Homestead Heritage: Bringing Thanksgiving Back to the Farm
The Holidays are the Best Time to Embrace Simple Homesteading and Home Cooking
Reading Time: 11 minutes
By Steven Hall – You’ve bought property and moved to the country. You’re living the rural lifestyle you imagined and embracing the homestead heritage. And yet, when the holiday season arrives, you may still find your Thanksgiving preparation beginning and ending at the grocery store. During countless trips to the store for more canned or frozen goodstrips now made longer by your distance from town, do you ever wonder what it is you’re supposed to be so thankful for?
Traditionally, Thanksgiving was a festival to celebrate the harvest, a day to be grateful for a generous and bounteous season, a blessing after months of tilling, planting, and tending. All too often, however, a cavernous mental and emotional gap separates the fields and pastures of our nation’s farms from our dinner plates.
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When I moved out of my family’s home, I became aware of my own gap, in my case a generational gap. Although my childhood was spent in town, our family’s culture was heavily influenced by my father’s homestead heritage and growing up on a small farm in southeastern Idaho. This culture influenced the food we prepared and ate, the garden we grew, our work ethic, and the stories we told. However, I hadn’t truly appreciated how this homestead heritage influenced me until I grew into adulthood. I often fought against this culture, fought against chores in the garden, against farm cooking in the kitchen. Only later did I realize how much my notion of meals like Thanksgiving had been influenced by and interconnected with my family’s farming and homestead heritage, our garden, and the homegrown and homemade foods I had taken for granted as a child.
Today, the typical Thanksgiving meal begins behind a shopping cart and includes a spread from cans, freezers, and commercial bakeries. But for those living a rural life, the possibility exists to make Thanksgiving Day more closely resemble that original sense of harvested gratitude, a sentiment closely tied to the land, the seasons, and the uncontrollable results of a growing period. Consider the following suggestions, based on my own family’s farm-inspired traditions—from most complicated to easiest—for making your Thanksgiving dinner a direct reflection of your hard work and efforts during the farm year.
Thanksgiving dinner revolves around the turkey. Each Thanksgiving season, Americans consume nearly 100 million turkeys. During the last 50 years, thanks to its abundant quantity of breast meat, the modern “Broad-breasted White” variety—almost always raised in confined conditions—accounts for approximately 90 percent of Thanksgiving turkeys. In fact, the variety has developed such a large breast that it cannot reproduce naturally, only through artificial insemination. Many believe the variety and its growing conditions are largely responsible for the meat’s dry, often tasteless quality.
Historically, in contrast, the turkey raised for a family Thanksgiving meal could come from several different varieties, including the Narragansett or Jersey Buff turkey, two of the varieties most often associated with colonial America. These varieties reproduce naturally and, while their breast meat may not be as large and uniform, these birds are generally juicier and more flavorful. Today varieties like these (now referred to as heritage turkeys) have become rare, but are gaining in popularity. So what do you do if you want to find a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving … one that embodies the homestead heritage?
Living on a farm, the first choice would be to raise your own. As the sustainable food movement gains momentum in our country, the number of heritage turkey farms and heritage turkey breeders increases. Many of these breeders will mail turkey chicks directly to your front door, leaving you to raise the bird to the proper weight by the middle of November. While the purpose of this article will not focus on raising turkeys for meat, keep in mind that if you choose that ambitious path for next year, timing is crucial. Heritage varieties require more time to grow to harvest weight. On average, any heritage turkey will need from 24 to 30 weeks to reach full weight, while today’s grocery store white turkey needs just 18 weeks. You will need to plan ahead so your turkey reaches its harvest weight during the week of Thanksgiving.
One of the most reliable hatcheries in the country is the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa. Self-promoted as “the world’s largest rare breed hatchery,” the Murray McMurray Hatchery just might be right. I’ve never found a variety they couldn’t offer; in addition to turkey poults, they also breed chickens, ducks, geese, pheasants, and more. They sell essentially every variety of heritage turkey: White Holland, Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Blue Slate, Broad-breasted Bronze, Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, Royal Palm and Chocolate turkeys. Ordering from their website (mcmurrayhatchery.com) is very convenient, and while raising a turkey is full of work and patient effort, there is nothing quite like receiving a peeping box with air holes in the mail and watching a fine poult grow to adulthood.
By the time you read this, not enough time remains to raise and harvest your own Thanksgiving turkey. But that’s okay. While this year might be out, and even if in the future you don’t have the space or energy to raise your own turkey, you can start searching now for a local turkey grower in your area. You can ask around at your community’s farmers market. Perhaps your area has a local butcher or a specialty shop. If not, try doing some searching in the classifieds in your local newspaper. Many small, local farmers are even creating farm websites or hosting blogs. You never know what you might find with a little searching online.
And if you can’t find a local turkey grower, don’t worry. Raising heritage turkeys through sustainable practices is rapidly gaining popularity. You might be surprised how many growers you can find that are willing to ship a Thanksgiving turkey directly to your home. Let me give you a head start. Here are just two of the most experienced and well-known turkey growers in the country.
Owned and operated by the Pitman family since 1954, Mary’s Turkeys is located in California’s Central Valley. A small, family-owned business with a strong homestead heritage, the Pitman’s free-range turkeys are raised organically, in the open air. One of the strongest features of the Pitman family’s operation is that, since 2003, they have also run their own processing plant. Since the same family farm conducts the entire process, they can promise the consumer a Thanksgiving turkey that has been raised and harvested through sustainable, humane practices. Within the state of California a significant list of stores sell Mary’s Turkeys during the holidays. You can see their website (www.marysturkeys.com) for a list of locations, as well as details on having a turkey shipped directly to any state.
Considered one of the pioneers of saving heritage turkey varieties, Frank Reese believes growing heritage turkeys for the dinner plate is the best way to preserve the historic varieties and homestead heritage. On his Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas, Reese promotes raising turkeys on an outdoor range, with vegetarian feed, and according to the highest standards of animal welfare. He also supports additional small-scale farming operations. As he states on his farm’s website, by purchasing a Thanksgiving turkey from him, “you are supporting a network of independent growers.”
If you choose this alternative method for purchasing this year’s Thanksgiving turkey, keep in mind that the price for these turkeys is often two to three times higher than the generic “White-breasted” variety found in most grocery stores. However, many people who have tried turkeys from farmers like the Pitmans or Frank Reese argue that the added flavor, moistness, and tenderness alone make the additional cost worth it, let alone the support of sustainable farming practices and small-scale farmers. In fact, heritage turkeys have become so popular with consumers, you may need to order yours weeks in advance. So plan ahead.
How Homemade Dinner Rolls (or Bread) Make the Meal
Today every grocery store chain operates a bakery, making Thanksgiving dinner rolls a quick grab-and-go affair. Often dinner rolls are the last item on the list. And yet, for many, the rich smells of baking rolls or bread are the ultimate compliment to the baking turkey and stuffing of a Thanksgiving dinner. So why let your grocery store have the benefit of this process, and its attendant smells, when the enjoyment can belong to you and your guests? For me and my family, Grandma’s homemade bread recipe is the perfect final touch to a dinner plate bursting with turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Her cakey bread recollects the homestead heritage of growing seasons and harvests shared by her and Grandpa on their small farm in southeastern Idaho.
Appropriately, this kind of family bread recipe often survives for generations without being written down. If your family has a homestead heritage that survives multiple generations, perhaps you have reaped the benefits of handed-down recipes. If you represent a return to rural living, perhaps a member of your family is still cooking family recipes like rolls or bread and you could be the next in line to learn. One suggestion for you would be to arrange a learning opportunity with this individual, recording the recipe for yourself and others. If my mother hadn’t stood next to Grandma, taken measurements (for Grandma there were no exact measurements), and copied down instructions, we might not be enjoying her bread today and homestead heritage it represents. And for those of you representing the first generation on the farm, perhaps my grandmother’s bread recipe could be of use to you.
2 cups hot water (110°-115°F)
2/3 cup oil (vegetable, canola, or similar)
3/4 cup white sugar (short)
4-1/2 teaspoons dry yeast (2 packages)
6-1/2 cups white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Mix hot water, oil, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl. Add yeast, lightly stirring until yeast becomes moistened. Let mixture sit until it foams up, then whip it until smooth. Add baking powder and salt. Slowly add flour (approximately one cup at a time until mixed).
Once all the flour is thoroughly mixed, cover and let dough rise inside the bowl. This should take about one hour. One of the best qualities of this bread recipe is that it requires no kneading. After the dough has fully risen, simply punch it down, divide it in half, and form loaves into two medium size bread pans, liberally greased with butter. Let the dough rise again (covered), for a similar length of time. Bake at 350°F for 35 to 40 minutes. Bread is fully cooked when top and sides of crust have taken on a medium to dark color. Remove the loves from pans and let cool on a wire rack. Optional: Brush melted butter across the top of each loaf.
Rolls can also be made with this recipe. Bake rolls for about 15 minutes at 400°F. Be aware, this is a gooey, cakey bread dough. To form rolls without making a complete mess and feeling utter frustration, thoroughly moisten your hands with butter or oil. Shaping rolls can be simplified by using a muffin pan and filling each about halfway with dough.
While baking homemade bread can be the most time-consuming part of Thanksgiving preparation, the rewards are worth the effort. The warm, inviting smells of baking bread come to us with wafts of memories: memories of family, tradition, and Thanksgiving meals from years gone by.
Thanksgiving Pie: Carving Up Your Garden Pumpkins
No Thanksgiving meal is complete without pumpkin pie. A relatively simple dessert dish, for many homes the pumpkin pie’s main ingredient and the recipe itself come from a store-bought can. But with a little extra effort, the pumpkin pie can become one of the most memorable and satisfying elements to Thanksgiving dinner.
Perhaps the easiest way to feel a connection between your own farm or garden harvest and Thanksgiving meal rests in the traditional pumpkin pie, especially one with a rich homestead heritage. Nearly every avid gardener I know grows pumpkins. Without much effort, and in most climates, pumpkin vines grow thick and strong. The colorful and plentiful results make for beautiful decorations and seasonal fun, and the late harvest helps the life of the garden last well into the fall.
Nearly all pumpkin seeds found in hardware stores, grocery stores, even nurseries, are from varieties intended to meet the Halloween needs of most families. The pumpkins are large, round, and include moderately thick flesh, designed perfectly for carving. In fact, most gardeners and pumpkin buyers rarely view pumpkins as a source of food. However, historically, many varieties of pumpkins were bred just for that purpose, as an ample source of food. An excellent source of seeds for such varieties of pumpkins is the Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization based in Iowa whose purpose is to save endangered varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Referred to as heirloom varieties (the plant equivalent of heritage farm animals), the Seed Savers Exchange now maintains seeds from over 25,000 varieties. Two varieties of pumpkin that I have grown for eating include the Amish Pie and Australian Butter. Each variety has a small inner cavity and thick flesh, generally up to five inches. One way to give new life and taste to the pumpkin pie is to grow a variety of pumpkin with qualities similar to these two.
The process is not difficult. Simply cut one of your pumpkins into manageable chunks and place them onto a baking pan, with the skin facing up. Since there is no standard thickness to pumpkins, you must keep checking on the flesh until it is baked soft enough to mash. Usually, a temperature between 350° to 400°F for one to two hours is sufficient. When the flesh is soft, remove the pumpkin pieces from the oven and let them cool. While still warm use a large spoon to scoop out the soft flesh, placing it into a food processor or a blender. Process the flesh until it reaches a smooth puree. Then simply store the flesh in the refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to begin making pie. The puree can also be used to make a delicious pumpkin soup. Keep your pumpkin pie recipe exactly the same, and simply add fresh pumpkin flesh and you’ll have pumpkin pie with a vibrant flavor and wholesome texture like you’ve never tried.
Cranberry Sauce: Quick and Easy
Finally, use a few of those minutes when you have the turkey in the oven, bread rising, and pumpkin meat cooling on the stove to add a final touch of homemade quality and distinctness we so often ignore. No one knows for sure when cranberry sauce first became a traditional part of the Thanksgiving meal. Versions of cranberry sauce history vary, from the pilgrims’ valuable lessons learned from Native Americans to General Ulysses S. Grant’s order in 1864 that cranberry sauce be served to the troops during the siege of Petersburg. But regardless of cranberry sauce’s first introduction to Thanksgiving dinner, there can be no doubt about its mundane condition today.
Until I became an adult, what was referred to as cranberry sauce at my family’s table simply resembled some kind of strange, purplish Jello. For this reason, I thought it strange this “cranberry sauce” wasn’t served during dessert. It took years for me to learn its real purpose. I remember watching each year as, just before the beginning of the meal, someone would crank the handle of the can opener, pop the lid, and give the can a shake as this slimy, bouncy, blob with no form (other than from the ridges of the can) came sliding onto a plate. Promptly cut into equal slices, the canned cranberry jiggler was put out for all to enjoy. But it shouldn’t have to be that way.
While the cranberry sauce holds a relatively small place on a full Thanksgiving table packed with large items, cranberry sauce’s fresh and cool tartness can add a distinctive and delicious element to the traditional meal. And with just a few minutes of extra effort and preparation, your family’s cranberry sauce can always be made from scratch.
Cranberry sauce does not need to be complicated. Simple, delicious recipes are abundant. Significant variety exists in recipes, but the following is perhaps the quickest and most simple. And who knows, perhaps it will become a new family tradition for you and yours.
2 cups fresh cranberries
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup white sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons grated orange rind
In a medium saucepan, bring water and cranberries to a rolling boil. Cook until cranberries burst, approximately 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low and stir in sugar. Continue stirring until sugar thoroughly dissolves. Remove from heat and stir in orange rind. Broken cranberries provide a textured sauce, but if you prefer a consistent and smooth texture, use a hand masher or processor. Pour mixture into serving bowl and place in refrigerator until mealtime.
This year, when you go around the dinner table to share what you’re thankful for, consider your dinner plate and how it was influenced by the homestead heritage. Take a few moments to reflect on the origins of one of our nation’s most treasured holidays. Think of the farmers across the country. Think of your own farm and the harvest that came with it this year, some of which may be on your dinner table in the form of pumpkin pie, along with a heritage turkey, fresh homemade rolls or bread, and cranberry sauce from scratch. I guarantee, if you do, you’ll savor the Thanksgiving meal you and others have worked so hard to prepare (and harvest), that much more.
We have much to be thankful for, especially a rich homestead heritage.
Published in Countryside November / December 2010 and regularly vetted for accuracy.