During each November, for as long as I can remember, I have thought of food, home, family and friends. Not necessarily in that order. And all of these seem to connect to the Thanksgiving Holiday. The situations may change, place to place or family to family, but the feelings about the holiday itself are much the same.
When I was young, we always went to my maternal grandmother’s house for a Thanksgiving meal of Pennsylvania Dutch style cooking. Even now the sight and smell of the heavily laden table are very clear to me. The hustle and bustle of the kitchen, and the organized confusion are still very real. And the unspoken “either help out or stay out of the way.” It was and is still fascinating to me. I’m surprised that I didn’t become a chef.
I don’t remember ever going to my paternal Hungarian grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, although there were many other times throughout the year that we were invited for dinner. Chicken Paprikash was a favorite of everyone. Actually, there were a lot of dishes “paprikash.” The Hungarian meals were in general fairly spicy. My grandmother grew peppers of all kinds which were dried in long rows hanging on the cellar walls. Then these were ground up into a powder or flakes and used in cooking or as condiments. Her chicken yard provided a lot of meals with chicken, duck, goose, turkey, etc; practically anything besides the old tough rooster who doubled as an alarm clock at dawn every morning. My grandmother’s garden was a good part of an acre lot. In it were a corn field, and rows of many varieties of vegetables, fruit trees, and vines of berries adorning the fences. When these ripened and were harvested, she canned a lot of the fruits and vegetables. These were delicious and convenient in the dead of winter.
Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, on the other hand, being German, was less rustic and more mild, at least in my experience. The Thanksgiving table then was almost as standard as it is today but with more variety, and much more quantity. That being the case, I felt that it was my personal duty to cut a large swath through the menu. I was always the subject of amazement as to the amount of food that I could devour. Consequently, I was usually the last person sitting at the table, and, astoundingly, this never caused me any of the gastric problems that I would now experience. While everyone else took a nap or got reacquainted, I would curl up under a table somewhere with a book. It worked then, and it would probably work now given the opportunity. After the main meal marathon, I was still ready for the spread of desserts. And later on when the sun went down I was always ready for a turkey sandwich and some gravy with anything. It seemed that I was unstoppable. Or just storing food away for the winter.
There is one similarity between the cooking of both of my grandmothers in their prime in the late 1940′s. Both of their cooking styles contained a lot of grease. Chicken or turkey or beef or pork or ham fat was a treat. Things like “cracklin’s” were a real treat! When the fat was rendered from any of the above, it was used for frying almost anything. It is hard to understand now, but this is where a lot of the delicious taste came from – the grease. And the reason that we had bread at the table was to soak up the leftover grease from our plates. Now this is frowned upon, and grease is disappearing….. just like our ancestors whose arteries gradually hardened and shortened their lives.
Our lives are full of choices: long lives or great tasting meals; hard labor outside in the healthy sun and air or sitting at a computer all day without any exercise and developing heart disease. Choices. Trade-offs. Life is full of them. My own heritage gave me a love for cooking. I have always loved combining different flavors for the taste and smell that can become unique. This is a lot like composing and orchestrating music, which is combining the different colors and timbres of various instruments into sounds that are pleasing and unique. Both are based upon the choices that we make. And, no matter what area these choices are in, let us all remember to choose wisely…!