thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the tag “Thanksgiving”

30×30: Lesson 10: The spice of life

Pizza Hut at Grandma's

Pizza Hut at Grandma’s was an anytime tradition. 1989?

There’s a reason why I know all the words to “Tradition,” the opening number to Fiddler on the Roof. From the way my mom spelled out our birthday ages with chocolate chips in the frosting of our cakes, to the races that all the cousins would run (and still do) in my grandmother’s basement during the Grove Christmas, I have a special fondness for things that happen the same way, year after year.

Traditions are reminders of where you’ve come from and, in a certain way, provide a sense of where you’re going. Whatever happens this year, for example, I am pretty sure that I will still be invited to my aunt and uncle’s cottage for Thanksgiving as I have been since I was born; and I’ve already brainstorming the logistics of my fifth annual Cookie Party.

But sometime when I was 20, I realized that, when driving around my hometown, I always navigated certain streets over others, not because they were more convenient but because they were more familiar. When I first began to cook for myself in Talange, France, I developed the tendency to make eggs for dinner multiple times a week, not necessarily because I adored omelets but because I didn’t have the capacity to think up anything else.

At best, traditions solidify groups and knit people together, but running ruts into my own traditions was stagnating.

When Melinda Hoey came into my life, one of the first things I loved about her was the way she would deal with change. No chocolate chips for the cookies? Try mint chips instead. No taste for turkey this Christmas? Lasagna was cool. “Something different,” she’d shrug.

And this was revelatory: that traditions could be beautiful, but so could the skill of exploration, newness, and openness to the unknown.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Friday Photo: The Grove women

Thanksgiving Day, 2012

In France in 2007, Thanksgiving was just another day of assisting in high school classes, cous-cous in the cafeteria, and pan-made stuffing.

This year, I was very conscious of coming home, not for the stuffing or mashed potatoes, but for this: the faces of the Grove women, bent over the noon meal, tasting and stirring with the lips and eyes and pride that define the women from which I’ve come.

Friday Photo: Cornucopia: A brief history of sweet corn and field corn

Trinidad, August 2010

The Americas’ relationship to corn is an interesting one. From elementary school up, we’ve heard of how Squanto used fish to help the Pilgrims grow corn in the new world, and corn today — at least in my family — is still part of our traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with mashed potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing.

However, sweet corn — as opposed to “field corn,” or a variety of corn that’s harder, starchier, and primarily used for animal feed in the US — really is an American phenomenon. According to the blog “Food for Thought,” the United States is the leading producer and exporter of sweet corn in the world, meaning that other countries do not have the same relationship with sweet corn as we do.

I was shocked, for example, to find that it’s still uncommon to eat cooked corn at a French meal. Even though France is the fifth largest producer of corn in the world, they export 75% of it canned or frozen (no July corn on the cob for them).  My students in Talange — located in the northeast of France, while sweet corn is primarily grown in the southwest near Spain — were so grossed out by the notion of eating corn for dinner that one of my first activities as their teacher was to buy canned corn, heat it in my apartment, and serve it with butter out of Dixie cups. “Le maize, il est pour les cochons,” said a student — “corn, that’s what pigs eat,” and he’s right — sort of. I remember trying to explain the distinction between sweet corn and field corn but translating “sweet corn” as “sugared corn,” which made the student’s face sink into even a more-concerned frown.

For the US, the typical difference between “sweet corn” and “field corn” is the one is humanly edible and the other is not (appropriate for ethanol, scattering to chickens, and grinding into silage for my father’s cows), respectively, but other cultures further muddle the borderlines. For example, in Trinidad, field corn is boiled in coconut milk, a little sugar, salt, and seasoning for 30 minutes (much longer than the 3 minutes my grandmother recommends for sweet corn). It is so popular that boiled corn is sold in stands along the shoulder of the interstate highway. In this Friday Photo, my friend Anne is purchasing these slightly-savory ears of corn through the open car window.

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