Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thanksgiving Fairytale

About a month ago, I became the proud owner of a Musque De Provence pumpkin, also known as a Fairytale pumpkin. I bought it because it's so damn beautiful, and I planned to use it as an ornamental centerpiece for our family's Thanksgiving table. This will be a special Thanksgiving, and it seemed appropriate to have a special centerpiece.

But then I learned that this rare variety of pumpkin is "especially prized by cooks for its fine textured flesh and robust flavors." So now I can't be content just looking at it. I have to cook the thing. 

My first thought, of course, was to make a pie. And I'll certainly do that. I've been baking a lot of pies this year, partly because I love pie and partly because it's the kind of home-spun cooking my mother would approve of. (I'm less certain she would approve of my ending that sentence with a preposition, but that's a mystery with which I'll have to abide.) The Musque De Provence supposedly makes for a great pie.

But this is an 18 pound pumpkin, enough to make 10 pies. We're a big family, but we don't need 10 pies. So I thought back on my days as a kitchen monkey (prep chef, dishwasher, waiter, barista, you name it) at the wonderful Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino. We made a simple but delicious carrot side-dish by combining cooked carrots, chicken stock, cream, butter, salt and pepper (and some mystery spice I can't recall - suggestions welcome!) in a food processor. The result was a vibrant orange and delicious puree with the consistency of melting gelato. So good. I'm going to make that again, but with an even mixture of carrots and my special French pumpkin.

I also have to make creamed spinach. My grandfather, George Burker, always made creamed spinach, and so naturally his daughter, my mother, always made creamed spinach for our special dinners. I can't remember a Thanksgiving without it. 

Last year, on Thanksgiving morning, my mom was getting ready to head over to my sister Dorothy's house for the day. She had been cooking vegetables for much of the previous day, and I sat at her kitchen counter for a couple of hours, talking to her while she cooked. (I'm not lazy; I would have helped if she'd asked. But it was a very small kitchen, and she didn't really want my help anyway. She wanted to do everything for her children, not the other way around. She liked it when I helped with her computer or when I brought her a new CD to listen to. But she wanted complete ownership over her cooking, and especially, I think, the creamed spinach.) 

After cooking all day, she stayed up late cleaning the kitchen. She must have exhausted herself beyond belief, because the next morning, on Thanksgiving day, she got up, headed to the shower, and just… died. Instantly, and without warning or explanation.

Back at my sister's house, we waited until well past the late morning hour we expected her to arrive. Then Kathleen drove over to her house to help get her and my disabled brother John out the door. Instead, she found John inside the house, alone and very confused. My mom had died hours ago.

Fast forward to the late afternoon, and all of us sitting down to the strangest and saddest Thanksgiving dinner any of us is ever likely to experience. Not surprisingly, we had all lost our appetites, and yet we were confronted by this mountains of delicious food. In particular, my mom's vegetables, which she had literally worked herself to death to prepare, stared up at us and insisted on being eaten.

So we ate. I can't quite explain the taste of the creamed spinach on that day. Sufficed to say, taste and smell got  themselves inextricably tangled up with emotions in a way that couldn't be overcome. That spinach tasted like a combination of love and sadness and a lifetime of my mother's hugs. And butter and onions.

So here we are, one year later, and my sister has asked her brothers to make the vegetables for Thanksgiving. It's entirely practical; she and her husband Paul are preparing both a turkey and a ham, and she will be making her usual assortment of fantastic fruit pies. So it only stands to reason that we take on the task of the vegetables.

So now I have this very special pumpkin, for this very special Thanksgiving. And of course there will be creamed spinach, which undoubtedly we'll make with love and sadness and a lifetime of my mother's hugs. And lots of butter and onions. I sure hope we don't mess it up.