When to Break the Rules

Chapter Leader Mike Cook and his wife Renee live in a modest and fairly typical suburban neighborhood, but have challenged themselves to produce as much of their own food as possible. What can’t come from their garden or henhouse, they try to buy local and cook from scratch. Each month Mike shares their stories here.

This is the year. I’ve decided it’s time to put all the pieces together. Thanks in part to the encouragement of new friends at Slow Food Shoreline, this year we’re doing a 100% local Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s really been quite a journey to get to this point. At this time last year, I was writing about the challenge of spending the big bucks on a heritage breed turkey. That may be the last piece of the puzzle, but each step along the way has fielded its share of drama. A brief history:

I grew up in the Midwest, in the 1980’s. Both my immediate and extended families had no problem with processed foods. No one did, really. “Gourmet” simply meant buying the Brand Name versions of processed foods instead of generic or store brands.

Stuffing meant Stove-Top, just add a can of broth and it was basically instant. And to be honest, I loved it, it was my favorite dish, and the real version of stuffing still is. I didn’t realize until high school that stuffing could be made in the oven, and not until college did I think of using regular bread instead of a mix. I kept using that can of cheap broth until well into my 20’s.

When I was a kid, there were two kinds of cranberry sauce. There was the kind that came in a 2-inch square in the center of a Swanson’s TV dinner, and the kind that came in a can. Thanksgiving was special, because it was the only time you broke out the full can. I can still picture it on my Grandmother’s table, still in the shape of the can, with the rings etched across the body of the cylinder (which was your handy guide for slicing it, of course). I don’t remember liking it, or really understanding what the point of it was. I do remember my first Thanksgiving with my wife, while we were still dating in college, when she showed me how to simply add sugar and water to a bag of cranberries. I told her that I never knew you could make cranberry sauce from scratch, I thought she was a genius. She thought I was a moron.

Thanksgiving was not complete without green bean casserole, made from canned green beans, canned cream of something soup (usually mushroom, but did it matter?), and a can of Durkee fried onions. One year as I was really learning how to cook, my brother in-law joined me in the kitchen. He was a working chef, and I was excited to take our family meal and “kick-it-up-a-notch” (yes, it was 2001). But my brother-in-law drew the line at the green bean casserole. “That’s one thing you just can’t get all ‘gourmet’ with” he said.

Gravy came from a can, or a bag of powder that you mixed with water. Those were your two options. In culinary school I learned how to make a simple chicken veloute, basically chicken stock and roux, then finish it with cream to make a Supreme sauce. I was amazed. That year at Thanksgiving, I was so excited to show my family what they’d been missing all these years. As I made my sauce, my mother watched from a distance, and eventually came up to me and said “your grandfather is not going to like that, you’d better make him some ‘regular’ gravy”. Regular meant the jar of gunk she pulled from the cupboard, fat-free but filled with sodium and chemical emulsifiers. My 90 year-old Grandfather had some, but the rest of the fake stuff languished in the bowl. My sauce was devoured by the rest of the family.

I guess holidays with family need a little compromise. Food is important to us all, in different ways. My wife and I believe strongly in Slow Food principles, in the value of local foods and the better taste of quality ingredients. But the rest of my family cares about different traditions, and I care about them. This year we’ll have two Thanksgivings, our 100% local version here, about a week beforehand, and our family’s back in Michigan on Thanksgiving Day. I’ll eat dry commercial turkey, Stove Top stuffing, layered Jell-O salad, and maybe even a little Cool Whip on my pumpkin pie. But I’ll still love it.

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