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:

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