Every year for the last 18 with a few exceptions (in the early years of graduate school and then motherhood) the weekend before Thanksgiving involves my attending the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, and in most of those years in conjunction with the Society for Biblical Literature. There was a temporary “great divorce“ between AAR and SBL that lasted from 2008 to 2010, but otherwise the two groups meet conjointly, attracting around 10,000 scholars, students, authors and vendors.
So this year, as is my custom, I traveled to Denver to join in the overrun of religion junkies, Bible nerds, and theology geeks. I asked a clerk in the copy store how the geeks and nerds were behaving this year. Sometimes religionists are known to give a bad name to their professional and confessional commitments. However, she reported that everyone had been polite and well-mannered, meek and mild. She compared us to are recent convention of nurses who got under her skin, reporting we were much kinder.
(Personally, I think the high introversion factor also contributes to the perceived kindness of the religion and Bible scholars. Because, believe me I’ve seen plenty of them behaving less than kindly at other meetings.)
The timing of this meeting also means I usually arrive at Thanksgiving Day utterly exhausted from presenting, politicking, conversing and staying out late with friends. This year was no exception. Some years I prepare a list of items I will cook for shared family meals at Thanksgiving before I depart for AAR. Then my spouse and other family members generously help me get my act together. This was not one of those years that included advance prep. So my plans were a little more dicey than usual.
On short notice, my thoughtful spouse assembled all the ingredients for the sweet and savory kale, when I sent them on Tuesday. It is a dish I have been making for the last eight or nine years, and which I highly recommend! And as a vegetarian-pescatarian, I make it with veggie broth rather than chicken broth. Nevertheless, I decided late on Wednesday night to make a run to Trader Joe’s for a few other items to share on Thanksgiving day. Like too many Americans we also have two meals with two branches of the extended family on Thanksgiving day. Two much. LOL.
Some years we can convince everyone to have one meal together but that depends on other people’s travel schedules and lots of other factors. Suffice it to say this is not one of those years.
If Thanksgiving dinner were just vegetables and dessert I would be completely satisfied. I was curious and intrigued by the Brussels. I put them in my basket, and then I continued on in my search for a dairy-free dessert. What I hoped for was TJ’s pumpkin bread mix. No such luck. It sells out about 15 minutes after it appears each autumn. However, I found Gingerbread Mix with Crystallized Ginger pieces. It sounded promising. But there was a catch. Did the package mean it included the crystallized ginger or was I supposed to locate it? Surely it was included?
I know that Whole Foods has crystalized ginger, but TJ’s? I gave only a half-hearted look. Why? Because chocolate chips! I love the chocolate-gingerbread connection. It sings in the mouth, as much or even more than pumpkin bread with chocolate chips. So who cared about crystallized ginger?
Later on Wednesday evening when supper was finished at my mother-in-law’s house and the dishes were cleared, I started to cook. The sweet and savory Kale went together like a charm. But then it was late, and while I was washing up the dishes I knocked a measuring glass in the floor, and it went into a million pieces. Everyone else had been in bed more than an hour, so vacuuming was out of the question. I simply had to sweep.
I found the broom and dust pan. It always takes longer to find things when looking in someone else’s home. Even if you have been there countless times over three decades. But especially when you cannot ask. Nevertheless I cleaned up the glass and decided not to start any more cooking adventures given the lateness of the hour.
But then came the turkey. Make it turkeys. My mother-in-law decided on two smaller birds this year. My daughter informed us all that the menu at that first infamous “Thanksgiving” meal likely did not include turkeys, but rather ducks, geese or other waterfowl. There is also the ongoing problem of inhumane treatment required to create 25 and 30-lbs. birds. This year my mother-in-law opted for a smaller full turkey and a turkey breast. In my experience, turkey breasts only take between two and four hours to roast. The oven was set to begin at 2:30AM. Was I to put in both turkeys or just the full-sized roasting hen?
It was late now, and I didn’t want to wake both my in-laws to ask this question. I probably had been told, but now at nearly midnight, I could not recall. So I set my alarm for 6:00AM so I could get up to sort it out early when there was still plenty of time to roast the turkey breast before lunch.
I should have written a note.
My alarm didn’t go off. I had not slept well. Perhaps in my exhaustion, I failed even to set the alarm. Sigh.
At 8:00AM I jumped out of bed and went to warn my mother-in-law about both the potential for glass in the floor (in spite of all my sweeping) and the neglected turkey breast in the fridge. Fortunately she is a kind and unflappable woman. I told her my worries about overcooking, but hoped there would still be time.
I’ll skip the whole spat between my in-laws over vacuuming up butter, since that one is not mine to tell. I’ll only tell you my final joking advice; “Well, it’s good to go ahead and get the annual holiday arguments out of the way before more guests arrive.” We all laughed.
After a shower, it was time to dive back in on the gingerbread. I fully expected to find a package of crystalized ginger in the box. But, no. So it wasn’t included after all? Glad I had grabbed the chocolate chips. I read the baking instructions, which were very poorly written. Fortunately the ingredients were minimal and when I added the liquid to the mix, the crystalized ginger appeared. Ha!
While the gingerbread was baking, I got started on the Brussels sprouts. TJ’s instructions said to roast them on the stalk. But that sounded crazy. I would enjoy the Brussels as I like to roast them (recipe below). The novelty of the presentation would have to be left to photos.
What I learned from google is that they do grow on stalks like this one, but usually much more compactly. What I learned with my own knife is that the stalk is more like a tree than a broccoli stem. What I learned from this blog is that broccoli and Brussels sprouts are cultivated from the same plant. What?! The Brassica oleracea was cultivated in many different ways over hundreds of years.
Even more fascinating is that not only are the curious Brussles sprouts and broccoli from the same plant, so is my delicious sweet and savory kale as well as cauliflower, wild mustard greens and kolrabi (one I’ve never tried to cook!). Many of the different ways to cultivate this versatile plant arose in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Perhaps we could take a lesson from the versatility of the Brassica oleracea? Its diversification globally is a good sign unto us. It makes a nice counterpoint to the apparent human drive to reduce diversity and reject alterity. That drive was clearly present among the early Europeans who invaded North America. Despite the mythic quality of stories about inclusive “pilgrim” dinners, what colonizers actually brought was disease, greed and ambition that destroyed native peoples.
The mythos of Thanksgiving hides this dubious history and more. And the story has been re-invented and repurposed more times than turkey pot pie. It was first declared a national day of thanks in 1789 by President Washington and by other presidents thereafter. However, it was made into a permanent national holiday, on each fourth Thursday in November, by President Lincoln in 1863 as an effort to promote unity among the war-torn states of the Union and the Confederacy.
Thus, the holiday itself is entangled in the two most painful and traumatic chapters of American history: the colonial destruction of native people and theft of their lands and the enslavement and inhumane treatment of African people as well as a deadly war that attempted to keep them in bondage.
Perhaps Thanksgiving needs to be observed as a day of repentance and one repurposed yet again for our shared seeking of forgiveness and justice. I know that neither my impromptu prayer before one of the meals nor my conversation with family members approached such issues. We avoid politics and religion at these gatherings the way some people avoid green veggies. And we keep a thin veneer of peace in the extended family.
In my chosen profession, where we study, write and teach about religion, we talk openly about racism, sexism, anti-semitism and multiple religious belonging. We tell the varieties of historical accounts and not just the children’s story-book variety. A conversation about the need for justice, repentance or resistance to existing systems of power is about more than polite kindnesses. Yet making these motivating commitments into action for change remains a challenge.
The Brussles sprouts were delicious. The sweet and savory kale was the right balance of flavors. The gingerbread with chocolate chips made me smile. Now if my meal might be more of an inspiration for the rest of my living… that would be an adventure really worth writing about.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
1 lbs of Brussels Sprouts, cut from the stalk, trimmed and cut in half
1 T. olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
Twist of black pepper
1 c. balsamic vinegar (Modena)
1 T. honey
Olive oil spray
When Brussels sprouts are trimmed and cut length-wise, place them in a steamer basket and steam over medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes until they turn bright green. Let them cool slightly.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a bowl, toss the lightly steamed sprouts in olive oil, adding sea salt and pepper to taste. Spread on a cookie sheet lightly sprayed with olive oil to prevent sticking. Roast for five minutes and then turn them on the pan. Roast five additional minutes.
While sprouts are roasting, combine balsamic vinegar and honey in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil then reduce to simmer on low for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Reduce the vinegar and honey to the consistency of syrup, ideal for drizzling on the roasted Brussels sprouts. Serve hot.