my family. My mother slipped brandy into my grandmother’s eggnog and watched my aunt to make sure she was not licking the cream cheese out of the celery and leaving behind the gnawed rinds. Meanwhile, I peeled squash and turnip, squished the stuffing, and monitored the turkey. It felt like a fair trade. At dinner, Aunt Jean and Nanny would begin the Irish Lament. “Ten years since Jackie’s been gone, “ one would intone. “Five years for Howie,” the other added. My mother, in desperate attempts to lighten the meal, told a dirty joke. The elders were horrified and continued to name the dead, reaching further back. Dinner took on a rhythm—dead person, dirty joke, dead person, dirty joke—that captured the essence of my family. The first year I tried to break away and eat dinner with my boyfriend’s family, my mother announced that I had been conceived on Thanksgiving and how could I possibly want to be elsewhere on my conception day?! I ate two dinners that day.

Since then, I’ve had years of wandering dinners. I’ve eaten with friends in San Francisco, which is lovely in November, and in Lincoln Nebraska, which is not bad either. I’ve had a small dinners in my own home with just a few people. And now we head to Portland. It is still my favorite holiday—food, conversation, a moment’s reflection back on where we have all been that year—then moaning on the couch and pie for brunch the next day. What more could you ask for?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Transcontinental Lettuce

“The transcontinental head of lettuce, grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped to Washington D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives.” (Eat Here—a worldwatch book)

We are eating oil, not food. It is not an efficient use of resources. This inefficiency of resources—namely grains—was enough to convince me to shift to a vegetarian diet back in college. It was also cheaper….and then, I decided that I didn’t really like meat anymore. Maybe being a meat wrapper and watching all of those bloody London Broils go by had something to do with it, too. And the intellectual appeal of eating closer to home did have some affect on my decision to shift to a more locally grown diet. But it wasn’t enough to change our habits.

It really started three Decembers ago. We had been eating only local produce since early June, between my garden and our Early Winter CSA box. But, a week after the box ended, we ran out of veggies and I had to go to the co-op once more. I bought a lovely head of broccoli, came home, and placed it on the chopping block. The stems were tough! And desiccated! A little brown around the edges! “What is this,” I wondered. “A dead broccoli?!” It wasn’t tender, or sweet, or a lovely light green… and I did not want to eat it. That was it. Local produce, even a month of kale and mustard greens, was a better option than dead broccoli. And, despite an occasional banana, or a red pepper in March, we haven’t looked back. Local produce is just tastier.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Compost in Place"

The front flower bed was trimmed down this week…The eight foot tall fennel plant, that ladies walking by always comment on—“I’ve never seen such a huge dill plant.”—had toppled onto the sidewalk, the asters were all brown, and the comfrey was taking over. Halloween is over; the rains have begun; we no longer need a living hedge  between the sidewalk and the house. Besides, we were starting to look like the home of a crazy old lady, buried in foliage. It took a few days. I whacked away at the fennel with the long-handled loppers and pulled the stalks around back, shedding seeds everywhere, and then began on the smaller plants. Over the years, I have adopted the “compost in place” technique in the front yard. I cut everything down, break it into slightly shorter pieces, and lay it back in the beds. Once everything is gone, I cover the whole bed with leaves scavenged from the street, place the Halloween pumpkins into the mulch to slowly rot into the ground, and we’re done. Much easier than the old technique of hauling everything out back, turning all winter, sifting in the spring, and hauling it all back up, loaded with fennel seeds.  Not to mention moving a semi-rotten, soggy pumpkin off the front step on Veteran’s Day.