It is hard to believe that we are already halfway into November. Autumn couldn’t come fast enough, and now it seems as if it is zipping by. Thanksgiving fast approaches.
Thanksgiving is a magical time: a day when family and friends gather to give thanks by stuffing their faces full of poultry, carbs, and sugar. Nationwide, it is THE culinary event of the year, and so it is important to do it right. Plans are made weeks in advance, and several days prior are often spent shopping, prepping, and cooking for the feast.
I had the privilege yesterday of attending the Autumn’s Gold Slow Food cooking class at Yew Dell Gardens, hosted by Brown-Foreman executive chef and Slow Food Southeast Governor Mark Williams. The event took place in the cozy Gheens Barn, where fifty or so chairs had been set up facing a table with pots, pans, a hot plate, and various ingredients.
Chef Williams told us of growing up on various army bases, where Thanksgiving decorations included the classic clean-cut pilgrims and clean-cut “Indians” eating the traditional turkey. Of course, this childlike image with which we are all familiar is hardly how things were, and many of our “traditional” Thanksgiving foods were probably not actually served. However, says Williams, “I like tradition,” so we were treated to a demonstration of some holiday favorites, as well as some new things.
The first thing discussed was country ham. Country ham is something of a staple in our region, and if you haven’t tasted it, you must be new. (Welcome!) It is ham which has been salt-cured for a few months, smoked, and aged for a few months to a year. It becomes hard, and is usually served sliced thin.
Chef Williams told us about the concept of endangered foods, of which country ham is an example. (A complete list of endangered foods can be found here.) The problem isn’t that country ham is in danger of extinction; the customary method of making it is under attack. The traditional aging method involves hanging the hams in an open-air barn. The FDA has decided that this is unsanitary, and now only two people in the country are allowed to prepare the food this way. All others must cure, smoke, and age in a climate-controlled factory setting.
The way to preserve endangered foods is to consume them. “You eat them to save them,” says Williams. A greater demand means greater production, and people who enjoy country ham should be sure to eat only those procured from a reputable source.
On a happier note, Chef Williams had prepared country ham and corn fritters for sampling. They were basically fried balls of cornbread with small chunks of country ham and corn floating around inside. They were delicious: “If you fry ‘em, they’ll buy ‘em,” joked the chef.
Another example of endangered food is oysters – raw oysters, specifically. Nothing has been outlawed yet, but the FDA is looking at banning the service of said shellfish unless they have been cooked or irradiated. (And if you are ok with putting food described as “irradiated” into your body, you are reading the wrong food writer.) No more oysters on the half shell, which I swear aren’t as gross as people think. (You’ve just got to get past the texture.)
While hardly anybody thinks to include oysters with their Thanksgiving meal, the fact that the first pilgrims lived by the ocean means that it was likely a common food source. Chef Williams demonstrated the preparation of an oyster stew. The procedure is simple: it involves first making a roux (equal parts flour and fat), then throwing in onion and celery. The juice of the oysters (from a can or jar if canned or jarred, or from the shell if fresh) is added (chicken stock is a decent substitute for a less shellfishy taste; the chef used the stock), followed by cream, salt, pepper, and a dash of hot sauce. Finally, the oysters are added. They should only be cooked very lightly: the stew is ready to serve when the edges start to curl. Overcooking oysters will cause them to be tough and chewy.