Today, the day before Thanksgiving, has been filled with dinner preparations. With our home already filled with the sparkle and glimmer of Christmas decorations, I’m in the holiday spirit. Fruitcake a la Alton Brown (our family’s kitchen god) rests on the counter, sealed into a bag, awaiting its next soaking with brandy. The turkey is soaking in a salty, herbed brine, Alton Brown’s cranberry jelly is setting up in the fridge, and this year’s pumpkin pie looks perfect.Well, nearly perfect. The blank surface is evidence that I lost track of time and forgot to add a pretty leaf-shaped pastry garnish.
This quiet day of cooking in an empty kitchen is a contrast to the busy Thanksgiving preparations of times past. Having just made a trip home last month to the commune where I grew up for an Ontario Thanksgiving, the difference stands out strongly in my mind. This year was the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with my Canadian family since I left home at the age of 18 to go to college.
My husband and our two small children and I took a two-leg flight from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, Minnesota, then drove up along the coast of Lake Superior to the three-farm commune where I grew up in Northwest Ontario. It was a long trip, especially the 45-minute flight from Portland to Seattle, which culminated in both children throwing up simultaneously as we descended after a turbulent journey through high winds.
By comparison, the four-hour flight to Minneapolis and the nine-hour drive up the coast the following day were blissful. The kids were cooperative and calm, the roads were clear of snow, the iPad fulfilled its role of providing soothing entertainment, and the scenery was breathtaking. Oh, and — no one threw up. The only drawback was that, as usual, we forgot to calculate how much longer everything takes with two small children, so we didn’t arrive at my parents’ house till 9:30 in the evening… their time… which was only 6:30 Portland time, so we weren’t as tired as we should have been.
Anyway, we arrived in the dark, and had a delightful pre-arrival welcome from a friend who was leaving the farm on her way home as we were pulling into the commune’s driveway. She recognized first an unfamiliar vehicle (the commune is part of a small town, the entire population of which — including the three communal farms — is about 300, so an unknown car is notable) and then our faces, and we slowed the vehicles to call a hello between cars. Pleased that she’d achieved the very first viewing of our family, she went on her way and we pulled on up the driveway, already feeling thoroughly welcomed.
As we stepped through the doorway of my parents’ home and into the living room, Niko skidded to a halt as his face lit up with an incandescent glow. “Awe…some!” he breathed. There, covering a good two cubic feet of the living room floor, was a magnificent tower of wooden blocks, consisting of all the blocks in the bin that my dad keeps on hand for just such occasions. Welcome complete.
The following morning was Thanksgiving, celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada. We took the opportunity to zip over to another of the three farms, to see a cousin and her two children who were there just for the day. They would leave before the early holiday dinner, so we abandoned my mother and the other ladies of my home farm to dinner preparations and skedaddled off for a lightning-fast visit. Niko and Sofia were in seventh heaven, playing with cousins near their age, flinging just-raked leaves at each other, and exploring the brush near my aunt and uncle’s home. Other visits had to wait for another day, but we did manage to get in the essentials before we had to return to Oregon.
Niko meeting his great-grandpa.
My dad in his element, reading to his granddaughter.
My uncle reading to his great-nieces and -nephews.
My grandma and Sofia getting to know each other.
Reading stories with Grandpa.
My dad has a great deal of patience for providing drawings.
My grandpa making his famous fish fry.
Three of four generations.
As we visited at my aunt and uncle’s home Thanksgiving morning, the phone rang — my mother, asking if I wanted pie crust made ahead for the pie I was planning to make later. Then again, asking how many apples I needed per pie. And one more time, asking if I wanted apples peeled and cut, and if so, should they be sliced or chopped? “At this rate,” I told my aunt, “the pie will be made by the time I get there, and I’ll just take credit for it!” The machinery of a communal kitchen runs smoothly, and with an abundance of cooks bustling about, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the pie had, in fact, been finished without my lifting a finger. As it turned out, the pie — a recipe I adapted from my mother-in-law’s amazing recipe — turned out to be the very ugliest pie I’ve ever made, so perhaps I should have left it to them.
I arrived in the farm kitchen after lunch and was cheerfully greeted by half a dozen busy women, all intent on one or two tasks, all moving easily around each other without friction. This is one of the things I really, truly miss — a communal kitchen. If you grew up in a large family with a big kitchen, you might know what I’m talking about. Cooking is a social activity, a companionable endeavor. It’s rare to cook alone for any significant amount of time. Someone is always wandering in to get a snack, check the mail, help out, or just say hello. If one person is in charge of dinner, likely someone else will be baking bread for the week, another person making cheese from fresh milk, and a fourth somebody putting on the coffee for everyone else.
Thanksgiving is no exception to this rule. People drifted in and out of the kitchen and dining room, sneaking samples of the feast, sharing stories, reminiscing, and, of course, drinking coffee. Women tossed cooking questions out to the group, each one triggering a rousing discussion as five different people offered opinions. As I helped wash up some of the cooking dishes, I overheard a discussion that is more or less a requisite at a farm Thanksgiving: creamy yam casserole with marshmallows, or without, or roasted? One young woman, a relative newcomer who married into the community, was preparing a marshmallow-free casserole that was traditional in her French-Canadian family, and the women were spiritedly voicing their own favorites, without rancor. “You know,” my mother said, “this kind of thing is really what makes this farm the best place. On other farms, people would argue about which one is best forever, and then they would take a vote and choose one to make, and only about a third of the population would really be happy about it. Here, we just make them all!” Sure enough, one of the other women was cutting large yams into manageable chunks for roasting, and I’m pretty sure I saw a bag of marshmallows somewhere.
Between helping with a few dishes and making my pies, I wandered the main house, taking pictures of items I’ve seen my whole life as well as the festive decorations. Here are a few of my favorites from a nostalgic stroll down memory lane:
I believe this potato-and-onion bin is older than I am.
The chime that’s rung for announcements, prayers, and meals.
A silhouette cut-paper design that’s been in the dining room for decades.
The steep steps down into the dark basement.
The enormous winter-ready stack of wood in the basement.
This collection of canned beans dwarfs my own little pantry.
And a few images of the autumn decor:
About half of those leaves are real, preserved in glycerin.
The top of the piano that accompanies daily singing at meals as well as church services.
My priority was to make the apple pies. I used my own recipe, which makes delicious pie… that is, it has every other time before this. As I added ingredients, I found myself almost falling into a familiar rhythm. I’ll find spatulas here in this drawer — Hey! What happened to the spatulas? Oh, here they are. When did you change that? And sugar — aha! Right here in this giant bin where it’s always been. (I took a precautionary taste before adding it in. It wouldn’t have been the first time salt and sugar got confused.) A bit of flour — yes, right where I thought it would be. Cinnamon… nutmeg… vanilla? Didn’t the vanilla go here with the spices? “Are you looking for vanilla? I have it over here, sorry!” (The apology made me feel right at home. This is Canada, after all.) And no, the vanilla didn’t belong where I was looking for it… those 15-plus-year-old memories can only do so much.
It felt good, working with the women who taught me to cook, in the big familiar kitchen. My pleasure was somewhat tainted, however, by my observation that the pies’ filling was a little runny. And there was too much of it. The pies were full, very full, even though I left out a couple of cups of filling, and they sloshed menacingly when they moved. What had gone wrong? No idea. There was nothing to do but to bake them off anyway. As the ovens were full with turkey and rolls, I carried them out of the big kitchen and down the hill to my parents’ little house, where I prudently placed them each on a flat pizza pan before baking them.
I’d like to pause here to point out that my reputation was on the line here. Did I mention that this was my own recipe? Published here, on this very blog? And that it had been nearly two decades since I had cooked for a farm gathering? Did I mention that everyone knew that I was the one baking these apple pies (no hiding in anonymity)? Have I pointed out that the aforesaid “everyone” also knew that I was using a recipe I’d published on this blog, an endeavor that has been followed with mild interest by various members of the community? Oh yes, I was very conscious of the vulnerability of my reputation, as I slid the sloshing pies into my mother’s oven.
Forty-five minutes later, I cringingly opened the oven door. My fears had come true. Let me assure you: this was the ugliest pie known to cuisine. Never before have I seen, nor do I wish ever to see again, a pie this ugly. The crumb topping had been displaced by bubbling filling, and patches of it had slid off the pie onto the pizza pans underneath, and some had dripped off the pans and onto the oven floor. The weight of the sliding filling had broken the edges of the crisp and flaky crust, destroying any chance they had of looking like ordinary pies. With the missing patches of topping, the crumbled edges, and the bubbled-over filling, my pies looked like pastries that had died violently and then been returned to a semblance of life by a misguided cook. Undead pies. Zombie pies. They were horrific. I was so ashamed, I didn’t even take a picture. This is what they were supposed to look like, although even this pie’s crust could be prettier:
(They didn’t look like that.)
I was writhing in humiliation as I carried the pies back up to the main house and deposited them with the oher desserts, every one of which was more attractive than my sad apple pies. I tried to sneak them in, hoping everyone would forget who was responsible for them, but in vain: one of the ladies sitting in the big dining room, working her magic on flower arrangements with preserved leaves, called out as I entered, “Hope! Are those your delicious apple pies? I can’t wait to try them!” I felt like dumping them into the trash, but instead I dutifully thunked them down next to the butter tarts and chocolate roll and cherry pies awaiting dinner. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hated seeing my dilapitated desserts next to everyone else’s lovely food.
But the thing is, this was a family Thansgiving. Nobody cared, really, what those pies looked like. They were there to visit, laugh, fill up on turkey, munch on soft, freshly-baked rolls, and sample as many desserts as possible. Sure, my pies weren’t the first to disappear. They may even have been the last to be devoured over the next few days of leftover feasting. But nevertheless, they did get eaten, and, despite their imperfect texture, they were delicious, especially eaten alongside the homemade maple ice cream that was served with dessert.
Those pies shredded my reputation, but my sense of belonging and family wasn’t hurt one iota. As I visited with folks I haven’t seen in years, watching them valiantly attack my soggy apple pie, I felt perfectly happy. It was good to be home.