Sunday, November 24, 2013

Around the spool-legged table

Thanksgiving 2012: my best high school guy friend, Miles, daughter Kasey and her husband Andrew and the boys.

Of all the holidays, Thanksgiving is my favorite, although it often seems to come too soon. We have barely finished putting the garden to bed, and then it is time to think about turkey and pies and who will be home, for it is a time of families coming together for good or for ill, and neither easily predicted.   Some years, there have been more than a dozen people gathered around the antique dining table, with room still left to pull up another chair, lay another place setting. It is scarred and faded from generations of holiday meals and burnished with nostalgia.
The table was my Nana’s – my mother’s grandmother –who somehow managed, alone, to raise my mother and uncle, her grandchildren who were semi-orphaned by the childbirth death of their mother, during the Great Depression.  I imagine it came to her when she was a young bride establishing her household well before the beginning of the last century.  It held a place of honor in the bow-windowed dining room of her Victorian home, and for most of the year sat demurely empty.  Daily meals were served in the kitchen.  The spool-legged table was opened only for holidays. All six leaves were draped in an insulated silence cloth to protect the finish and soften the clatter of cutlery and crockery, then a carefully pressed, creamy cloth of linen that flowed nearly to the floor.   The table dressings created a shadowy cave beneath the table where a quiet and curious child could hide and listen to the adult conversations as they lingered over coffee and pie, tea and cookies.  I wondered why pretty Aunt Jackie was angry with her handsome, laughing husband, and how a beloved cousin and his family had happened to move to California, a world away from the New England I knew.  It was beneath that table that the seeds of my future as a writer, a teller of stories, a questioner of tales, took root.
When my Nana died, I was twelve.  In the course of dismantling the home she had kept in dim Victorian splendor for nearly three-quarters of a century, the table went to my grandfather.  I was heartbroken at losing both Nana and the table that held so many memories.  We had moved by then to Vermont and the table seemed forever gone from my life. 
But Thanksgiving continued, albeit without the spool-legged table and its linened cave.  My mother was a wonderful cook. She had studied a year of home economics at a state teachers’ college before abandoning that track to become a nurse, and a good one, too.  Some years, it was just the four of us – my father, my brother, my mother and me – and others it included guests. One year it was a young man who worked with my dad and was far from home for the holidays. Another it was an elderly, retired, spinster school teacher whose long-time companion had passed away just a month before at the nursing home where my mother was a charge nurse. Aunt Stella, as we came to call her, became part of the family, and a welcome one.  She encouraged my tendency to spin tales, marveled over my clumsy poetry, celebrated academic my academic achievements, and gifted me with the Christmas cactus – likely nearing a hundred years old – that is budded and preparing to bloom in a corner of my kitchen.  Hindsight leads me to believe that Aunt Stella and her companion had what was often called a Boston marriage, a gentle euphemism to explain two women living together without the support of a man. 
Boiling cranberries
Whoever the guest, the meal was the same: the glistening roast turkey, rich gravy, savory stuffing, a smorgasbord of vegetables, and desserts to tempt any guest and leave stomachs uncomfortably full.  My mother was a good cook and knew well how to keep this holiday which focused on people coming together to celebrate the blessings they had.  As I struck out on my own, I continued the traditions from the very first Thanksgiving dinner I ever cooked, in a New York City kitchen tinier than my current bathroom, and served to a cherished guest who had traveled by bus, through a blizzard, from Ohio, to the tables of recent years, crowded with family members, joined to us by blood and by choice.   My Nana’s table always lingered in my mind. 
A decade and a half after her death, my grandfather died too, and again there was the breaking up of the household.  Bruce and I were married then, and as the family possessions were passeled out, I bid aggressively for, and in the end, won the spool-legged table.  I had to surrender the ten matching chairs as an uncle wanted those for his growing household, but the table became mine. Chairs were easier to come by than the memories connected to the table.
For nearly four decades now, the table has anchored most of our Thanksgiving dinners, and the preparations replicate those of my childhood, with a little fine-tuning along the way. The preparations start early and are detailed, tailored to experience and new possibilities over the years.  There is the turkey to acquire, the side dishes to plan, cranberry sauces and relishes to make, fresh rolls to bake, and a plethora of pies.  In years past, the dining table groaned beneath the dinner spread we laid. When there were kids at home, or at least coming home from whatever near or distant place they lived, it was not unusual for me to bake six or seven pies: apple, pumpkin, squash, blueberry, mincemeat, chocolate pecan, blueberry, and strawberry rhubarb.  I would begin baking the Friday before the holiday, enlisting the help of husband and kids, tailoring the choices to who would be at the table.  Chocolate pecan for Kevin and mincemeat for Bruce.  One year, when Kasey had not yet arrived home from college in North Carolina, Becka and I made a whole evening out of decorating the pie crusts.  We cut out tiny stars for the vents on the apple pie and floated pie crust maple leaves on the pumpkin and squash.  The chocolate pecan had halves of the nuts arranged in a pinwheel in the center, and we latticed the strawberry rhubarb.  And, as that kitchen too was small, most of the pies were rolled and constructed on the spool-legged table. 
Long pie pumpkin
Each Thanksgiving was filled with the bustle of people coming and going, the table laden with food, and laughter.  In recent years, however, the number has dwindled.  The children have their own lives; the distance to travel home and the weather often keep them from coming north for the holidays.  We found ourselves this year with just three: Bruce, my mother, and I – to gather around the table, but that didn’t dampen the preparations.  The turkey is smaller and the pies limited to the traditional apple and pumpkin, but the old recipes that mark our coming together in thanks remain.  Cider-glazed sweet potatoes is one such recipe. 
I’ve been making this recipe since Kasey’s first year of college, and although I am not really sure, I think it came from my friend Paulette who always spent the holiday with us.  Where she got it, I am not sure, but it is a staple and easy to make.
Cider-glazed sweet potatoes with cranberries
3 ½ pounds red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams), peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 ½ cups apple cider
1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
5 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup finely chopped green onions

Cook sweet potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until halfway cooked (a knife inserted into center will encounter considerable resistance), about 5 minutes. Drain and cool. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
Combine cider, sugar, butter, salt and allspice in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Bring to boil, stirring often. Add sweet potatoes and cook 5 minutes. Add cranberries and continue cooking until liquid is reduced to syrupy glaze and sweet potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle with green onions.
Of course, there are other special dishes:  The apple and onion stuffing for the turkey, maple sweetened squash, boiled onions because my mother loves them, and homemade cranberry relish and sauce.  No tinned jelly for me.  Rather, I buy the berries fresh and turn them into lovely condiments for the meal.
Cranberry Orange Relish is as simple as it gets:
2 c. fresh cranberries
1 orange, quartered, ends removed
¾ to 1 cup sugar

Wash and slice unpeeled orange into eighths and remove any seeds. Place half of the cranberries and half of the orange in food processor. Pulse until evenly chopped. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the other half of orange and cranberries. Stir in sugar to taste and store in refrigerator or freezer.

Cranberry Sauce is just a bit harder:

12 ounces cranberries
1 cup white sugar
1 cup orange juice

In a medium sized saucepan over medium heat, dissolve the sugar in the orange juice. Stir in the cranberries and cook until the cranberries start to pop (about 10 minutes). Gently boil for about ten more minutes, stirring often.  Remove from heat and place sauce in a bowl. Cranberry sauce will thicken as it cools.

The shopping is done; the squash and pumpkin baked off and in the fridge destined to become pie and a maple-sweetened side dish.  The bread is toasted for stuffing, the table linens organized, and the number of those at the table has increased.  A nontraditional student and his best friend are joining us, and so there will be five at the table, pausing for a moment on what is predicted to be a cold, snowy, northern Maine day to be grateful for the blessings we have, the friends and family, and for me, the memories embedded in the scarred surface of that old spool-legged table. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all and a special Happy Thanksgivukkah to Bobbi and Toby and their families and friends!
Thanksgiving 2012:  At the spool-legged table

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