Thanksgiving redux

A return to Oak Park means reviving the family's traditional turkey day feast. And surviving some very spirited grand kids.

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By BRUCE KRAIG

Short of death, and even that has been debated as long as humans have been sentient, nothing is forever. Or, as put by one of America's great philosophers, "It ain't over till it's over."

And so, forgetting this eternal truth, the last article I wrote in these pages, in 2001, was a mournful commentary on what seemed to be the last Thanksgiving I would ever prepare for our immediate family. The Bossâ€"the title my dear wife Jan uses for herselfâ€"had taken a position at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and quickly departed for that distant part of the world. I, worn by years of teaching and stooped by the burden of useless meetings, had become an emeritus at Roosevelt University and was to follow on down south. And so I did.

Three hundred and fifty miles south, a five-plus hours drive, and once there, a 25-mile round trip to beautiful downtown Carbondale to get the New York Times, Chateau Jan is remote. Pleasant as it is in the country house to sit out on the deck overlooking the lake, watching the birds and slurping down wine, the place might as well be in Amazonia, with ticks and mosquitoes to prove it.

Don't worry, she twinkled, everyone will want to come down for the holidays. But they didn't. Two of the boys live and work in Wisconsin, the other in the Chicago areaâ€"too far to travel for a day or two, especially with fidgety, yakkety little children. More than 25 years of family tradition was slipping away.

What was Thanksgiving to be, just the two of us, me gumming down stuffed opossum, or fried squirrel, or fried chicken, or fried ... well, to eat locally, fried everything? Sitting there in front of the television set, when the electricity is working, having to watch the St. Louis Rams play football, swilling down sweet southern Illinois winesâ€"all the old rich life would be drained out of us.

Not that southern Illinois, rural Illinois in general, is not culturally interesting. Since working with local historical societies around the state, I have developed an appreciation for the historical and cultural complexity of small towns, and even their foodways. Fresh local foods can be a revelation for urban dwellers used only to foods taken some distance from their sources. There is no comparison anywhere to southern Illinois peaches, nor can any eggs taste like those right from local free-running chickens. But, holidays are something else and store-bought foods, some very good, can be overlooked when the family gathering is the important thing.

Then, as in Yogi Berra's immortal words, it wasn't over. A call came from the then-acting provost (now a dean) of my old school, and long-time Oak Parker, Lynn Weiner, saying that there was a sudden faculty shortage and asking if I would like to return to full-time teaching for a year. Oh joy, I was Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio, let out of the nether region into the sunlight (as much as Chicago's air pollution will allow).

Season tickets to the Lyric Opera, gorgeous Chicago weather and traffic, the White Sox, interesting ethnic restaurants, Trader Joe's and Whole Foodsâ€"who could resist? And more than anything else there was the possibility of our old family reunions.

A back-home menu

That was a couple of years ago. I've been teaching at Roosevelt and now some courses at Kendall College's School of Culinary Studies ever since. After a time, a good deal of it getting to know every rest stop along Interstate 57 en route to Carbondale, the chief decision maker took pity (aided by lust for good restaurants), and she decided to buy a small place in Chicago.

After lots of searching, what other region of the world would we settle upon but the familiar: our home grounds for many years, Oak Parkâ€"perhaps like a groundhog seeking its burrow. We found a well-priced condominium (and were surprised to find one day while dog walking to find that it's a block away from Wednesday Journal publisher Dan Haley's house, hence this article at his suggestion) and settled, at least during the school year. And now we could have family gatherings, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ozzie Guillen Day (our new religious holiday).

Last year, not long into our return to Oak Park, we gathered together at Thanksgiving time. It was our traditional feast albeit out of a smaller and less well-equipped kitchen than our old house. But no sacrifice is too small for one's family.

The meal was almost the same as always. The centerpiece was a turkey, not the usual sort, morphed by industrial production into a giant-breasted monstrosity, loaded with antibiotic feed and pumped with "broth," but a natural free-range creature that at least had some chance at a decent life before its unwilling sacrifice (there's a really good tofu turkey substitute on the market). That's the protein, all the rest is a horror story for the South Beach Diet adept.

No turkey comes to the table undressed. I confess that this time it was a commercial bread stuffingâ€"with additions of nuts, dried fruit, lots of butter, more herbs and in one batch poultry liverâ€"instead of the usual dried and soaked Italian bread. Except for good store-bought bread (Red Hen Bakery at 1623 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago supplies many of the region's best restaurants), most else was homemade.

Well, I didn't roast up pumpkin for the pie this time, but the broth used in gravy and dressings was handmade, as were the pie crusts, torte, cranberry sauce, vegetable preparationsâ€"small white potatoes, boiled and mashed with (organic) creamâ€"and the hors d'oeuvres.

Since being more or less on her own down south, mirabile dictu Jan has taken to cookingâ€"Asian and Indian and very well. Starters were Vietnamese spring rolls, made with some bean sprouts, cilantro, slivered carrots and small shrimp in a light fish sauce with hot peppers. This was followed by bean threads with mixed seafood in a light broth, flavored with slices of Hungarian wax peppers. Oh, and then we always have shrimp chips, made huge and puffy, ever so light, by frying in deep oil. The waist bulges at the thought.

Family follies

Everyone appeared early, but only after the morning aerobic exercise to prepare for the feed. The three "boys" (can I still call them that at age 40?), two grandchildren, one wife/mother, and Matilda, the crazed mutt and the last of our non-human family. The grandchildren, two boys who have been dubbed MiniBeast and MicroBeast ( then 5 and 3) by one doting uncle were in usual form: full motion all the time.

We set out a small low children's table with chairs and lots of coloring books, markers and crayons. "Now I'm going to tell you a story and you draw pictures for it," I said, looking very stern. They laughed of course. Sitting them down I told the story of Abelard and Heloise, the first flying pigs and their gargoyle friends. The enthrallingâ€"to me anywayâ€"tale held them for a while and they began to draw.

While they were busy, the adults sat at table gorging on appetizers and engaged in our age-old tradition: arguing about politics (we all share the same progressive views, but argue about ways to go about it), sports, philosophies of life, popular culture and just about anything we could possible be contrary about. Meanwhile in the kitchen, sheets and sheets of paper were being filled with bubble-like representations of flying piggies. So inspired where the artists that pictures became fresco-like, spilling over onto the floor, walls, cabinets.

Going into the kitchen for the main courses, I was struck by the children's artistic endeavors, and so was their grandmother who turned grim-crimson. Seeing this apparition the little boys tore out for the living room, to hide behind chairs and sofa. Following hide-and-seek, they then raced up and down the hallway, chasing the wind-up model race cars I so thoughtfully provided. Finally exhausted, they collapsed in front of the television where the beloved Spiderman appeared to enthrall them once again.

We collapsed, too. Fortunately, everything was washable, and order restored when everyone staggered out the door. Lying on the floor to straighten my aching back, I groaned, "How many weeks until Christmas?"

In early autumn this year, number-two son had a birthday. Some of his friends and brothers and nephews (there's a third now, soon so be called NanoBeast) gathered at our little condo for a surprise party. Once again, drawing first and then the race, wrestling, crying over a slight resulting injury, squirming, yappingâ€"even Mad Matilda retreated to the bedroom to hide out.

When it was over and everyone had left, I fell to the floor. Standing over me, the Boss declared: "Holidays? If it's Thanksgiving, not Christmas, and if Christmas, not Thanksgiving. One is enough for any human being."

"But," I suggested mildly, "they are awfully cute and smart."

"Yes, they are," came the reply, "but cute is better seen and not lived through." As it is said, so it will be done. The moral is: Better consider carefully what you wish for.

 

Pecan pie

Many kinds of pie appear on holiday tables. This one is the definitive version of a nut pie, nuts being one of the season's iconic foods. It was created by the authority on the history of pecan pie, Edgar Rose.

Bake in advance a 9-inch pie crust to golden brown using :

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon very cold vegetable shortening cut into pieces

Up to 3 tablespoons ice water, as
needed.

Place the flour in a large bowl and mix in the sugar and salt thoroughly.

Cut in the butter using a fork, knife or cold fingers.

When the mixture resembles large crumbs, stir in water, a little at a time, to form a soft dough. Refrigerate for 30-60 minutes before rolling out, or freeze until required.

To finish the pie:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 extra large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon dark rum

pinch of salt

11.5 ounces (or 1 poundâ€"see recipe) light brown sugar

5 ounces freshly chopped pecans

whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the unsalted butter in a small saucepan or in a microwave oven.

Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl with a fork until uniform in color.

Add to the eggs the pinch of salt, vanilla extract and dark rum, and mix all.

Add 11.5 ounces of light brown sugar (or for Southern tastes, add 1 pound of light brown sugar) gradually, mixing thoroughly after each addition of sugar.

Add the melted butter and mix.

Spread the freshly chopped pecans in the bottom of the crust and pour the filling over the nuts.

Bake in the 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Reduce the heat to 250 degrees and bake until the center of the filling has just barely stopped trembling when shaking the pie pan (25-35 minutes at 250 degrees, or about 10 minutes after the pecan crust has started rising).

Remove the pie from the oven to cool.

Serve at room temperature with slightly sweetened, slightly vanilla-flavored whipped cream.

Roasted turkey Turkish-style

Here's the turkey recipe from the last "farewell" article just in case anyone needs yet another for roasting turkey. It is one I got in Turkey several years ago.

1 young free-range turkey, 10-15 pounds

1½ cups water, or more

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
(you can substitute olive oil)

1 large carrot, scraped and cut into large pieces

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

3-6 large cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Have ready a large pan in which the bird will fit. Place turkey in the pan with the butter, carrot, onions, garlic and water.

Cover and put on heat. When the water begins to boil, remove the pan from the heat.

Remove the turkey and place it breast side down on a roasting rack set into a large pan.

Place the pan in the oven with the water and vegetables. Roast for 15 minutes.

Reduce the heat to 325 degrees and continue to cook.

When halfway done, turn the turkey over and continue to cook.

Baste the turkey from time to time.

When ready to serve, remove the fowl. Run the vegetables through a food processor or food mill until pureed. Place in a saucepan with the pan juices, adjust seasonings and bring to a boil.

Cook until the sauce is thickened to taste. Serve with the turkey.

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