A Zombie Pie Thanksgiving

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.

 

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:

And a few images of the autumn decor:

 

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:Featured Image -- 823

(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.

Crokinole and Turkey

At this time of year, as holiday traditions are being hauled out and dusted off, I feel the distance from my Canadian family with an extra pang. I miss the joyful sense of celebration, the gathering of a big, noisy group, everyone talking over each other, fielding a dozen hugs in ten minutes. Our little family is building its own traditions, and they’re good ones. But still, at this time of year, I miss my childhood home and my family in Canada.

For me, “family” includes a hundred or so people distributed across three small communes within a five-mile radius in Northwestern Ontario, but especially the residents, current and former, of the West Farm. (Generally I try to keep location and name details out of my posts to protect the privacy of my loved ones on the farm. In this case, it officially goes by a different name, so you won’t find it on a map should your curiosity prompt you to look.)

Even in our secluded community which refrained from worldly celebrations, Thanksgiving was a big deal when I was growing up. It had the benefit of being neither Halloween (the Devil’s own celebration, as I mentioned in a previous post) or Christmas (a worldly holiday of pagan roots marked with prideful indulgence). It was one of the “Big Three”: Thanksgiving, convention, and graduation. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches, known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers)  and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical), would arrive in March. Visitors would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days. High school graduation was nearly as exciting: families of the graduating seniors of our little school would travel to congratulate them, the formally dressed seniors would present speeches, everyone would enjoy a big celebratory meal, and the seniors would open stacks of gifts. It was as close to prom as we ever got — pretty dresses, suits and ties, and lots of excitement, balloons, and confetti, though without dancing or limousines or clandestine make out sessions.

But Thanksgiving was the big one, the special one. It was just us — no out-of-town visitors, no preaching, no speeches. Just good food, family, and after-dinner games. Sometimes we’d invite a few families from outside the commune, or some single police officers or a nurse on assignment at the nearby nursing station, without family nearby. But just as often, it would be only familiar faces.

The women would bustle around the kitchen all day, cooking up a storm. Six or so pies would materialize by dinner time: two or three apple pies, at least one each of pumpkin and pecan, maybe a blueberry pie for good measure. Someone would usually whip up a batch of butter tarts. (For the non-Canadians reading this, butter tarts are a bit like the good part of pecan pie with all those nasty big pecans taken out. This one from Canadian Living looks like a good recipe, though I haven’t tried it.) We’d start fresh rolls in the morning so they’d come out of the oven, crusty and fragrant, before the pies had to go in.  One of the cooks would invariably make a sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar or marshmallows or both; someone else would comment that it looked awfully sweet, whereupon the maker would suggest that perhaps another of the many side dishes might be a better choice for the complainer. And this was certainly a good point, because there would be more than enough side dishes. Stuffing — made with bread cubes, of course, not cornmeal. Huge steaming pots of mashed potatoes, which had been peeled and diced by the younger cooks to keep them out of trouble and spare the adults the tedium of peeling dozens of potatoes. Green beans with bacon. Occasionally roasted sweet potatoes, a concession to the objections of a few to the sweetness of the marshmallow-topped casserole. There would always be cranberry jelly… the real, clear jelly, from a can, of course. Sometimes someone would make cranberry sauce from scratch, but that never replaced the jelly.

Cooking took all morning and afternoon, but for us younger girls, there might be time to enjoy the day off school. We’d race out of the kitchen, grateful for the reprieve from peeling endless piles of potatoes, and pull on heavy snow pants and coats, thick mittens, warm hats. Sleds jostled behind us from the sheds of houses as kids made a beeline for the big hill. We’d swoop down on sleds or on slick snow-pants-covered bottoms, some daredevils trying to ride the sled down standing up, others swearing that going belly-down made the ride faster. The sleds rushed down with solo riders or crammed with as many bodies as could fit, with arguments erupting at the bottom over whose job it was to pull the sled back up. Noses would turn pink, eyelashes frosted over, fingers and toes froze as the afternoon darkened to a blue twilight. Finally, we’d trudge inside, trooping into the kitchen to see if anyone had made hot chocolate. If there was enough stovetop space and anyone had had some spare time, there might be a big pot of made-from-scratch hot cocoa waiting on the range. Maybe one of the ladies had made banana or zucchini bread to snack on, or maybe we grabbed a leftover muffin from breakfast, while one of the moms poured mugs of hot cocoa for all of us. There might even be marshmallows bobbing in the mugs.

Dark came early in a Northwestern Ontario October, so it wouldn’t be dinner time yet, but people would be wandering into the main building early anyway, setting up board games on empty tables and pulling out musical instruments.  A Crokinole game would occupy the place of honor at one of the round tables — it didn’t take long for eight people to claim places around the board while others gathered to watch, and a game as competitive as any at our peaceful commune would commence to the tune of guitar strings tuning up next to the piano. (Crokinole, by the way, is another Canadian tradition. It’s usually played with two or four people, but the board can accommodate up to eight.) A few more cerebral types would gravitate to the Scrabble board, while  a game of UNO broke out in a corner.

Meanwhile, kids busily put out stacks of plates and baskets of silverware on the big island counter in the kitchen, filled water pitchers, and carried drinking glasses to the tables. Iced tea, which had been sequestered away in a back refrigerator lest teenage boys down it all before dinner, was brought out into the open and distributed to tables in pitchers, because even in the winter no celebration was complete without iced tea. An aunt bore the giant turkey triumphantly from the oven while the mouthwatering aroma swept the rooms. Rolls were tumbled into baskets while girls scooped potatoes out of the big pot into glass bowls, and two women attacked the turkey, carving it into neat slices. Finally, the food was all arranged on the counter, buffet style, and we flocked to our places at the table for a blessing before we dug in.

When we were stuffed with as much food as we could manage, a guitar would softly strum, the piano would echo the notes, and we’d sing songs together: our after-dinner daily tradition. Songs about giving thanks, about love, many of them written by people sitting there in the room.

Cleanup wasn’t too much of a chore; at the tables, dishes were stacked at top speed and quickly scraped and carried into the kitchen. Dads wiped tables and grabbed brooms to sweep the floor of the big dining room, while the kids manned the dish tubs and dried clean dishes. Moms and aunts swiftly wrapped food for the refrigerators. Then, cleanup complete, it was back to the board games and cozy visiting.

My dad would bring out a few new jokes, his sober joke-telling face carefully prepared in advance, always hopeful that the punch line would take the listener by surprise. His brothers would gently jeer — “I heard that one three months ago!” — while they competed with their own stories, others chiming in. Occasionally, a few people would present a skit: nothing serious, just a sketch designed to draw laughter, usually involving costumes we’d thrown together from our collection of old or silly clothes, wigs, and odd accessories. A piano player might wander over to the instrument and run her fingers over the keys, and teenagers would migrate to the piano corner like iron filings to a magnet. Somebody would add a guitar, then another, maybe a mandolin or banjo or hand-made fiddle or classical violin, and we’d sing one song after another while others visited or tried to best each other at the Crokinole board.

Thanksgiving was a day for family time. It wasn’t anything exciting, I suppose. No family feuds, no drunken quarrels. No Black Friday — in Canada, Thanksgiving is on a Monday in October, too far from Christmas to be dragged into the holiday shopping chaos. Besides, we didn’t celebrate Christmas (although we did love finding good deals). It was pretty simple: good food, music we made ourselves, family. And this time of year, I find myself thinking more than usually of my family.

So, to my American friends and family, let me wish you a wholehearted Happy Thanksgiving; and to my Canadian family, thank you for giving me these warm memories of simple traditions. I love you. Happy Thursday.

This year's pumpkin pie.
This year’s pumpkin pie.