Last week being a holiday week, K and I took the opportunity to leave New York City. It was her first Thanksgiving and we made our way to a family friends’ farm in Virginia. They have graciously hosted me three or four times in the past, and it has become something of a pilgrimage to be there on the fourth Thursday of November. It is a weekend in the country, which often features chilli and cornbread, bagels and cream cheese, grits and eggs, clam chowder, and, of course, a traditional turkey dinner.

For Australian readers, it is important to understand the significance of this All American holiday and why I love it so much. As a harvest festival, Thanksgiving has aspired to bring together Indigenous people and settlers during the colonial era; North and South after the Civil War; and individuals with their family in the melting pot that is contemporary America. Whatever its history, it creates harmony, gratitude and community, and it has lived up to this ideal in my experience. What I love about Thanksgiving is that it allows one to pause, reflect and give thanks while having meaningful conversations, being in nature and focusing on food, family and friends. When I first lived in America, I found B and B’s place to be the perfect tonic to the stress of graduate school where I was overworked on a steady diet of Hegel and de Tocqueville.

There are 15 of us this year out on the farm. Some have come from the big smoke; others have literally hiked in from the Appalachian Trail. Cooking for Thanksgiving starts the day before when the turkeys are brined and the cornbread for the stuffing is made. On the day itself, B gets up early to make the piecrust and T builds a fire to smoke one of the turkeys. We surface later, but the morning is still crisp and clear, the grass thick with white frost that crunches underfoot as we walk from our cabin to the main house. We drink tea and coffee, and start to peel, chop, shred, dice and mash. For lunch, we have a light soup and then take a walk through the woods and fields. There are deer tracks in the mud and the hay bales cast shadows on the rolling hills. The light begins to blue a little and, as we make our way back, we see T tending the smoker, drinking a beer, basting the turkey in duck fat. Inside, B oversees three generations in the pie making and the rest of us busy ourselves with minor tasks. 

Just on dusk, the table is laid with candles and flowers. The food is served and the wine is poured. The charm of Thanksgiving is there when our host B makes his speech, singling out every person at the table and what they mean – it is a touching, humorous and gentle reminder of why we are lucky and what it is to be together. In this moment, it becomes a holiday from the difficulty that assails us all. 

We eat roast turkey, smoked turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, Brussels sprout and kale salad, cranberry sauce, cranberry relish, gravy, stuffing, and sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. You read that right – you boil then mash sweet potatoes with butter, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon before topping it with vanilla marshmallows that melt, puff and brown in the oven. It is smooth and honeyed, a kind of sweet promoted from desert to the main event. I heard it from the neighbour F that this dish is made right across America. But, he tells me, that the cranberry relish is particular to this Thanksgiving dinner. The recipe comes from National Public Radio reporter Susan Stamberg's Mamma. B said she thought it sounded so ‘strange’ that she just had to try it and the relish has been served here since before I first came in 2006. Made with fresh cranberries, horseradish, sour cream, sugar and onion, it is blended then frozen so that it becomes similar to a chunky, agrodolce ice-cream that punctuates the meat with a rambunctious festivity. You take it in small measure and it adds a playful element to the plate. People return for seconds and thirds – the turkey is moist, the gravy lustrous, the stuffing crumbling, the potatoes fluffy, the turnips creamy, and the salad becomes the perfect foil offsetting the rest of the meal with zingy, crispy freshness. This year we only drink one bottle of wine – a five litre red from 1995. It has notes of berry and chocolate, maybe a hint of clove. With glasses in hand, we retire to the fire and talk politics, books, work, travel and sport. In the other room, the football is on and everyone is pleased that the Cowboys are losing.

For desert, we eat pie – chocolate pecan, which is a velvety, fudgy, nutty indulgence; an apple that is smooth and delectably firm with a buttery mouth-feel; and a pumpkin so perfectly spiced that it recalls and enhances the flavour of the sweet potatoes way back when. With it, the circle is complete, the harvest celebrated. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief and gives thanks for peace, prosperity and the possibility we may eat like this again one day. 

All this celebration reminds me of that most American of poets, Walt Whitman, when he said:

Love the earth and sun and the animals, give thanks to everyone, stand up for the weak and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with uneducated persons and with the young, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh and food shall be a great poem.

With its warmth, optimism, generosity, good taste and joy, Thanksgiving at the Jones Family Farm is a day that I am truly grateful for, and K's introduction to a wonderful holiday.

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