Today: Chris Fischer's story of last Thanskgiving on Martha's Vineyard: a modern take on a traditional New England Thanksgiving feast.
"From the game proudly turned over to her by her husband, from the fish of the pond and sea, from the maize and vegetables she had grown in her garden, from the berries the children had gathered, the wild herbs and roots she had herself sought out…"
Howard S. Russell, Indian New England Before the Mayflower
It is a romantic vision for Thanksgiving, to cook what you and your family hunted, fished, and harvested for over an open fire. In an ideal world, we could all cook like this, spending the time necessary to gather ingredients native to our surroundings and using them to cook a proper meal with our families.
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Seeing as Thanksgiving is the quintessential New England holiday, with its modern-day menu origins stemming from native foods still present here on Martha’s Vineyard, that ideal meal is a bit easier to attain here than in other parts of the world.
In 2011, Sam Bungey recorded a very funny and well-told story for This American Life about a flock of wild turkeys living in our town of Chilmark that caused some serious havoc within the local community -- some residents treated them as pets, while others were assaulted by the flock. With no real predators on the Island -- except for the occasional absent-minded driver or a rare hunter who is willing to take the time to pluck these birds -- you can’t really drive anywhere on the Island without seeing a flock or two of wild birds. So a traditional Thanksgiving feels like a very natural, and fitting, celebration for us at Beetlebung Farm.
My idea of the perfect Thanksgiving is to skip the labored-over and complicated recipes and make the simple standbys: I cook an easy bird, incorporate some fresh vegetables, and don't fuss over the meal too much. Last year, I did just that and threw a big party with community members young and old. Friends and family gathered around a long, shared table for an afternoon of grilling over open fires, which did double duty keeping us warm as the meal meandered throughout the waning hours of daylight and into dusk.
Our turkey was raised locally by Jefferson Munroe of The Good Farm, and I made a simple stuffing, which came together in a snap; guests brought all the sides and fixings. I modeled my turkey recipe after one from Kristen Maloney, a librarian at the Chilmark public library, who makes a nice and easy roasted chicken. Hers is a slow-roasted bird basted consistently throughout its cooking time in a low oven and glazed lightly with tamari; water is added to keep the pan from browning too far. The citrus stuffed in the cavity is an unintentional nod to Simon Hopkinson’s famous roasted chicken, except this bird is cooked at a much lower temperature. Kristen’s chicken is always moist and falling-off-the-bone-tender, and the gentle cooking technique is perfect for a turkey as well. Depending on the size of your bird, this should take only a leisurely bit of attention while you focus on more important things.
It turned out to be the perfect modern-day celebration, where the age-old tradition of locally harvested cranberries shone in a fresh version of the classically canned dish, homegrown sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts were roasted, and a pasture-raised bird served as the centerpiece. New traditions are also introduced as many generations gather to celebrate the fresh air and another year well spent. After all, that's the reason behind all these parades and rituals: to be grateful for the wonderful people in our lives and to celebrate the bounty we can provide for our tables.
Chris Fischer grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, a member of the twelfth generation of his family to inhabit the island. After cooking in some of the leading kitchens in the world—Babbo in New York City, the American Academy in Rome, St. John Bread & Wine and The River Cafe in London—he returned back to Beetlebung. Just down the road from the farm, he currently serves as the chef at the Beach Plum Inn & Restaurant.