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.


  1. I took care of a man today, who is fast approaching his death. His sweet, tearful wife told me of her own mother's passing, on Thanksgiving day, many years ago. She apparently died of a heart attack, with no warning, right after eating thanksgiving dinner. She told the tale slowly, with tears, and I had a pit in my stomach the whole time. I didn't tell her about Mom. We were both tearful enough. My guess is her husband will be gone before thanksgiving.
    And back to you..and your story..very sweet..You might just make a good hospice nurse. And you might want to practice the creamed spinach as the torch has been passed and the pressure is on.
    Looking forward to a nice shot of whiskey in the kitchen while cooking..hurry up and get here.

  2. You sure didn't mess it up. What a fine post. By the way, a friend just sent me the following recipe, which is pretty darn marvelous to read, a little dangerous to execute. But maybe the seasoning includes the mystery spice you can't recall?

    Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good

    Makes 2 very generous servings

    1 pumpkin, about 3 pounds
    Salt and freshly ground pepper
    1/4 pound stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
    1/4 pound cheese, such as Gruyere, Emmenthal, cheddar, or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
    2–4 garlic cloves (to taste), split, germ removed, and coarsely chopped
    4 strips bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped
    About 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
    1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
    About 1/3 cup heavy cream
    Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

    Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment, or find a Dutch oven with a diameter that's just a tiny bit larger than your pumpkin. If you bake the pumpkin in a casserole, it will keep its shape, but it might stick to the casserole, so you'll have to serve it from the pot — which is an appealingly homey way to serve it. If you bake it on a baking sheet, you can present it freestanding, but maneuvering a heavy stuffed pumpkin with a softened shell isn't so easy. However, since I love the way the unencumbered pumpkin looks in the center of the table, I've always taken my chances with the baked-on-a-sheet method, and so far, I've been lucky.
    Using a very sturdy knife — and caution — cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween jack-o'-lantern). It's easiest to work your knife around the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle. You want to cut off enough of the top to make it easy for you to work inside the pumpkin. Clear away the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin generously with salt and pepper, and put it on the baking sheet or in the pot. Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, and herbs together in a bowl.

    Season with pepper — you probably have enough salt from the bacon and cheese, but taste to be sure — and pack the mix into the pumpkin. The pumpkin should be well filled — you might have a little too much filling, or you might need to add to it. Stir the cream with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper and pour it into the pumpkin. Again, you might have too much or too little — you don't want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want them nicely moistened. (But it's hard to go wrong here.)
    Put the cap in place and bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours — check after 90 minutes — or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Because the pumpkin will have exuded liquid, I like to remove the cap during the last 20 minutes or so, so that the liquid can bake away and the top of the stuffing can brown a little.
    When the pumpkin is ready, carefully, very carefully — it's heavy, hot, and wobbly — bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you'll bring to the table.

    You have choices: you can cut wedges of the pumpkin and filling; you can spoon out portions of the filling, making sure to get a generous amount of pumpkin into the spoonful; or you can dig into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pull the pumpkin meat into the filling, and then mix everything up. I'm a fan of the pull-and-mix option. Served in hearty portions followed by a salad, the pumpkin is a perfect cold-weather main course; served in generous spoonfuls or wedges, it's just right alongside the Thanksgiving turkey.

  3. I love how you writte Jim, you writte with your heart ...


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