Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Memories of Food and Family

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving. A day of gratitude. The day that signals the official start of the holiday season. A holiday marked by traditino and symbolism. For many of us, it’s a chance to spend time with our families and be thankful for each other and for the bounty that is laid before us at our dining room tables.

And for most of us, this holiday has become very much about food. Food and lots of it. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is “a good thing.”

Nowhere are family food traditions more evident than at our collective Thanksgiving celebrations. Perhaps for this reason Thanksgiving always makes me nostalgic; I fondly recall large gatherings with family members who have long since passed, in homes that are no longer standing or at least, no longer occupied by the familiar and the familial.

Our Thanksgivings were almost always spent in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, in a little slate-mining town nestled in the hills of central Pennsylvania. Slatington (aptly named) is, even today, pure small-town America.

The drive to Slatington from our home in Philadelphia always seemed interminable. The stretch of the Pennsylvania turnpike that goes north out of Philadelphia hadn't been built yet, and most of the trip was on four-lane roads with traffic lights every few miles As we got closer to Slatington, the four lanes became two, then twisting country roads through small hamlets, with streets lined with modest homes and always, a fire house, a single grocer and a gas station. A fine old brick church and its ancient graveyard marked the point at which we knew we were only minutes away from our destination.

My aunt and uncle lived in a big (or so it seemed to me as a small child) old stone home on Main Street. (No, I’m not making that up.) The Kern homestead sat at the corner of Main and Kern Street (I’m not making this up, either) and is forever seared in my memory. It was a deep, narrow, two-story affair, originally built with an outhouse. The outhouse became a tool-shed when the home was eventually modernized to include a single bathroom on the second floor, above the kitchen at the rear of the house. With a single staircase at the front of the house, a trip from the kitchen to the loo entailed climbing a long, wooden staircase and a trek down a long, narrow upstairs hallway paved with well-worn rag rugs over ancient wood flooring…and no small measure of planning ahead. Sometimes the walk to the bathroom seemed longer than the drive to Slatington.  I am sure there were several occasions on which I barely made it.

On the ground floor, one had to walk through the dining room and the living room to get from the kitchen to the staircase, which was off the “parlor”, a formal living room that faced the street and opened onto a lovely, covered porch. There was a sofa in that room; they called it a “davenport.” I loved the smell of old wood and the muffled sound of Main Street traffic in the otherwise quiet room, motes of dust floating in the slices of filtered afternoon sunlight.

The kitchen was just large enough to eat in, but clearly not laid out with cooking in mind. Lovely, thick quarter-sawn oak cabinets, darkened with the patina of age, went nearly to the 14 foot ceilings, making cooking a bit of a physical challenge for my petite aunt Pauline. The sink was “all of a piece,” as the Pennsylvania Dutch would say, a one-piece sink/counter/backsplash carved from a solid slab of slate.

Pauline eased her cooking woes by fueling herself with my uncle Stummy’s infamous whiskey sours while preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The Dutch have a curious habit of giving everyone nicknames, especially the men. Stummy’s real name was Stuart, and he actually had a friend whose nickname was “Johnny Chicken Shit”. As for the whisky sours, I suspect they contained more whisky than sour. (For true Dutch-country authenticity, pronounce it “whiskeysahrs.” Imagine the movie “Fargo,” and sing the last syllable as three distinct notes. “Whisky sah ah ars”, accent on the second “ah”. Perfect.)

There was a porch on the side of the house, as well, with doors to both the dining room and the kitchen. I loved that porch. Unlike the one in front, which was covered and shaded most of the day, the side porch was open and warmed by the pale autumn sun in the afternoon. There was a clothes line in the back yard and a big patch of rhubarb. Behind that a narrow alley and then a huge, tree-covered mountain. (In hindsight it was more of a hill, and we were young adolescents before we gathered the nerve to climb it. By then it didn’t seem nearly as big.) My sister and I would spend hours on the porches and in the yard, enjoying the smell of leaves burning somewhere nearby and the crisp, fall air, while we waited an eternity (and worked up huge appetites) for the mid-afternoon meal.

Pennsylvania Dutch meals are always a celebration of plenty (read: gluttony). My mother always said that her great uncles ate until they were full, pushed their chairs away from the table, loosened their belts a notch, and bellied up to the table again for another round.

A favorite side dish in the Dutch country is the locally produced and naturally sweet “Cope’s Corn”. Made for over 100 years by the John Cope company, Cope’s Corn is dried, roasted sweet corn. (www.copefoods.com) Reconstituted, it has a caramel color and flavor that is unlike anything else. Served either stewed, creamed or in a corn pudding, it was a staple at all of our Thanksgiving meals. Shortly after my husband and I started dating, I brought it to one of his family Thanksgiving celebrations and now his family asks for it, as well.

There were all the usual Thanksgiving trimmings: several kinds stuffing, which the Dutch call “dressing”, including my late grandmother’s chestnut stuffing which my husband now requests each November; sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and the like. And there were cranberries and molded Jell-o salads.

But one dish that was unique to our feast was my aunt’s “hot lettuce” salad. The lettuce isn’t actually hot; it’s simply iceberg lettuce dressed with a warm, creamy sweet and sour bacon dressing.  I've never tried making it. Maybe this year?

Pauline and my grandmother were also known for their creamed pearl onions. This was long before those pearly little gems were available pre-peeled in your grocer’s freezer, so it was no small feat bringing them to the table. It took an hour or more to peel enough onions for a crowd and prepare them for braising and a healthy dose of heavy cream. And on more than one occasion, perhaps because there were too many dishes to serve—or too many whiskey “sahrs” consumed--Pauline made the onions and forgot to serve them. “Oh, goodness, Stummy,” she’d laugh, “I forgot the pearl onions!” It was a testament to her good nature (or good whiskey) that she found this oversight amusing despite all the effort she had put into them.

Dessert is a specialty of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The German settlers in this part of the country have been credited with inventing the two-crust fruit pie as we now know it. (I know this is true because Alton Brown said so.) And while “Shoofly” pie is a tradition among the Amish, it is less popular among the secular inhabitants of the region. However, mincemeat pie is a favorite and was something I always looked forward to at Thanksgiving. My grandmother always made the mince pies—her crusts were legendary—and Pauline did the pumpkin pie. My mother often made mincemeat cake; three layers, a mile high and slathered with cream cheese frosting. I wish I still had the recipe.

My cousin Jeff was in the Slatington High School marching band, and there was always a football game on Thanksgiving day. I remember Jeff coming in an hour before dinner was served, dressed in his band uniform, cheeks rosy from the crisp fall air. After dinner, my cousin Jane and my father sat together playing the old upright piano, while the women cleaned up the dishes (by hand) and the rest of the men fell asleep in front of a football game. The Kerns had cable TV back when it was cooler to have an antenna.

Pauline always sent home a care package of leftover turkey and my grandmother’s yeasty dinner rolls. There was no better sandwich than leftover turkey and real mayonnaise on an “Edna roll.”

It was dark by the time we headed home, mom at the wheel. Bundled up in a blanket in the back seat of our station wagon, my sister and I were usually asleep by the time we reached the old brick church on the outskirts of town…with visions of turkey sandwiches dancing in our heads.

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Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.