On Not Loving/ Loving: Thanksgiving Meats and My Kentucky Family, Respectively

When my husband, Jeff, took me to his hometown in Kentucky for the first time, I was a bit disappointed. I wasn't quite certain what to expect, but I think I had vaguely imagined a good deal of undeveloped farmland, roadside general stores selling hams and fireworks, and some great twanged accents. You'll have to forgive me, here; I'd been living on my own in Chicago for fourteen months at that point, doing oh-so-sophisticated things like paying my bills, riding public transportation, and spraying my apartment for cockroaches, and I'd begun to think myself the epitome of a city mouse. All I'd ever associated with Kentucky was horse-racing and chicken. Oh, sure, I'd lived in Texas for some time, but that didn't really count as The South, did it? This would be entirely new territory-- a real getaway weekend to the real country. I was thinking biscuits and bourbon.

So it was with a little surprise that we took mostly highways to a good-sized suburban area in the South-Central region of the state, which looked a lot like the good-sized suburban areas I'd grown up in across the country. A lovely downtown area, the main drag of strip-malls with red and yellow fast food outposts, some treed residential developments. I saw one picket fence, two horses, and nary a general store.

And as for the food, well, I don't know what I'd pictured beyond biscuits, but Jeff's mother served a wonderful vegetarian lasagna. We drank a red wine. The city mouse slept quite soundly in a pale pink bedroom and awoke the next morning feeling rather at home.

Of course, I returned to my very drafty apartment in Chicago on Monday feeling pretty silly about whatever it was I had expected the previous Friday. A few months, later, however, what I'd been murkily envisioning materialized, and it happened through a pretty spectacular holiday called Thanksgiving.

Before that year, Thanksgiving had never been a favorite of mine. It wasn't really its fault; as the kick-off event to about six weeks of very immoderate amounts of cookies, toffees, truffles, cheese balls, egg nog, hot cocoa with whipped cream, and champagne, poor Thanksgiving, with its creamy--often homely--casseroles and cranberry sauce plopped out of a can, was relegated to an exercise in pacing myself. When it comes to personal tastes, poultry, potatoes, and stuffing are not typically the stuff my dreams are made of. I'd go for a stir-fry or a curry any day over a gravy-laden plate. Growing up, we certainly observed Turkey Day, but in a fairly quiet way. My extended family is scattered throughout the country, so my parents, siblings, and an uncle or aunt here and there comprised our day of Macy's Parade watching and general slothfulness.

Needless to say, then, I was thinking more about the significance of meeting Jeff's extended family for the first time than about any holiday trappings when we returned to Kentucky to spend Thanksgiving. What would they be like? Would I be too quiet or too loud compared to them? Would I remind them how much they really liked Jeff's previous girlfriend? ("oh, Susannah is nice, but remember how Fifi* always did all of the Thanksgiving dishes and captained our touch-football games and beat us all in Scrabble?")

When we arrived, my heart beat a little faster. Oh, there were a lot of them. They were strewn on the living room floor and couches watching football, they were piled two to a chair around the kitchen table. I'd leave one room that seemed so full it just had to contain all of them, only to find that half were actually in the next.

But after an hour or so, I knew this: this family did it up for Thanksgiving. For them, this was no light jog around the block to warm up for the holiday marathon. This was a crowd 'em all in, cackle over memories dating back to the 70s, bring out Taboo, and chat for hours event. They even had a traditional drink--chilled and bubbly Asti. Before I knew it, I was holding a glass and sitting in the midst of them, hearing Jeff get teased for only eating a certain brand of plain spaghetti for several years of his life.

And the food? Well, it was a bonified feast, straight from the cover of Southern Living. There was a turkey and a ham, but my word, they were the understudies to the side dishes, which filled the entire surface area of a fairly expansive kitchen island and breakfast nook. Cornbread dressing. Sausage-Sage dressing. Oyster dressing. Chicken and thick noodles. Sweet potato casserole with a candied pecan-brown sugar topping. Roasted asparagus. A creamy, cheesy green bean casserole. Cranberry salad. Corn. Waldorf salad. Mashed potatoes. Warm rolls, wrapped up in a basket.

No, there was nothing particularly "Southern" about the meal, and there must be families in Manhattan who ate more biscuits than we did, but at some point during the afternoon, maybe after I was the subject of some light teasing, it occurred to me that this was more what I'd been looking for on my first trip to Kentucky months before. A big, big family; comfort food; a handful of accents. Because when it comes down to it, the "getting to know you" period is thrilling when you're getting to know your future husband, but when it comes to families, I think it's better to skip over all of that politeness and nervousness and just be taken in, without question, as one of them.

After that dinner, I think I took a nap. It was a somewhat heady day, after all, between the introductions, the Asti, and consuming enough carbohydrates for all of 2005. It didn't really change the way I feel about Thanksgiving meats--I'm still fairly ambivalent when it comes to turkey and ham--but it changed my Thanksgivings forever. Now we spend each one in Kentucky, which, if you must know, is known for horse-racing, something called a Hot Brown, and my second family.

*No, Jeff never actually had a girlfriend named Fifi.

Turkey and Squash Curry

For me, curry is a natural chaser to a weekend of overindulgence. The perky spices and ginger are refreshing after serious gravy intake, and the vegetables do a lot of good for the pie-guilty psyche.

I'm afraid this recipe might be too late for using up your bird, but no matter--it is equally good with leftover chicken. When it comes to modifications, feel free to substitute acorn squash or even sweet potato for the butternut. I threw in a small bag of broccoli crowns rather than spinach.

A note on spices--I have given measures that result in a mildly-spiced dish. If you're like me and your palate prefers more to less when it comes to spice, increase each spice by about half or even double.

1 lb butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
4 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 onion, coursely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2-4 cups cooked turkey or chicken
3 tbsp curry powder
2 tbsp dried marjoram
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, drained

1 10-ounce bag of baby spinach (optional)

3/4 cup plain yogurt (full fat or nonfat, your choice)

3 tbsp flour

Preheat oven to 375. Line a cookie sheet with foil.

Toss cubed squash with 2 tbsp olive oil. Spread in a single layer on lined cookie sheet. Bake in oven for 25-30 mins, or until tender.

While squash is baking, put a large, 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium high heat. Add 2 tbsp olive oil. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in garlic and ginger. Cook another 3-5 minutes.

Stir in chicken or turkey and drained tomatoes, then stir in curry powder and marjoram. Add chicken broth, and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add spinach if so desired, and stir until wilted. Stir in cooked squash. Let entire mixture simmer for another 10 minutes.

Stir flour into yogurt in a small bowl with a whisk.

Remove curry from heat, and stir in yogurt mixture. Serve over rice or couscous.

Serves 4-6.

P.S. If you're in need of someone to finish off your bird, this guy is available:


She May Not Be a Beauty

But she's a cheesecake. An amalgamation of some of the richest, most decadent ingredients we've got. Melted butter. Creamed cheese. Heavy cream (a term that's a bit redundant, no?). She's what we're contributing to Thanksgiving this year.

With concentric cracks and some unsightly dark spots, she's no pastry queen. But even if I had the time to smart her up with some (more!) piped cream or (more!) chocolate glaze, I wouldn't do it. Holidays, especially ones during which large families congregate, are decidedly--and deliciously--messy affairs. Blood relatives and people who were once complete strangers mash together for much needed catching up, much too much eating, and much too soon goodbyes. A slightly lopsided cheesecake will fit right in.
As one of the "Non-Bloods" who'll be in attendance this year, I'm just thankful for springform pans, KitchenAid mixers, a husband who does the dishes while I bake, second families, room for all of us, and
one creamy chocolate caramel cheesecake.
Happy Thanksgiving from Nashville.


And They Called Her Susu

My parents have called me "Susu" for as long as I can remember. While it may have made me cringe at fifteen, I think it now makes for a convenient title for this nascent thing I hope to eventually call a "food blog."
But if titles using childhood nicknames that reference foods or their preparation is my goal, well, readers, I'll be honest at the outset here: this thing could have a good many. Susu may have been been the most frequently invoked, but my mother, father, and siblings had several others for me, among them Meatball and Muffin.
Spend five minutes looking through our family photos, and you'd understand that these weren't random terms of endearment. I was a kid who could eat. I was also a kid who didn't own a piece of clothing that didn't have some sort of ambiguous stain faded into its fibers: lo mein, perhaps, or chocolate sauce, hopefully? So, what parents would call " a good (if messy) eater."

Although my little brother would probably contest this, given that his dislike of any foods that weren't white or light brown led to a lot of crying and occasional gagging at the dinner table, it wasn't hard to be a good eater in my family. My earliest memories of my father involve accompanying him on trips to the grocery store and watching him chop, broil, roll out, saute, or food-process the heck out of something. He received cookbooks every Christmas and didn't throw out an issue of Gourmet or Bon Appetit from approximately 1985- 2002 (this isn't to say they were neatly catalogued; in the years before most were recycled during my parents' most recent move, they were stacked to 3 ft behind an old set of bar furniture in our living room--hey, this is going to be a food blog rather than a home-decorating blog for a reason).

While my parents' cooking changed along with the rest of America's over the years, as cilantro and fish sauce and salsa went from This Just In status to being mass-produced, certain things stayed the same. It was never out of the ordinary for my dad to spend his entire Saturday in the kitchen or to go to three different stores every Sunday for various ingredients. While I may have been the only one of my siblings to get very excited for Taco Night or to actually like steak, I nevertheless didn't understand why someone would spend hours on the hunt for the best Jersey produce stand. Like most children, what I didn't understand about my parents when I was small gave way to what I detested about them when I was an adolescent. I remember many a Sunday dinner when my dad's "Do you like it?" was met with eye-rolling and grunting of an intensity that only teenagers can muster.

So it was with more than a bit of surprise when one day, two years ago or so, as I was making caramel to dress a dessert course to follow three previous courses for a small dinner party we were hosting, that I realized I'd spent the past eight hours in the kitchen. That I'd sliced, roasted, and pureed the heck out of ingredients I'd gathered from three different stores. That I had flour underneath my fingernails and...was that...a piece of chicken fat on my jeans?

That I'd had a blast.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I'm still hard-pressed to pull things out of my closet that aren't stained. This is the kind of cook I am: diligent but imprecise, adventurous but untrained. My cooking philosophy errs to the side of "why not just pour the whole bottle in?" and "is sifting really necessary?" I'll be lucky if I ever develop the kind of skills wielded by a sous chef, but that's not at all the purpose of this blog. I'm here to write about good food and the things, or more properly, people that make it worthwhile. I am happiest at a table with family or friends, whether we're eating peanut butter toast or a country pate. Actually, how about both? Are you still there?

I don't know exactly what course this blog will take, but I hope you'll come along. All I can say now is that it will probably involve a scandalous amount of this:

A decent amount of this:

And a necessary amount of this:

Welcome to Chef Sue Sous. Here's to plenty of meatballs and muffins.