The Thanksgiving tradition begins with the three-day celebration held in 1621, put on by Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe members as the newcomers were completing their harvest and preparing for winter. In addition to wild turkey, the also had venison, and seafood too. The American Indians had dried corn which provided a side dish of mush (grits! Polenta!)
By the time Congress voted the fourth Thursday a national holiday, the observance was nationalized, but the meals followed the same pattern — seasonal and reflective of the region. It seems appropriate that we, too, celebrate what we are thankful for by serving what is seasonal and regionally available. Besides, sweet potatoes with marshmallows notwithstanding, seasonal and local food is usually what tastes best.
So what is seasonal in Kentucky at Thanksgiving?
Venison, for sure. Deer season just ended and venison would be appropriate on many tables this week.
But more likely, turkey. And more and more likely, turkey from Kentucky farms. Whether you spend the big bucks on organic or decide on pasture-raised old-fashioned broad-breasted, you’ll be among the increasing group of Kentuckians reserving their turkeys by August in order to have Kentucky-raised birds on their holiday tables. Ordering in August allows the farmer to manage the size of his or her flock.
There are few words to adequately describe the aesthetic benefits of buying a Kentucky pasture-raised turkey. Forget the fact that it cooks So. Much. Faster. And the flavor is So. Much. Better.
My family is oblivious to how quickly a turkey cooks and are politely appreciative of the delicious meat. What my family cares about is gravy. Gravy for the potato rolls, gravy for the dressing, gravy for the mashed potatoes, gravy for the turkey. And pasture-raised Kentucky turkey makes the best gravy you’ve ever tasted.
If you missed your late-summer turkey order deadline, there are still many ways to celebrate our blessings and our farmers by loading the table with local food.
Hardy greens like kale, and other cole crops like Brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli, are all perfect for the Thanksgiving table and in season now. These green vegetables are great foils for the richer, beiger foods at the table. They’re easily made delicious enough to serve as main dish for the resident or visiting vegetarians.
Farmers and gardeners often have loads of these cool-season crops, and, next year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving you can visit late-season markets including the Bardstown Road Farmers Market (1722 Bardstown Road), Douglass Loop (2005 Douglass Blvd.) and St. Matthews (indoors at Harvey Browne Presbyterian Church, 311 Browns Lane).
Of course, a Saturday market won’t help you for Thanksgiving this year. For seasonal, local produce, your only hope is Reynold’s Grocery. And, by the way, don’t try to make a pumpkin pie from your Halloween Jack-O-Lantern — it’s too fibrous, lacks flavor and is generally gross. In truth, canned “pumpkin” and other “pumpkin” for pies often comes from other cucurbits, including orange-fleshed squashes like the famed heirloom Appalachian Candy Roaster. If you have a butternut squash hanging around from your last trip to the farmers market, that can go into pie, or can be peeled, seeded, cubed and roasted with olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper.
But not to worry. Great-tasting, economy-supporting local food is still possible. Stores like Whole Foods in St. Matthews and ValuMarket in the Highlands sell staples like Weisenberger Mills cornmeal, grits, flour and spoonbread mix, which contain Kentucky-grown wheat and corn. Mix fine white cornmeal with Chelsey’s Eggs from Shelby County and the half-and-half or whole milk from Logan County’s JD Country Milk, and you can easily whip up an all-Kentucky spoonbread, the love child of cornbread and soufflé. It’s a perfect Thanksgiving side dish.
Spoonbread is a soft cornbread, almost a pudding, which is eaten with a fork. Southerners are usually pretty firm about their preference for white cornmeal, but spoonbread may be made with yellow corn as well.
1 cup white cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup half-and-half or whole milk
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter a 2-quart soufflé dish or baking dish.
Combine cornmeal and salt in a medium-sized, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add water and stir. Cook over high heat, stirring, until mixture boils. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes, stirring very often. Mixture will be quite thick. Stir in butter. Add milk and stir (gently at first) to incorporate it into the mixture. Use a fork to beat the eggs in a small bowl, then pour them into hot mixture and beat quickly until fully mixed. Scrape cornmeal mixture into baking dish and bake Serves 6. Serve with a spoon, and feel free to add a pat of butter.
Sarah Fritschner is the coordinator of the Louisville Farm to Table program. She is also the former food writer for The Courier-Journal.
(Featured image via Amit Patel/Creative Commons)