‘Tis the Season — Already

I am sure you know how important the end-of-year holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve and Day – are to food businesses.   Our customers celebrate the holidays in restaurants; they buy special foods from retail businesses like ours and from mail order. They particularly reward bakeries with appetites for special confections like stollen and bouche de Noel.

bouche-de-noelThey expect a lot from us and rightly so.

It is one thing to go to a holiday party at a restaurant whose food disappoints you. It is quite another thing for you to serve in your home, to your family and guests something you buy from a bakery and be dissatisfied with that – in your own home, at your own table.

Moreover, in many homes holidays are complicated.

“Must we have pumpkin pie – again? We have it every year.”

“How can we possibly not have pumpkin pie? We always have it.”

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And those culinary disagreements are trivial compared to the emotions brought to holiday tables by family patterns and memories and losses.

That’s why we feel responsible for doing the best we can.

Still, Thanksgiving, I believe, is everyone’s favorite holiday. It is without stress about gift selection. As long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been simply a festival of food. It’s a carefree holiday.

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I am nostalgic about Thanksgiving because it was, when I was a child, one of those we celebrated at the great brown cedar Victorian home of my grandparents in Baltimore. My siblings and I dressed up (now a quint custom) and plowed through piles of leaves (remember the beautiful smells of autumn in the pre-leaf-blower days) to join my aunts, uncles, and cousins for a great afternoon feast.

That began with sherry in the living room and moved into the bright dining room where the “big table” was – that was for the adults – and into the music room where the “little table” was. The dinner was slowly served by my grandparents’ “staff,” soup first, then turkey and its trimmings, many other dishes, each year the same dishes, each year looked forward to.

As the food was passed we divided ourselves silently and with no ceremony into two groups, those who didn’t begin eating until each of the dishes was on their plates and those who ate the food as they served themselves from the passed platters.

The dinner was slow and calm and certainly abundant.   It ended with apple, pumpkin and mincemeat pies and whipped cream, and having consumed those we crowded into the living room to talk (another quaint custom) usually about politics.

I recall one particularly hot discussion in 1959 when my grandfather, a very active liberal, said he could not vote for a Catholic running for president.

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He did of course.

Thanksgiving is so much an American holiday that regions of the country have their own special dishes: Yams, oyster stew, cornbread, winter squashes, corn casserole, mac and cheese, wild rice, and creamed onions.

I would like to think that like my family, most people incorporate their own food traditions into their Thanksgiving; but I don’t know if this is so. Eun, Bread Furst’s manager and my partner, recalls turkey mandu at Thanksgiving and that her family’s turkey was accompanied by a stovetop stuffing that incorporated Korean glass noodles.

My family always made corn and tomatoes, a sweet and sour vegetable dish we always thought celebrates the autumn harvest, and creamed spinach; and like most Baltimoreans, we always ate sauerkraut at Thanksgiving because in 1863 when President Lincoln invented the holiday a large percentage of Baltimore’s population was German and sauerkraut was made part of the festival.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in restaurants is a comparatively recent innovation as this holiday has traditionally belonged in homes. From the point of view of one part of the food-making industry, it’s not such a bad thing.

Restaurants love to prepare Thanksgiving. Guests are cheerful and expectant, menus are limited and dinners start at Noon and don’t end until 10 PM. Ten solid hours of full houses. What more could a restaurant want?

It’s fun to look at the menus of so many restaurants in Washington that are preparing for next week: fois gras and sablefish at 701, oysters and duck breast at Fiola Mare, Chicory salad and turkey with cornbread stuffing at the Oval Room, Applewood ham at Clyde’s, farro salad with green beans and country ham at Siren.

Ashok Bajaj tells me that 701, his 24 year-old restaurant is going to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for 600 people. And that’s just one of the ten restaurants he owns.

Bread Furst, on the other hand, is a retail store and what we are preparing will be eaten in your homes on Thursday. Some of what we are going to be making, cranberry sauce, for example, can be made a few days in advance and indeed benefits from early production. But much of what we are offering, mashed potatoes for example, must be made as close as possible to the feasts. That is why we are open on Thanksgiving Day – so that those foods will, when they reach your tables, be fresh as well as the breads we’ll be making.

People who make foods for a living always balance two goals, to be consistent and to be creative.   Depending on their roles, they bend toward one or the other. Bread bakers are interested almost entirely in consistency; they are creative only occasionally. Pastry chefs, on the other hand, love to be creative.

But making 620 pies – that is what we are making this year – doesn’t leave much room for creativity. To do that much production in a small bakery like ours without doing it in advance and freezing it requires organization, long hours, discipline and lots of storage space. So we repress our creative impulses and focus on making good foods for Thanksgiving.

And that’s a good thing.

I remember with embarrassment one Thanksgiving many years ago when I decided to be creative and adapt our traditional dishes.  I suspect my siblings still remember my garlic cranberry sauce.

For me, ever since then at Thanksgiving tradition reigns.

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