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Little Thanksgiving on the Prairie
April 2005


(Since Bobby the Slacker Hacker NEVER POSTED THIS IN 2003, you get it this year ….)

I think the parents are getting used to it. This year, around early October, Mom only asked me warily, “Do you kids already know what this year’s theme is going to be?” Gram, predictably, gave an abbreviated version of the “Don’t go overboard” speech. But for the most part, the folks are actually looking forward to our Thanksgiving dinners… and themes. This year, thanks to my research on The Book and THTM’s penchant for pies and strange beverages, we are having a Little Thanksgiving on the Prairie!

If you mention ANYTHING to me about the TV show, I will kick you in the shins.

All but one of the recipes for this year’s meal are from the Little House Cookbook, purchased during our LIW Grand Tour: South two summers ago, and the down-home frontier foods we have planned for this year’s menu would have been perfect served on the big wooden table, covered with appropriate tablecloths, in The Mansion. However, last month, we sold The Mansion, pending our move to FREAKIN’ MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN in January. Moreover, all of our china, serving stuff, décor and kick-ass cookware is all packed up in boxes sitting in a storage unit awaiting shipping to FREAKIN’ MILWAUKEE. So while our new Downtown LA Pad is totally funkadelic now that we’ve got it Foofed, it’s extremely tiny and the bits of furniture that fit here aren’t exactly conducive to a Little Thanksgiving on the Prairie. Ah, well, we’ll do the best we can. Mayhap the smell of fresh bread and roast turkey will be evocative enough.

The books themselves also provide décor fodder. I was leaning towards the whole red-checkered-tablecloth-and-artful-bouquet-of-wheat thing until I was re-reading The Long Winter for the ten billionth time. When the Ingallses and Boasts have Christmas in May, they sure as heck didn’t have wheat bouquets and red checkered tablecloths! In fact, the red checkered tablecloth was pointedly for BETWEEN meals. Instead, “Mary raised [the table’s] drop-leaves and spread smoothly over it the white tablecloth that Laura brought her…. Ma brought the glass bowl filled with glowing cranberry jelly. She set it in the middle of the white tablecloth and they all admired the effect.” (The Long Winter 329) Moreover, when Laura marries Almanzo and comes back for her wedding dinner at home, the centerpiece at the table isn’t flowers or wheat or candles: “The silver spoons in the spoon holder shone in the center of the table…” (These Happy Golden Years 282) A white tablecloth, a glass bowl of homemade cranberry jelly, and a spoon holder with spoons? Even our limited decorating options can manage that! I’m a stickler for details, too, so the small touches add up. As usual, I got all the produce and turnkey and stuff from Farmer’s Market. I have whole milk in glass bottles, and a jug to serve the ginger water in. The butter will be served in a ball on a plate, just like how Mrs. Boast brought it for Christmas in May.

And the culmination of it all is when we make our parents actually churn the butter while we prepare the rest of the food. Yes, I’m serious!

I’ve downloaded what music I can find for the Little Thanksgiving on the Prairie Soundtrack; luckily, Laura mentions about four dozen songs that Pa plays and the family sings by name, but not-so-luckily, most are obscure Scottish folk songs that certainly aren’t showing up on KaZaa or Napster. Still, I’ve scored the stray recording of “Arkansas Traveler” and “Rock of Ages,” and can supplement with my own collection of Sons of the Pioneers.

Ah, if only I wasn’t too big for my old pioneer girl Halloween costume I wore when I was ten….

The Menu

All of the recipes, again, are from the LIW cookbook with the exception of my stuffing, and Laura’s Gingerbread. Look up the rest, but I’ll include the other two here.

“I’m waiting for the turkey first,” said Laura, “and you may have sage in the stuffing, Mary.”
She sounded generous but Mary laughed at her. “That’s only because there aren’t any onions for you to use!”
(The Long Winter)

From a dish on one side stood up a mound of mashed potatoes,
and on the other side stood a bowl of rich, brown gravy.
(By the Shores of Silver Lake)

Then Ma emptied the beans into a milk-pan, set the bit of fat pork in the middle,
and laced the top with dribbles of molasses.
(The Long Winter)

There is a knack to cutting corn from a cob. The knife must slice evenly, the whole length of the rows,
cutting deep enough to get almost the whole kernel, but not so deep as to cut even an edge from the sharp pocket
in which each kernel grows. The kernels fall away in milky slabs, moist and sticky.
Ma spread these on a clean, old tablecloth laid outdoors in the sunshine….
The hot sun would dry the corn, and next winter, soaked and boiled, it would be good eating.
(Little Town on the Prairie)

Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples ‘n’ onions.
When, at last, they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them!
(Farmer Boy)

Now and then he ate a piece of raw carrot himself. The outside part is best. It comes off in a thick,
solid ring, and it is sweet. The inside part is juicier, and clear like yellow ice, but it has a thin, sharp taste.
(Farmer Boy)

Laura and Carrie picked over the cranberries and washed them. Ma stewed them
with sugar until they were a mass of crimson jelly.
(The Long Winter)

Though [Laura] usually disliked the dryness of flour on her hands, today she enjoyed kneading the bread,
thinking happily that she would be at home to eat the fresh, brown-crusted loaves.
(These Happy Golden Years)

Little sour cucumber pickles, from a jar the surveyors had left….
(By the Shores of Silver Lake)

The pumpkin was a thick, dark, good-smelling mass in the kettle.
It did not boil like water, but bubbles came up in it and suddenly exploded, leaving holes that closed quickly.
Every time a bubble exploded, the rich, hot, pumpkin smell came out.
(Little House in the Big Woods)


Apple Pie

But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust.
(Farmer Boy)

Ma had sent them ginger-water. She had sweetened the cool well-water with sugar, flavored it with vinegar,
and put in plenty of ginger to warm their stomachs so they could drink till they were not thirsty.
(The Long Winter)

The barrel was almost full, and slices of lemon floated thick on the lemonade….
Laura had once tasted lemonade, at Nellie Oleson’s party, when she was a little girl in Minnesota.
This lemonade was even more delicious.
(Little Town on the Prairie)

1 cup brown sugar blended with
1/2 cup lard or other shortening.
1 cup molasses mixed well with this.
2 teaspoons baking soda in 1 cup boiling water
(Be sure cup is full of water after foam is run off into cake mixture).
Mix all well.

To 3 cups of flour have added one teaspoon each of the following spices: ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves; and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Sift all into cake mixture and mix well.
Add lastly 2 well-beaten eggs.
The mixture should be quite thin.
Bake in a moderate oven for thirty minutes.
Raisins and, or, candied fruit may be added and a chocolate frosting adds to the goodness.

Believe it or not, I’m gonna do it. The pressure is too much. Yes, I am finally going to reveal…

MY TOP SECRET STUFFING RECIPE FOR THE BEST STUFFING IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD!

But wait! Don’t order yet! Making this stuffing is a serious commitment, as well as a link to family history. It’s a connection to years past, as I tinkered and experimented, culminating in the perfection I have achieved today. It’s a traditional American dish… indeed, one could even say it’s a link to American history. It’s a sign of patriotism and family values. And if you don’t make it, the terrorists-

Never mind.

And don’t give me this “Stuffing is EASY!” or “Stuffing is BORING” bull-hooey. My stuffing, I’ll have you know, is an ARTISTIC CREATION. It’s a work of freakin’ GENIUS!

There are five Very Important Things that make my stuffing, quite simply, THE BEST STUFFING IN THE WORLD. To begin with, there is the bread, which is Very Important Step One:

Less superior people go over to the day-old-bread rack and pick up a couple loaves sometime during the week before Thanksgiving, dry it out in the oven or on the counter the night before preparing, and call it breadcrumbs. Not the Goddess of Foof. My holiday breadcrumb stash is an all-year project; in the dark recesses of the freezer, there are at least a couple bags of bread stashed from months passed. Say we’ve had a Fondue Party sometime in August. There is always leftover French and/or Italian bread. Some of it is combined with the leftover cheese and prosciutto for a cheese strata (my standby use-up-the-fondue-leftovers dish), but extra cubes of bread are bagged and frozen. That bagel that went stale? Into the bread bag in the freezer. Seven stale water biscuits, a dozen hearty wheat crackers, and a few butter crackers left over from a hors d’oeuvre plate? Into the bag. A leftover loaf of wheat bread, a stray croissant, that one piece of toast someone didn’t eat, two English muffins, the crusts trimmed off a baguette for a recipe, the opened package of Melba toasts that I discovered hidden at the back of the cupboard, the heel from the loaf of cheese bread Mom brought me from Dudley’s? Into the bag. What about rye bread? Super-grainy stone-ground honey wheat? Garlic bread? Olive-rosemary bread? NO! NO! NO! Don’t use that kind of stuff….Too many other flavors in there. Skip it. Stick to simple bread things.

By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, I rarely have to supplement my bread stash with another day-old white loaf from the market.

Feeling intimidated yet? Ha. Thought so. *snicker* and * knuckle-cracking *

A day or two before Thanksgiving, I take out the freezer bread and spread it out on wax paper to thaw out and dry further. I usually end up with about 10-12 cups, once it’s all broken up.

Very Important Step Two is turkey guts. Innards. Giblets. Whatever. Some people are ooged out by them and throw them away. Don’t. Some people don’t know how to properly use them, either. For instance, Blevens, Stepfather Number Two and master of the Bl-BQ (nuthin’ like a lighter-fluid flavored filet), could always manage to fuck up stuffing because of Improper Guts Use. Nothing is grosser than biting into a rubbery bit of turkey organ. And, of course, if one made any kind of comment, or even tried to discreetly remove said rubbery bit, or implied that his culinary creations were anything less than perfect, Bl would throw a fit and stomp off and sulk.

But back to the innards.

Remove them in their little plastic bag from the turkey cavity (I don’t use the neck; I give it to Gram for her soup). Rinse and thaw completely; do NOT defrost them in the microwave or in hot water… it only makes them tough. Put the giblets in a small saucepan, and add enough water to cover them. Sprinkle in just a bit of salt. Bring them to a gentle boil, and simmer until tender (usually about a half-hour, but sometimes longer). SAVE THE WATER FOR GRAVY! Then – and this is important! – dice them up fine. I don’t just mean “chop fine” with a knife; I mean put the things in a little chopper and GRIND the bastards up until they’re practically a puree.

Very Important Step Three is Gram’s secret, passed on to me like a racer’s baton: one tube of gross, fatty, Farmer John pork sausage. Fry that stuff up, and make sure it’s all crumbled and brown and fatty and all that! Mmmm. Hey, I never said this recipe was supposed to be healthy.

Very Important Step Four is my own subtle, yet elegant culinary touch: a magnificent mirepoix! This developed from one of my many chop-up-everything-I-find-in-the-fridge-and-add-it-to-something experiments (usually involving a casserole, scrambled eggs, or tomato sauce). Dice in that chopper thing about one and a half or two brown onions. Melt a cup (2 sticks) of butter in a big sauté pan, and start the onions slowly cooking. Dice (again, in the chopper, so there are no chunks) one cup each of mushrooms, celery (yes, use those little bits at the top and some of the leaves, but not the wide white part at the end), and baby carrots, and add them to the sauté pan when the onions have reached the translucent stage. Throw in a couple diced cloves of garlic, just because. Sauté it all slowly until tender. Do not brown it! By the time you’re done, you should have about two cups of veggies in butter. You can add this, if you like, to the almost-cooked sausage, and let it all cook together for a few minutes, but make sure the sausage is well on its way to brown before you do, otherwise you’ll have to cook the veggies in it for too long and they’ll get tough and flavorless. Follow me? Good.

On to assembling. I usually have to do this in two shifts, first the stuffing for the turkey, then the stuffing for extra (because I have to have a lot of leftover stuffing!). Get a big-ass bowl… one that should hold about 8 cups of breadcrumbs with lots of room left over. (It’s tradition that I use this huge, gnarly bright green Tupperware bowl that Mom’s had since the beginning of time. It’s so big you could bathe a cat in it.) Combine half of the crumbs, half of the sausage-veggie sauté, and half of the cooked guts. Crank open a couple cans of chicken broth… the good Jewish penicillin kind, not the crap in big pyramids at the front of the grocery store. Dump one can into the bowl, and start mixing! The whole thing doesn’t have to be all soggy, but it should at least be moistened.

Start adding seasonings… which is Very Important Thing Five. See, most cookbook recipes recommend a 1/8 teaspoon of this and 1/8 teaspoon of that. Not the Goddess of Foof! I usually have on hand dried rosemary and parsley and sage of my own. Crush about two tablespoons each of that up and add it. Grind fresh pepper in there. Add about two tablespoons of that poultry seasoning stuff. Add some season salt and season pepper just for fun. Add a bunch more parsley. Taste the mixture (it’s okay… all the stuff has been cooked already, if not together, so the most icky thing is a too-dry breadcrumb). Is it flavorful? If not, add more seasonings! Woo hoo! I usually end up adding about four times more seasoning than any recipe recommends.

Once the mixture tastes okay, wash your hands one more time, rinse them thoroughly, roll up your sleeves, and shove as much stuffing as you can up the turkey’s ass. Don’t pack it too tightly, though, or it won’t cook through, but don’t be shy about cramming a leetle extra in… secretly, the turkey LOVES it.

Repeat the mixing and seasoning process with the extra stuffing, and cram it tightly into a baking dish, then refrigerate it. It’ll take about an hour and a half to heat completely through in the oven. I don’t recommend microwaving it, because then you don’t get the good, crunchy browned bits around the edges.

So to recap:

10-12 c. bread cubes, mixed
Giblets from turkey
1 package Farmer John ground pork sausage
1 c. butter (2 sticks)
4-5 lg. celery stalks, diced
2 lg. brown onions, diced
1 c. baby carrots, diced
1 c. white mushrooms, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
2 cans chicken broth (kosher brand)
Poultry seasoning
Dried rosemary and sage
Parsley flakes
Fresh ground pepper\
Salt
Season salt and pepper

In small saucepan over high heat, heat to boiling giblets, one teaspoon salt and enough water to cover. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 30 minutes or until tender; drain, reserving water for gravy. Chop fine in food processor.

In separate pan, thoroughly cook pork sausage until brown, breaking up into small bits.

In a large sauté pan oven over medium heat, in hot butter, cook onions and garlic until translucent. Add carrots, celery and mushrooms, and cook until tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in bread cubes, cooked sausage, diced giblets, and seasonings to taste; mix well in large bowl.

Spoon some of the stuffing lightly into neck cavity of turkey. (Do not pack stuffing too tightly; it expands during cooking). Bake leftover stuffing in covered, lightly buttered casserole during last hour of roasting turkey.

So there you go! Tell me it isn’t totally yummy

Just don’t ask me to make gravy… that’s Gramma’s job.

 

 
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