Here is something we can thank the Islamic world for: coffee. BBC gives an interesting account of the history of that beverage and how it came to the West:
Although a beverage made from the wild coffee plant seems to have been first drunk by a legendary shepherd on the Ethiopian plateau, the earliest cultivation of coffee was in Yemen and Yemenis gave it the Arabic name qahwa, from which our words coffee and cafe both derive.
Qahwa originally meant wine, and Sufi mystics in Yemen used coffee as an aid to concentration and even spiritual intoxication when they chanted the name of God. [Read more...]
Interesting story in the BBC on how American beer, once derided in the world’s cultures that take beer seriously, has suddenly become fashionable. America’s craft breweries have spawned international fans and imitators, though also new controversies among the purists. [Read more...]
Roman Catholics may not eat meat on Fridays during Lent, though they may eat fish. The Archbishop of New Orleans has declared that alligator is “in the fish family” and “is considered seafood.” Therefore, Catholics can eat alligator on Fridays. [Read more...]
What with the locavore movement, the organic food craze, survivalism, and the need to pinch pennies, lots of people have started raising chickens. Even in big cities and suburbia. Here in the D.C. area, counties and municipalities have revised local ordinances to allow chicken coops in back yards. I salute those ventures. But if you breed chickens, you are going to wind up with some males of the species. Roosters don’t lay eggs; they aren’t cute enough to serve as pets; they tend to be mean; they fight if there are more than one of them; and–worst of all for city dwellers–they crow really loud early in the morning. So now animal rescue agencies, animal control centers, and the Humane Society are getting overwhelmed by people bringing in roosters.
I think it’s great that people want to be farmers. But if you are going to be a farmer, if only on a microscopic scale, you’ve got to think and act like a farmer. What has been done with unneeded roosters, from time immemorial, is to eat them!
In the immortal words of Stephen Foster, referring to Susanna,”We will kill the old red rooster when she comes, when she comes.” And then the next verse, “We will have chicken ‘n’ dumplings when she comes.” [Sorry! It isn't Susanna or Stephen Foster. As Todd points out in the comments, "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" is a completely different song.] That last point acknowledges that roosters can be tough and so need to be stewed, but they can still be very delicious, and wound count as local, organic, homegrown food too.
I do understand the problem of squeamishness in wringing necks and chopping off heads–something that seems not to have been a problem with our forebears, however gentle and mild-mannered in other parts of their lives (I remember accounts of my sainted grandmother twisting the heads off of chickens)–but this could be an opportunity for a revival of another classic profession that would be local and a humane alternative to the factory-scale meat industry: namely, the local butcher.
Timothy R. Smith, a 26-year-old single guy, says that he is in the position this year of having to prepare a Thanksgiving Dinner for himself and a bunch of his friends. He reports his relief at coming across Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well by food critic Sam Sifton, which gives step-by-step instructions on how to do everything. From Smith’s review of the book:
Sifton sets down rules that must be followed to guarantee success. Some of those bylaws seem to turn the tastemaker into a taskmaster, but that lends the book a certain charm.
For instance, one should always carve the turkey in the kitchen, not at the table; a first course should never precede the turkey — serve the whole meal at once; do not cook anything out of season; begin serving libations once guests arrive; and salad is always an unwelcome guest. He eschews marshmallows in any form at the Thanksgiving table, whether on sweet potatoes or dessert.
The glue of the meal is cranberry sauce and gravy. “Debate that all you like,” Sifton declares. “But they tie every element on the plate together.” And dessert should be the meal’s blissful, final amphetamine. “A proper Thanksgiving should close out with a blast of warm, gooey flavor — a burst of sugar that can give a guest just enough energy to make it from table to couch, the holiday’s final resting place.” Dessert must be a simple American classic, preferably apple or pumpkin pie with a breast of whipped cream. He disapproves of tartlets or parfaits and any form of innovative pastry.
Above all, Thanksgiving must be traditional, Sifton argues.
I would add that the final point about tradition has to trump all other rules, including that idiosyncratic rejection of marshmallows. He has a point about salads in the sense of green leafy healthy salads–unless one comes in under the tradition rule–though salads containing Jello and/or Cool Whip are permitted, especially if it’s never eaten except at Thanksgiving.
This made me think of other Thanksgiving rules:
(1) To determine how big of a turkey you need to buy, count the number of guests and estimate how many portions each is likely to eat. Then buy the biggest turkey you can find.
You need a gigantic turkey in order to create the impression of abundance, which, in turn, makes people feel a jolt of thankfulness. Also, you want lots and lots of leftovers, enough to replay the feast until the Jello and Cool Whip salads run out, and, above all, to have turkey sandwiches throughout the holiday weekend and as long after that as possible.
Recipe for turkey sandwiches: Get two pieces of soft, airy, pillowy white bread of the kind people who are serious about food scorn. (You may have to get on E-bay to get some Wonderbread [current bid for a loaf: $25]). Lubricate one side of both slices with a thick layer of mayonnaise. Pile high with turkey. Than add a thick layer of salt, not as seasoning but as an ingredient. Top with the other piece of bread. Eat with potato chips. The culinary principle is that it’s all white. You may, however, eat it with a sweet pickle on the side.
(2) Whether or not people like a dish has nothing to do with whether it should be served at Thanksgiving. Foods sanctioned by ancient use must still be served, even if no one currently likes them. New foods may be introduced, as long as the old foods are included. If, however, a dish has been served for two successive Thanksgivings, it has become traditional and must be served from then on.
(3) Tradition resets with the beginning of a new family. Thus, newly married couples having their own Thanksgiving Dinner for the first time are entitled to start their own traditions, as long as they maintain some thread of continuity with the traditions of each person’s childhood. The husband and the wife should each choose one or more dish they always had when they were growing up. The criteria is, “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.” In this way, two families come together into a new family. Newly-married couples are free to add any foods they choose. But if it is served for two successive years, rule #2 applies.
(4) Thanksgiving is about gratitude, so no fighting or sniping is allowed on Thanksgiving. That can wait until the rest of the weekend. Thanksgiving customs and observances should all provoke a response of thankfulness. That applies to these rules themselves. We are thankful not just for the food and the abundance and the material blessings they represent. We are also thankful for our families, here and stretching back through time, for the memories, for what it was like to be a child and to grow up, for our history–personal and corporate and national–and for our culture, from the little community of our family to the local and regional and national cultures that we are part of. We are thankful for the continuities, the social order and our place in it, as well as the uniqueness of everyone at the table. And we are thankful for our senses and for so many sensory pleasures and so many good gifts, all of which we receive from the hand of God.
That’s how we do it in the Veith household, since time immemorial. I hasten to add that since tradition trumps EVERYTHING, you and your family may do things differently. So what are some of your rules for Thanksgiving?