If you want to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner wholly from scratch, you start ahead of time. If you want to make it from food you’ve raised yourself, you start way, way ahead of time – like in January of the year before. In some ways, it starts even earlier, but January is the new year – and when you grow your own, you are always thinking of the future – even if not consciously about any particular dinner.
It is in January that we order seeds for the vegetables we’d serve at Thanksgiving, that we debate which varieties of pumpkin and carrots, celery root, sweet corn, squash and leeks we’ll need.
We are thinking Thanksgiving, faintly, distantly, in February, when we order turkey poults, or begin watching the turkey hens for signs of setting her eggs, and when we place the order for seed potatoes, or begin organizing last year’s potatoes for replanting. In February the first leek and onion greens have sprouted, and in some abstract sense we know these will appear again, on our tables in autumn.
We are thinking vaguely of Thanksgiving in March, when I set sweet potatoes in water on the window to develop slips for next year. And in April when we finally go out on the first warm day and plant potatoes. We are certainly thinking Thanksgiving as the turkey poults hatch or arrive, and as I pull the mulch from my sage and thyme plants.
We are thinking Thanksgiving in May, when I carefully start “winter luxury” pie pumpkins in newspaper cups filled with soil, to ensure a healthy supply of pumpkin pie, and when we watch the apple blossoms anxiously on cold nights, to track our future apple pies.
In June, when we hoe the corn, we recall that we will want this corn, creamed at the groaning board in November. In July, on hot nights, when the dream of roast turkey seems unappealing, we are still, in some measure, aware of Thanksgiving at the back of our minds as we go out to pick slugs off the squash vines, and pull the garlic that we will use to flavor the potatoes.
In August, we know that summer is winding down, and it is in small part Thanksgiving that we are driving towards as the turkeys range around the yard chasing bugs and we are putting up raspberry pie filling and pickled peaches. We dry the sweet corn, after we devour our fill, thinking, again, of days to come.
In September, as the first breath of cool air floats through the barnyard, we’re thinking Thanksgiving as we dig potatoes and watch for frost, hoping for a few more nights to ripen the pumpkins to rich netted orange, a little more sizing up for the Hubbard Squash, already huge and warty and green.
In October, as the day approaches and the turkeys reach maturity, Thanksgiving appears from the back of our minds and occasionally touches the fronts. When will the turkeys be ready for butchering? When can the ones we’ve sold be picked up, and do we have enough freezer space? We pull a parsnip from the ground and taste its frost-sweetened flavor in anticipation.
November, of course, is the culmination of our efforts – we mash and roast and sauce and sautee. The turkey gets the most attention, but Thanksgiving is the feast of roots, the only time we, as a nation, all fully celebrate those under-loved vegetables that come up from the ground. It is the only meal many Americans actually cook for themselves, and sit down with family for. At our house, we have done most of the long anticipatory work, and we rest on our laurels – at least until it is time to cook.
What are you eating this week?