A thoughtful feast. In a time of ease, we still look to hardship of earlier times to inspire the Thanksgiving celebration
`Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings.... `They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, ... and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod, and bass, and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want. And now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached.... And besides water fowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck [of] meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterward write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned, but true reports.'
From ``The Bradford History,'' by Gov. William Bradford of Massachusetts. This passage describes the Plymouth colony's first harvest, in 1621.
NEW ENGLAND today has more students roving its campus groves than there were Indians in the time of the Pilgrims. Where Squanto helped the first settlers plant corn, public television's ``Victory Garden'' now guides novice gardeners. New Englanders Julia Child, Madeleine Kamman, and Jacques P'epin have Frenchified, Californiafied, Japonaised, and Chinoised the simple roasts, puddings, and other once-simple fare of the region. Culinary schools are as numerous as the old Indian trading posts.
Food writers today are more apt to maintain second residences in California than in Europe. They take their manner of cooking to health clinics for checkups; they no longer just hobnob with Guide Millau's master chefs, but collaborate with cardiologists and nutritionists.
Half the first Plymouth colonists starved or froze the first winter. Today, hypermarkets fly in produce from every continent.
Change has come not only in the how and what of American eating, but in the where and why as well. Restaurants and workplace commissaries serve more meals, the family dining room fewer. A fracturing of family units and the dispersal of friends around the country have had an impact on the opportunity and obligation of getting together for holidays.
The abundance of choices of what to and how to eat, and the decline in occasions, mean that Americans have to think a bit harder at times like Thanksgiving, to discern the significance of the event.
Americans have long felt a certain ambivalence about Thanksgiving. It really represents not just a celebration of abundance, but gratitude for having traversed a period of testing.
Both the hardships and the triumphs of Thanksgiving are a continuing part of the American experience.
The first thanksgiving was declared by William Bradford, the new governor of Plymouth Plantation, in November 1621. He describes the first plentiful harvest in a history of the New England colony that he began to write at the end of the 1620s. Bradford's bucolic passage, ``The first Thanksgiving'' - an inventory of waterfowl, venison, cod, and corn - follows after a narrative of an opposite kind, which records the first winter in the New World. That passage is subtitled ``The starving time.'' Even before that, so daunting was the prospect of stepping off onto the rigorous wilderness shore that, historians believe, Bradford's wife, Dorothy, flung herself overboard and drowned during the first weeks the Mayflower moored off Plymouth.
Thanksgiving was thereafter observed sporadically in the New World communities, until George Washington followed the exalting ordeal of the Revolution by declaring the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789. Abraham Lincoln revived the holiday in 1863, during the Civil War. And Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the eve of World War II, moved the holiday to the third Thursday in November - and Congress in 1941 set the date for the fourth Thursday.
This Nov. 24, there will be as many distinct Thanksgivings as there are families, clusters of roommates, boarders, singles' households, and homeless in America.
For some, the Norman Rockwell feast for a happy extended family, from Gramps to the newest-born, will be repeated. Other extended families are finding themselves divided at holidays by America's economic restructuring - as farms are sold, jobs beckon offspring hither and yon, and retirement communities continue to expand from Phoenix to Key West.
As long as people move about, the poignancy of family division, the absence of members on holidays, goes with them.
Nor is life in America universally easy. The descendants of the Indians Bradford knew in Plymouth still have not made full social and economic peace with the white newcomers. Some early searchers for religious freedom would later deny it to others. But Thanksgiving remains a choice: a decision not to dwell on the cup half empty, but to be grateful for the cup half full.
How to celebrate it at the table?
We have considered a menu for this Thanksgiving that takes account of the fish, fowl, and corn mentioned by Bradford. The dinner is for six, a comfortable number for assembling plates in the kitchen for dining-room service. It includes an opening squash bisque (a butternut-squash pur'ee with stock and cream); grilled or broiled black bass, served with an onion comfit and points of corn bread; slices of turkey breast wrapped around a sage stuffing to form small ``birds,'' to be braised and served with baked tomatoes and a turnip pur'ee; and for dessert, a pumpkin custard. Squash Bisque 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds, pared, seeded, and cut into chunks 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped 6 cups chicken broth Salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg In heavy pot, saut'e onion in butter until translucent, add squash and broth, bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer until squash is well cooked, about one hour. Process mixture in food processor or blender to make a smooth pur'ee. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste (if you prefer, add 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice to brighten flavor, and omit salt).
Broiled Black Sea Bass 2 pounds black sea bass or other ocean fish fillets Salt and freshly ground pepper A dozen sprigs fresh thyme 2 teaspoons corn oil Place half of the thyme sprigs on a broiler rack or pan that has been lightly brushed with corn oil; brush fillets with oil and set on rack; spread remaining thyme sprigs over fillets, and season with pepper and salt. Broil 2 inches from heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Cut into 6 portions and serve on bed of onion comfit, with corn bread.
Onion Comfit 4 medium red onions, thinly sliced, about 8 cups 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/2 cup chicken broth 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar 1/4 tsp salt, pepper 1 sprig fresh thyme Saut'e onions in butter in large skillet over medium heat until translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, add fresh thyme sprig, broth, and vinegar, and bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer until liquids are about evaporated and onions are glazed, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove thyme and keep warm.
Country Cornmeal Bread 1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal 1 cup all-purpose flour 6 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoons baking powder 1 teaspoons baking soda 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 1/2 cups buttermilk 1 cup melted butter 2 large eggs Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bowl. Place all liquids in 1-quart measuring cup and beat until well combined. Pour into dry ingredients and stir until blended. Pour into well-buttered 9-by-5-by-3 loaf pan. Tap to eliminate any air pockets in batter. Bake at 400 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Cool on rack and serve warm.
Turkey Rolls FILLING: 1/2 cup unsalted butter (one stick) 3/4 cup finely minced celery 3/4 cup finely minced onion 3/4 cup finely minced mushrooms 1/4 cup finely minced fresh sage 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh Italian parsley 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese Salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 cups fresh bread crumbs In a skillet, saut'e together in the butter until soft and translucent the celery, onion, and mushrooms; add herbs, seasonings, and bread crumbs and combine. ROLLS: 6 large slices fresh turkey breast Salt and pepper 4 tablespoons butter 1 1/4 cups chicken broth Flatten turkey slices well, sprinkle with salt and pepper, place some of stuffing in center, roll carefully and sew ends with thread as necessary to form neat bundles. Saut'e until golden in the butter, place in one layer in baking pan, pour in stock, cover closely with aluminum foil, and bake in 375-degree F. oven until tender, about 30 minutes. SAUCE: 1 1/2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced 1 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon olive oil Heat butter in olive oil, saut'e mushrooms sprinkled with a little salt until golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Strain juices from turkey rolls over mushrooms, and heat. Thicken if desired (combine 1 tablespoon soft butter with 1 tablespoon flour, and whisk into liquid, cooking briefly). Serve turkey bundles with baked tomatoes and turnip pur'ee.
Baked Tomatoes 3 large fresh tomatoes, cut in half 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, minced finely 1 large clove garlic, sliced (or 12 thin slices) Freshly ground pepper 3 tablespoons olive oil Place tomato halves in baking pan, cut side up. Insert two garlic slices into each half, sprinkle with rosemary, salt, pepper, and drizzle with olive oil; bake 30 minutes in 375-degree F. oven. Remove garlic slices before serving.
Turnip Pur'ee 6 medium, purple-topped white turnips, pared and cut into chunks 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 tablespoons heavy cream Salt and pepper Cook turnips in water to cover until very tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain, pur'ee in food processor until smooth. Add cream and butter; season with salt and pepper.
Pumpkin Custards CARAMEL COATING: 6 tablespoons granulated sugar 2 tablespoons water 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup Caramelize sugar, water, and lemon juice in very clean, heavy skillet without stirring, until dark golden in color. Add maple syrup, pour into bottoms of six half-cup ramekins or custard cups; set aside. CUSTARD: 1/2 cup pumpkin pur'ee 1/4 cup pure maple syrup 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, ground 1/8 teaspoon cloves, ground Scrape of nutmeg Pinch salt 4 whole eggs 1 1/2 cups heavy cream Combine custard ingredients; strain mixture into caramel-coated ramekins. Place in baking pan, pour in hot water halfway up sides of cups. Bake at 325 degrees F. for 30 minutes or until knife inserted halfway between center and sides is withdrawn clean. Cool in water bath to room temperature, remove to rack; unmold by sliding knife around sides and invert onto dessert plates. May be served with whipped cream that has been enriched with fresh, pur'eed cranberry sauce folded into it.