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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008 12:24 pm

A Moveable Feast, 1963

A memorable Thanksgiving, and the lessons it taught

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Very little about my family’s Thanksgiving celebrations have changed throughout my entire life. In large part, that’s because we’re a relatively small group: my mom and I are both only children, and my dad wasn’t close to his family, so there weren’t troops of relatives vying over who’d host the dinner or what to contribute to the feast. Occasionally there would be guests, but as often as not it was just my parents, my grandparents, and I ­­— and eventually, my husband and three children. The only really drastic change was when we moved Thanksgiving to my home after my grandmother passed away. At Nana’s the menu was virtually written in stone, and the decorations, china, etc. never varied. Thanksgiving wasn’t a time for experimenting with another kind of stuffing, or flirting with a different dessert. That might sound boring, but it never felt that way — it always felt special.

Having Thanksgiving at my house seemed strange at first, but we’ve become used to it. And even though the location is different, much has stayed the same. The core menu is still written in stone, though it now includes vegetarian variations for my daughter and son-in-law.

There have only been three times that things were different. Three times when we took our Thanksgiving celebration on the road. The most recent was two years ago when my son, daughter and son-in-law who live in New York were in new jobs and unable to come home. There was the year when I’d given birth to our first child in Chicago the day before. Then there was Thanksgiving, 1963.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that first Thanksgiving road trip since the recent election. It was an uneasy, scary time. President Kennedy had been assassinated just days before, and suddenly our safe, secure country didn’t seem all that safe and secure. America’s bubble of unbounded optimism had burst. I was 10; old enough to understand what had happened, but too young to realize all the implications; the grim faces and hushed tones of the adults in my life were frightening.

Things were different at home, too. My dad was a career National Guardsman, i.e. it was his full-time job. He’d been sent to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., for a year’s schooling. Military families typically move frequently, but because my dad was an electronics specialist, the longest he’d ever been gone from home was an annual summer three-week camp.

For our Georgian Thanksgiving he’d rented a motel cabin with a small kitchen. I’m quite sure that the idea of going to a restaurant never even entered anyone’s mind.

I don’t know if the JFK assassination was the reason my grandmother decided to bring everything she could to make Thanksgiving as much like home as possible. Probably not. This was a woman who brought her own eggs in a carry-on for a flight to Florida. Buying store eggs to cook in their vacation condo was unthinkable. But re-creating our traditional Thanksgiving hundreds of miles away must have become even more important in those dark days.

Even though we were looking forward to seeing my dad, we were a somber-faced quartet as we began packing the station wagon for our trip south. There were coolers filled with food — the turkey, of course, but also frozen corn, lima beans and spinach, all from our garden. There was stale bread, onions, celery and sausage for the stuffing. There were sweet potatoes (because of course there aren’t sweet potatoes in Georgia). There were ingredients to make pie crusts and fillings. There were pots and pans, a roaster and utensils.

That was just the beginning. We loaded antique Haviland china, crystal goblets, sterling flatware and candlesticks, and a starched linen tablecloth and napkins. By the time everything was loaded, my grandfather realized he’d have to rely on the side mirrors, because the back was filled to the roof; my mom and I had to squeeze in between piles on the back seat.

The car trip continued the uncomfortable ambience that pervaded our packing. My grandfather had many sterling qualities; unfortunately patience wasn’t one of them. He’d begun muttering under his breath while loading the car; once we started, he took out his frustrations (only verbally, thankfully) on other drivers. Mom’s turns at the wheel made things even worse; he was a dreadful back-seat driver. Late at night things became surreal. A thick fog hovered over twisting two-lane roads that wound through the Appalachians. A hell-fire and brimstone preacher on the radio, the first I’d ever heard, thundered threats of eternal damnation. Peering out the window, I saw wrecked cars in the valleys below whenever there was a break in the fog, which made the preacher’s rantings even more ominous.

Early the next day we had a joyful reunion with my dad. Then everyone pitched in to set things up and make dinner, working in the tiny kitchen and on a folding table in the sunny, warm outdoors. Except for our surroundings, it really was the same as Thanksgiving at home. Every November since, someone brings up those memories, and we laugh at ourselves for having been crazy enough to haul all that stuff all that way.

But since Election Day, I’ve been thinking about other parts of that trip: visits to Southern rest stops, restaurants and other public areas. I remember the “Whites Only” and “No Coloreds Allowed” signs. I remember asking my mom about those signs — I’d never seen anything like them at home. I remember her explaining what they meant and saying, “But it’s not going to be this way much longer. Things are about to change.”

Yes, change. In a way, I’m glad to have seen those signs. They made racism and discrimination real to me in a way that reading or hearing about it secondhand never could have. Forty-five years later, in 2008, we have much to be thankful for.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

This combination of two classics is greater than the sum of its parts. Pecan pie can be too sweet, and the crunchy pecan topping provides textural contrast to the creamy pumpkin custard.

PUMPKIN PECAN PIE

1 partially baked deep dish 9”-10” pie shell, made with pie pastry (see the 10/23/08 RealCuisine column for tips on making pie dough) OR the nut crust below

1 beaten egg, 2 T. reserved for the

pecan topping

For the Pumpkin Filling:
1 c. heavy cream, 1 T. reserved for the pecan topping
½ c. whole milk
1 ¾ c. cooked, puréed pumpkin
2 beaten eggs
¾ c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly grated ginger
½ tsp. cloves
½ tsp. freshly grated pepper, optional

For the Pecan Topping:
1/3 c. cane syrup or dark corn syrup
1/3 c. packed dark brown sugar
3 T. unsalted butter
¼ tsp. salt
1 T. heavy cream, reserved from the pumpkin filling
2 T. beaten egg, reserved from above
1 C. broken pecan pieces, lightly toasted (325° for 5 minutes)
1 C. pecan halves, lightly toasted as above

Preheat the oven to 375°. Brush the inside of the pie shell with the beaten egg and bake for five minutes. Cool to room temperature. Combine the pumpkin filling ingredients in a large bowl or the container of a blender or food processor and whisk thoroughly. Pour into the partially baked shell, making sure to leave at least an inch of crust all around. (You may have extra filling, which can be put in individual ramekins and baked like custard.) Bake the pie for 45 minutes or until the filling has just barely set.

While the pie is baking, prepare the pecan topping. In a medium skillet, melt the butter and then stir in the syrup, brown sugar and salt. Stir over medium heat just until the mixture bubbles and the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool until just warm. Stir in the beaten egg. Place the pecan halves in a bowl and add 2 T. of the syrup mixture. Stir gently to coat the nuts, making sure to not break them. Add the pecan pieces to the syrup mixture in the skillet and combine.

When the pumpkin filling is just barely set, remove from the oven. If the mixture in the skillet has gotten cold, warm it briefly over low heat so that it is easier to spread. Gently spread the broken pecan mixture evenly over the pumpkin filling, and then arrange the coated pecan halves over the top. There should be enough halves to completely cover the top of the pie, and perhaps even a few left - over the cook’s treat! Return the pie to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Place on a wire rack and cool before serving.

Makes 1 9”–10” pie

NUT CRUST

1 c. nuts such as pecans, almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, finely ground (measure before grinding)
1½ c. unbleached all purpose flour
½ c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 T. brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Optional
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 T. grated lemon peel

Mix all ingredients together well, either by hand or using a mixer or food processor. Press into pie or tart pan. Refrigerate or freeze until thoroughly chilled.

Preheat oven to 350° Bake for 25-30 minutes for a single pie shell, 15-20 minutes for individual shells, or until golden brown. Cool before filling. .

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