The Middle Distance 11.22.13: Switching It Up

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Credit Sean Cayton

This year, for the second time in my life I won’t be having Thanksgiving dinner at home. Many years I considered going out and letting some wonderful chef at a restaurant feed my crew, but that just never seemed right. What if they served oyster stuffing? What if there were no mashed potatoes? What if there was no pecan pie? Thanksgiving, after all, might be about the Pilgrims and a bountiful harvest and giving thanks for being alive and all that good stuff, but isn’t it really about doing it the way you’ve always done it? About being a kitchen Nazi?

In a moment of expansive thinking, I agreed to coordinate Thanksgiving dinner at my church this year, for anyone who isn’t going to a large family gathering or just wants to potluck it. My task involves providing the turkeys and dressing and gravy and others will bring side dishes and desserts. It makes good sense as there are only four of us at home this year and cranking out the whole feast for such a small crowd seems more labor than it’s worth.

The date approaches and I’m excited and, admittedly, a little anxious about the change in holiday plans. Can I share the kitchen and be open-minded about what appears on the table? Can I embrace the true spirit of Thanksgiving and not get hung up on my family’s particular menu? Looking at all the food magazines and newspaper food sections, you’d think Thanksgiving is all about trying new things, switching it up on the recipes, throwing tradition to the wind.

I’ve been gathering recipes for the last week, thinking this is my opportunity to break out of the old ways. I could toss some bacon or mushrooms into the cornbread dressing and not risk the scorn of my family over this sacrilege. Turkey tastemakers have apparently decided that this is the year of the dry rub instead of the wet brine. Dare I throw tradition to the wind and massage my turkeys two days ahead of time, leaving them to soak up the salt and herbs before roasting them?

We’ll see.

Riding the wave of this adventurous mood, yesterday I tried a recipe for pumpkin bread, something I haven’t cooked before. This time of year I always crave the spice cake of my childhood, and though I’m pretty sure my mother’s came from a Betty Crocker box, at least this recipe would approximate the seasonings — cinnamon, ginger, allspice and nutmeg —a can of pumpkin added to make it seem healthier and more festive.

I mixed the orange batter in a large bowl and poured it into two greased loaf pans. Soon the house filled with the spicy baking scent. An hour in the oven, then turned out to a cooling rack, the loaves were golden brown and solid and moist. I tossed a dish towel over them, fed the brown-eyed golden retriever and left for choir practice. I’d only be gone an hour.

On Thanksgiving morning, every year that I can remember, my mother calls and we talk dressing. On the counter, a huge bowl of crumbled cornbread and dried bread cubes mixed with celery and onion sautéed in a whole stick of butter, moistened with chicken stock and seasoned with sage, salt and lots of black pepper. On the stove, a bubbling pot of turkey necks and giblets, more stock and a little chopped meat to be added at the last minute. Everyone who passes through the kitchen pinches a taste. More sage. More onion. More salt. Finally we drizzle it with more butter and bake it and the house smells like Thanksgiving. Only on this day, never any other.

Choir practice is quick and a winter cold front is rolling in. I head home, picturing a slice of pumpkin bread spread with cream cheese for dinner, a warmed slice with apple butter for breakfast tomorrow morning. I’m calculating the recipes I want to try this Thanksgiving at my experimental table: roasted beets with orange, Brussels sprouts hash, a cranberry apple tart.

A snow sky is building and the house glows orange from the outside. Inside, the warm air is still redolent with baked spices. The golden retriever bounds to the door, his tail slapping, his eyes bright. I throw him a toy, hang my coat and turn to the kitchen.

On the floor, a mangled kitchen towel and the overturned wire rack. Barely identifiable, microscopic crumbs and not a sign of either loaf of pumpkin bread. The counter licked clean. The dog’s golden belly bulges. Clearly this new recipe is a winner.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.