Thanksgiving is a unique among holidays. Rivaled closely by Independence Day, by far the one I look forward to the most. Perhaps it’s the weather in North Carolina or the football we watch and play. I know it is the big one, with abundance of family and friends, just enough so you can all love on each other without wearing out welcome. It’s the ultimate American holiday due to it’s subtle combination of patriotism and the celebration of the gifts of Divine Providence. And of course, the food. . .
We all seem to circle around the table to celebrate over food. We celebrate our family’s cooks, so many times those matriarchs that work to exhaustion and hide tears in the pantry only to have a dad carve the bird as a call to feast. The steward of all that will be shared. I’ve always wanted be the family holiday chef. Occasionally I’m trusted to an assignment like doing the roast at Christmas. July fourth was always a shining moment when hours over a barbecue spit with a cooler of Budweiser came in front of chatting for hours in the next room while the casseroles were being shuffled in the kitchen by the moms and aunts and grandmas.
There are those accidental holidays like the time we first gathered at the beach instead of the hearth of home or the mountains. That year impromptu oyster roast broke out just hours before mom went in to put the turkey in the oven. Over two bushels of the briniest Stump Sound oysters ever harvested, we laughed and reveled. We told growing up stories and had cocktails, we swept the shells in the canal, threw paper plates and napkins in the trash, we hosed it off. I’ve never seen Mom so happy. I wanted to do it again.
To realize this, I had to let go. This year, with some regret leaving the wider clan behind, I took my small family- just wife and kids- down to the beach for Thanksgiving. This time not to bumble into a day that bunks and trumps tradition, only with desire to create new ones. Easy new ones. Creating a Thanksgiving about sunshine rather than leafless trees and grey sky. As habit dictates, we don’t take much to the beach. With a few casual outfits and the toothbrushes are already there, the most difficult packing is pulling perishable food from the home refrigerator into a cooler and picking a few good bottles of wine to take along. We didn’t have much of a plan for the Thanksgiving meal. I did have that free fifteen pound turkey consolatory to a month of greenpoints at the grocery. I pulled it from the freezer and threw it in the trunk.
I smiled because my wife was happy and I cooked a little bit. We played football on the beach, cooked a little bit. I caught a flounder in the canal, then went in to cook a bit. (I did get Casey to make rice, she’s just better at making it perfect.) The kitchen stayed pretty tidy and organized. Aside from the aroma, I was invisible. The house smelled, well like all that home nostalgia- if you closed your eyes you could either picture William Bradford and Squanto or maybe a fat uncle sneaking bits off the uncarved bird. The kids were goofing around in the canal around back while my wife rocked on the porch reading an old Pat Conroy novel left on the shelf from a summer past. One hour before the NFL kickoff, I rang the dinner bell. There were no silver serving platters, not even a buffet. I just had six plated-up mounds of the basics ready on the table. A bed of rice, a fat dollop of dressing, green beans boiled in jowl meat, and long thin slices of white meat turkey covered in an aromatic gravy. I don’t mean toot my own horn, but this wasn’t some Swanson dinner. I can cook, but the easy way. The dishes were finished before the first touchdown. Everybody was happy. The food was good– I finally got to cook a Thanksgiving meal, life is good. I didn’t even have to sneak a nip of whisky in the garage.
This is a blog about leftovers.
There are few things as good as two slices of ploughman’s bread, a mound of leftover turkey, lots of cracked pepper, bacon, lettuce and a heavy smear of Duke’s mayonnaise the morning after Thanksgiving. I also like that weird bowl of leftovers that starts to form itself about Saturday- the one that has the rice and dressing and the turkey and a few spare green beans and maybe even a bit of sweet potato pie mixed in. (You know you’ve put that in the microwave and spooned into it when no one is looking.)
This year I saved a bit for the sandwich, but started right into some gumbo before the dishes were even done. A big ole stockpot making a plunking pang as still-on-the-bone wings and thigh meat and rogue bits of white meat fell in. I tossed in the aromatics from the stuffed belly of the turkey- celery and onion, along with a sachet of rosemary, thyme and bay leaves. Covered it all with water and started simmering, then right about bed time, I picked out the bones. This morning I just browned up some andouille sausage and chilis. Once they browned up, I stirred some okra over until everything got sticky-slimy. This combined with the broth, now speckled with tiny bits of tender meat. Every good gumbo is only as good as its roux. It seemed I had made the perfect one once already. The roux in this case, that thick mahogany gravy made with turkey drippings and Lilly White.
As the house filled with sunlight, the room had an odd aroma of poultry seasoning and cajun spice. It was gumbo, my nose knew it- but a little Plymouth mixed in with the Bayou. Black Friday Gumbo.
In a few hours, some friends will arrive. I have a cooler full of oysters, I have a cooler full of Budweisers, there is a roll of paper towels and bowl of shucking knives on the wooden table down by the canal. I guess all there is left to do is see if I can sweet talk my wife, Casey to steaming a mound of jasmine rice while I head to the store for a stack of Chinet bowls.
Leftovers are memories, simply food that was good enough to want to bring it back into your life.