Thanksgiving in Our Home
The food and traditions we love
“Give thanks not just on Thanksgiving Day, but every day of your life. Appreciate and never take for granted all that you have.”
– Catherine Pulsifer
Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.
How did Thanksgiving start?
Most of us are pretty familiar with the general concept of the early Pilgrim settlers and the Native Americans sharing a harvest celebration meal and bridging the cultural gap between the two civilizations, but there are few interesting facts about that first meal and the people of that time that are worth mentioning.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, a feast was organized by Governor William Bradford and invitations were sent out to the colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The Pilgrims arrived in what is now Massachusettes in late 1620 only to barely survive the Winter. Many settlers stayed aboard the ship to shield themselves from the elements and a paltry 50% of the settlers survived the first few months in America.
Squanto, who was able to speak English and teach the settlers how to survive, was the primary reason they were able to cultivate crops and survive the expedition at all. Squanto bridged an alliance between the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag natives. The Pilgrims, weren’t actually called Pilgrims at that time, that was a name associated with them many years later. Originally the voyagers on the Mayflower in 1620 largely identified as Separatists who were fleeing Europe for a variety of conflicts with religious freedom.
It has long been an interesting family fact that I, Matthew Ryan, can trace my family lineage back to William Brewster who was aboard the Mayflower expedition in 1620. Of course, I am not to credit for tracing that lineage back, but I am told that my family can trace back at least that far accurately. William Brewster is my 12th great, great grandfather and was a devout God-fearing man who became a town elder in the Plymouth settlement and worked closely with and as an advisor to the Governor, William Bradford. William Brewster was also the preacher and religious leader of Plymouth for many years until a pastor, Ralph Smith, arrived in 1629 who then took over full-time duties of being a Pastor for the town. William Brewster was a respected and important part of the Plymouth settlement until his death in 1644.
It wasn’t until the 1830s that this harvest feast was called the first Thanksgiving and the holiday wasn’t made official until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it as a kind of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa. Unfortunately the first Thanksgiving was only a short-lived treaty as much of the fall out over the subsequent years led to much animosity and bloodshed between the “White Man” and the Native Americans. Even Squanto, who was able to speak English and translate between the native tribes and the Pilgrims had previously been a victim of being captured and taken back to Europe for a period of time as a slave. It was during his captivity that he learned English and after finally returning home he discovered that his tribe had been wiped out by smallpox. There is much backstory to those early times and interactions that are far beyond what anyone wants to see on a Hallmark card or was taught to us in school.
Our focus today though is not about all the wrongs that were done back then, but rather the celebration we enjoy today that emerged from those treaties and conflicts which has evolved into something marvelous that we can all truly give thanks for!
What did they actually eat that day?
The classic Thanksgiving menu of turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and root vegetables is based on New England fall harvest festivals. Fall harvests have been around as long as farming has with each region having its own feast comprised of what is grown in that area. What was shared with the Native Americans was primitive compared to the New England version that we know now and as the years have gone by the staple American version of the thanksgiving meal has evolved greatly, but harkens back to what they enjoyed in New England in the days of old. Another notable influence is that of Southern cuisine as many of the corn and sweet potato dishes came to be staples in this region. Cornbread, cornbread stuffing, ambrosia, and many other cakes, pies, and puddings were all added into the holiday culinary canon by Southern influences.
What is now remembered as the “First Thanksgiving” was a festival that lasted for three days. Although no one knows exactly what was served on that famous day, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event and that the natives of the Wampanoag tribe arrived bearing five deer. The Fowl the Pilgrims feasted on could’ve been turkey, duck or geese, but culturally it has evolved that Turkey is the primary bird of choice for this occasion. It is suggested by many historians that many of the dishes were likely prepared in a traditional Native American method with their spices and cooking styles. Since the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become rather synonymous with our current menu for this holiday.
It is believed that the origin of pumpkin pie came from when the colonists sliced the top off a pumpkin, removed the seeds, and then filled it with milk, spices and honey for flavoring. The pumpkin was then baked in the hot ashes of a dying fire until the insides were tender and delicious! Pumpkin was introduced to the settlers by the Native Americans, along with most everything else, who used this famous squash for many purposes beyond just food, as was true to their nature and ingenuity as a people. Native Americans were known to cook and dry strips of Pumpkin and weave them into mats to use around their homes.
We must find the time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.
-John F. Kennedy
Family and friends are what this holiday revolves around as we all take time to slow down, spend time with the ones we love, and count our blessings. It is much easier to focus on the positive in our lives and be grateful for what we do have rather than what we feel we are lacking or struggling with.
In our family we have been hosting Thanksgiving for the last few years and my mother has passed the baton on to me to prepare the family feast. It has been a privilege and a challenge to take on the responsibility of bringing all the many facets of that day and meal together for everyone. It is a pleasure to be able to have my parents visit for the holiday and allow them to just relax after being the hosts for so many years.
Shawn Rae and I work as a team to bring all the components of this meal together and we divide and concur where each of our strengths lie. I take care of the turkey and the gravy as well as my favorite side dish, green bean casserole. Shawn handles all of the desserts and the rest of the side dishes, which are many!
A tradition that I have inherited from Shawn Rae and her three wonderful kids is one of watching the Cowboys football game during the day, enjoying the spread of charcuterie and snacks that her daughter Mandee graciously provides, and opening “crackers”. Crackers are a small surprise gift each person opens, that pop like a firecracker when you pull them open. They are filled with small puzzles, jokes, riddles, and games. They are a fun little diversion that usually inspires many eye-rolling jokes! We also love to play family games around the table most years if we can all survive the inevitable food coma from such an epic meal!
We prepare our turkey in what many would consider a rather unique way, although it is not actually that uncommon of a technique. For about 4 years or so now we have been Spatchcocking our turkey.
Now before you drag me by the ear to put soap in my mouth, hear me out!!!
Spatchcocking a turkey, or any bird for that matter, is a rather off-putting term for butterflying your bird of choice. Simply put, you cut out the backbone and crack the ribcage so that you can lay the bird out flat. This technique provides many benefits! First and foremost, the bird will cook faster and more evenly. This method also increases the surface area of exposed skin so that you get more of that coveted crispy skin! Last, but certainly not least, by removing the backbone you have a very effective ingredient to make chicken stock/broth with.
You all make a batch of chicken stock at Thanksgiving with all of the leftover bones and carcass right? You don’t just throw that all in the trash do you?! No you say, ok good, that’s a relief to hear. Just in case you are ingratiating me with a “nod and smile”, you should really check out the blog we have that breaks down everything you need to know about making Broth, Stock, Bone Broth, and Demi-Glace. Click the link below to check out the ultimate guide to making all of those delicious byproducts!
My mom always said there’s more than one way to skin a cat, er cook a turkey, and so there is. I don’t claim that spatchcocking is the one and only way you should cook your turkey. I have had many amazing turkeys cooked in the traditional way as well as both smoked and fried. When done correctly, you really can’t beat the crisp golden skin on a fried turkey, but that is not an endeavor for the casual chef. Smoked turkey is pretty good and if you take your time you can develop a great flavor without overcooking the bird. It takes longer, but you can really keep the turkey moist throughout the cook and then hit it hot at the end to crisp up the skin.
For us though, once we cooked a spatchcocked turkey it was a one-way trip we never turned back from. Our 14-16 lb turkeys tend to cook in less than 3 hours as opposed to the 5-6 a whole bird with stuffing inside can usually take. The dark meat is done without drying out the white meat and you get a maximum crispy skin yield. The turkey is also a lot easier to carve this way since it will lay flat on a cutting board and everything is accessible. All you need to do is joint out the legs and wings, then cut along the breastbone to get two full filets you can slice up however you want.
|Cut out the backbone||Crack the breastbone with firm pressure||Lay out flat||Season with R&R Poultry Seasoning|
For the best results, you should rinse and pat dry your bird of choice after spatchcocking and place in a roasting pan or baking sheet that is large enough to accommodate both the bird and a wire rack underneath. Rub the bird down with olive oil and generously season with kosher salt. Allow a few minutes for the salt to adhere and then season liberally with Rae&Ryan’s Gourmet Poultry Seasoning. In general, it is easiest to season a turkey, or any roast, using a small mesh strainer like a flour duster to evenly distribute the rub with maximum coverage and minimal waste.
It is easiest to season the bottom of the bird first and then flip it over, right side up, for the final seasoning. Once the bird is fully seasoned, carefully lift it out and place a wire rack underneath and the bird on top. Place the turkey UNCOVERED in your fridge overnight to cook the next day. This is not essential, but allowing the bird to dry age in the fridge overnight will allow the rub to really set and adhere to the skin. In addition, the salt will dry out the skin which will assist in having crispier skin all around by the end of the cook.
For a more step by step guide on how to spatchcock a turkey check this link below:
Delicious all year round!
Whether you say Thank You, Turkey, or Touch Down on the fourth
down, er Thursday, in November you’ll be grateful you have this
potent powerhouse of herbs and spices in your playbook when
Thanksgiving comes around. This blend plays well across the
whole meal from the main course, to stuffing, and the gravy as well.
Not exclusive to this famous meal, this blend translates well across
all entrée birds whether they be fair or fowl 😉 In all seriousness
though, this is our take on a pantry staple, a tried and true blend.
We hope you enjoy it as much as we do!
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How you choose to cook your turkey is not as important as taking the time to spatchcock and dry age the seasoned bird. An oven of course is the go-to choice, but we find that using a pellet smoker is a win-win for this meal! If you are going to fry your turkey, then that is a completely different route and none of this applies.
The benefit of using a pellet smoker is that it frees up the indoor oven to juggle all the side dishes in and out without disrupting the turkey cook time. If you want a smokier turkey you can start it low and slow and ramp it up as you go, but you can also just “set it and forget”, respectively, letting it cook undisturbed like in your oven as long as your smoker has a thermostat regulator.
As the turkey gets closer to done I will baste it with the rendered juices as well as melt down some butter to really get some fat on the skin. Then I will kick up the temp to crisp that skin and we are on the home stretch! In general, I find that a more median temperature of about 300 allows the bird to cook evenly without drying out or burning the surface before the inside is fully cooked. I will graduate the cooking temp 25 degrees per hour or so. I’ll start at around 300 for the first hour, 325 for the second, and 350 for as much of a third hour as it takes before bringing it up to 400/425 for that last 20 minutes to really crisp that skin. The skin on a smoked turkey comes out darker than the crisp golden-brown of an oven-baked version. The herbs in the dry rub also darken as everything cooks so the presentation isn’t as classic looking, but the trade-off for moisture and flavor can’t be beaten!
|Cook your turkey||Let cool and rest||Joint out the legs and wings||Slice and serve!|
“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”
– Erma Bombeck
Side dishes, some would argue, are more important than the entree itself! I don’t necessarily disagree since I could sit down with just a pan of green bean casserole and be a very happy man 🙂 The list of side dishes in our arsenal is vast and a compilation from our two families, individual requests, and what we actually have time to make. I wish I could say we just have a core 2-3 we could get by with, but each person in the family chooses the ONE side dish they must have at Thanksgiving and we fill that request. A few people agree on their favorites, which is great, but potentially we could have 6-8 side dishes if everyone picks something different.
In no particular order, we often serve: Greenbean casserole, mashed potatoes, corn soufflé, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffing, ambrosia, rolls with butter, and of course gravy.
Corn soufflé was something that Shawn Rae introduced me to and it is very easy to make and incredibly delicious. I’ll warn you though, it does use an obscene amount of butter and is undeniably indulgent. Largely consisting of cream style canned corn, jiffy cornbread mix, and the aforementioned obscene amount of butter, a certain kind of magic happens and these ingredients come together like the richest and moistest cornbread you have ever had. If a creamy custard and traditional cornbread had a lovechild, this would be it.
Recently we have started doing a lot of prep the day before so we can have more time to relax and not be in the kitchen the entire day. Shawn bakes all of the pies ahead of time so they aren’t competing for oven space on the day of. We also chop up all the aromatics we need for stuffing and the other side dishes and put them in ziplocks in the fridge overnight. This really streamlines cooking on Thanksgiving as we just need to grab the labeled bag and add the wet ingredients and throw it in the oven.
When we have an extra full table of friends and family we will actually cook two sets of this whole meal so we have enough food for everyone. We will cook one turkey and the main sides the day before and package it up for leftovers for us and to send home with people. Doing two birds, one the day before is also really advantageous for making gravy! I have all the time I need to perfect the gravy without having to rush at the end with the drippings from the bird we are trying to sit down and eat while it is still hot. Having two bird carcasses also lends a lot to making my annual batch of chicken/turkey stock. I’m serious when it comes to making broth and stock and it all began with the batch I would make each November with all the turkey leftovers!
|Pre-prep for all the side dishes||My signature Greenbean casserole||Don’t forget the fried onions!||Corn Soufflé|
While we are busy cooking all the food, everyone gets to enjoy Mandee’s amazing spread of meat, cheese, and crackers she brings every year!
|All of Mandee’s snacks||and Charcuterie!||The Full Spread!|
Thanksgiving of course would not be complete without dessert!
Pumpkin pie is non-negotiable, but beyond that, we will often have a cherry, apple, and/or pecan pie to boot. I leave all the baking in Shawn Rae’s capable hands as I know where my strengths lie and baking is not it! There is an anamoly in the side dish/dessert spectrum that has been lovingly called “dessert you can put on your plate”. This is what the kids named Ambrosia many years ago as it is served during dinner instead of after. Ambrosia comes and goes from year to year whether people are in the mood for it or not, but this year it is back by popular demand.
|Pumpkin Pie||Apple Pie||Cherry Pie||Ambrosia|
Pumpkin and Apple Spice
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Is the last time that you used the ground cinnamon and other baking spices in your cabinet about this time last year…? How many years have your spices been laying around?
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|Pumpkin Spice||Apple Spice|
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