Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Well Beyond Olives

Dear Hearts,

If you are an American, probably you have begun your holiday cooking or have begun to worry about your holiday cooking. Thanksgiving is at our throats.

As a young girl I watched my relations–mostly my female relations–confront this time of year with various blends of joy, loathing, cunning, subterfuge, skill, and daring.

My maternal grandmother, who is said to have come into the world clutching a wooden spoon, spent eleven months of the year with one eye on November. She adored food and cooking. Her Thanksgiving dinner–prepared in deep secrecy and served with great ceremony–was greeted by the family in much the same way that le tout Paris once greeted dear Christian Dior’s spring collections. Applause, followed by mass consumption. And she, like dear Monsieur Dior, poured her soul into everything she created.

I loved her dinners very much.

My paternal grandmother believed that cooking was a nerve-wracking and potentially lethal activity best left to trained professionals. She considered her Thanksgiving duty complete after she had telephoned the maître d’ of her favorite hotel and secured our usual private dining room.  She took care to make sure my grandfather would be served oysters and my abstemious Aunt Adelaide would not be served brandy. For me, she always ordered a small bonbonnière of petit fours in lieu of pumpkin pie.

I loved her dinners very much.

My own mother, who kept house in a bewildering variety of situations from a beach hut in American Samoa to a penthouse in Seattle, fell between these extremes. She believed that a person should be able to feed herself, and know how to be hospitable. Whatever you put before a guest–from a humble cup of tea to a flaming French dessert–you must know how to make it clear this was being given with open hands, gladly.  And your tea had better be good tea.

The subject of dinners and dining has been very much alive around the studio lately.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee–known to thousands of knitters as the Yarn Harlot–asked me whether I might do up a little something as an appetizer for the dinner at her Strung Along Retreat.  I need not tell you I was delighted to oblige, and dear Stephanie sent along these photographs of our special Strung Along colorway, plated and presented in a way that my grandmothers would have approved.

And our friends at Jimmy Beans Wool asked for a contribution to the 2014 edition of their Fit for a Feast program. Have you heard of this? Here is what happens, in a nutshell.

Jimmy Beans invites a coterie of their favorite (I blush) dyers to contribute courses (complete with recipes) to a holiday collection of yarns, produced in limited quantities specially for the feast.  To allow for differing appetites (and budgets), there are various ways to partake, from the Full Feast (a generous helping from the entire groaning board) to A Bite of Everything (a sampler of nibbles). It’s a large table, with seats for all.

You will find the delicious details here.

I was chatting about this with my teacher, Swapna, after a sitar lesson and told her I’d chosen to contribute the relish tray.

She shook her head.

“Are you nuts?” she said. “Who wants to make the relish tray? What kind of a recipe is that? Why not offer to make the stuffing? Everyone loves the stuffing. Or the pies.”

I must admit I could see her point. The relish tray is seldom anyone’s favorite part of the meal. Even my mother’s mother prepared one mostly out of habit, peeling and cutting and organizing for the better part of an hour. My grandfather would eat one green olive and a stick of celery, and the rest eventually would come to rest in soups or sauces.

But I like the relish tray.

As it has such a low profile, one may experiment boldly without inviting the avalanche of objections that come from putting Brazil nuts instead of pistachios into dearest great-great-grandmama’s prize-winning turkey dressing.

So do experiment! Don’t undertake it by rote, doing what has always been done without asking why. Change, push, mix and re-mix. Remember the oft-forgot role of this dish: to give the guests a brief respite from the succulent, the savory, and the lavish.

Gather sharp, bright, clear flavors. Seek out small bites that snap and tingle. Embrace novelty. Has your market come into a supply of heirloom carrots in unfamiliar colors? Small fruits and vegetables from afar that quicken the palate? Let them keep company with the celery and the olives, which will taste the better for it.

Use the relish tray to wake up your loved ones and prepare them for the next adventure.

That is what I do, dear hearts. That is my life’s goal. What dish, I ask you, could possibly suit me more?

Yours with Relish,
Mrs. Crosby
Lisbon, Portugal