Thanksgiving presents an intriguing conundrum for cooks across the country.
It’s a holiday based almost entirely on food, but that food is so firmly entrenched in almost 400 years of tradition that there is little room for innovation, experimentation or putting a personal stamp on the meal.
Granted, there have been a few changes since the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag over for a celebratory dinner in 1621. The wild turkeys they feasted on most likely bore little resemblance to the big fat Butterball turkeys in our grocer’s freezer. And we all had to wait for canned soup and tins of French-fried onions to be invented before green bean casserole could rise to its full potential. Likewise, cranberries probably came fresh from a bog rather than jiggly from a can.
But aside from those “advances” in technology, the only changes in the meal tend to be generational. When a new couple marries or moves in together, blending the ironclad traditions from their respective families can be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for innovation.
Whether the sweet potatoes are going to be baked or showered with brown sugar and topped with tiny marshmallows can set a new couple’s course for a life of compromise or an early divorce, depending on whether they decide to double-bake, mash, stuff and lightly glaze those sweet potatoes as a nod to both their traditions or not speak until New Year’s. Remember, it’s not just a side dish. You’re setting the tone for a relationship that will hopefully last a lifetime. The opportunity for Thanksgiving innovation comes but once a generation. Use it well.
One family’s story
Take my own family for instance. My wife is from the west coast. I am from the South and we lived in the Northeast. The year we were married, we lacked the means to visit either of our families so we were free to make everything up fresh. Fortunately, before we began to throw small appliances at each other while arguing the merits of jellied vs. lumpy cranberry sauce, Julia Child stepped in and solved the problem for us.
Back in the mid-80s, Parade magazine published a complete Julia Child Thanksgiving menu, that was always traditional but tweaked in some way. Now that we were real adults in our own apartment, attempting our first Thanksgiving dinner with real guests, what better guide could there be into the world of adult sophistication than Julia Child. We invited ten friends who also had nowhere to go since they also lived too far from their families to go home and the “Thanksgiving of Misfits” was born.
It’s hard to remember what innovation Julia had for the turkey that year. I think it was some kind of glaze. She advocated serving both white and sweet potatoes, both mashed and served side by side in a big platter. It was a striking way to serve a simple dish.
But the thing that really caught our attention was the pumpkin soup served in a pumpkin. It was clear even from the photos in the magazine that we were dealing with an inspired piece of food theater. Both of us liked the idea of adding a soup course to the holiday meal. That seemed very fancy. Just the sort of thing that we should get used to doing as we planned on becoming cosmopolitan New Yorkers as soon as possible.
Since we did not possess a soup tureen, utilizing the pumpkin as serving dish was the perfect way to begin our journey toward becoming the sort of people who started dinner with a soup course.
It was a real crowd-pleaser. I can still hear the oohs and ahhs from the assembled guests as the roasted pumpkin was triumphantly borne in from the kitchen. The ahhs resumed as the top was removed and steaming soup was ladled from the pumpkin. Each spoonful scraped a little of the cooked pumpkin flesh out with the soup creating a very special and memorable dining experience.
Grand success requires work. There were issues. A first course that requires two hours of oven time is logistically a problem with a meal that already has an entree that ties up the oven for hours and hours. And back in those days, not having the food culture we have today, it was virtually impossible to find a pumpkin after Halloween.
A problem we only realized was a problem when we began our Thanksgiving shopping. We looked high and low and could not find a pumpkin available for sale. They were all over the neighborhood in fall displays but the stores were bare. We were on the verge of giving up on Julia and her soup when one of our invited guests who knew of our dilemma dropped by the house and presented us with a pumpkin.
He was always a little vague about its provenance. It may or may not have been rogued from one of our neighbors autumnal porch displays. I knew perfectly well my friend was capable of playing fast and loose with the law, and I hoped he had not acquired the pumpkin by nefarious means, less for legal and moral reasons than because I lived in a Mafia neighborhood and had no desire to swim with the fishes.
But no one came to harm and, as I said, the pumpkin soup was a grand success. In fact, it became the cornerstone of our Thanksgiving dinner for years to come. Even more important than the turkey. All our guests of that evening came to look forward to the grand and glorious spectacle of a pumpkin full of steaming soup. For just those few moments each year, our usually ordinary and boring lives became just as grand and glorious as Julia’s pumpkin.
I learned, in future years, to buy my pumpkin before Halloween.
I learned to farm out either the turkey or the soup to someone else to solve the multiple oven dilemma.
I learned that the window between a perfectly roasted pumpkin full of steaming soup and an overcooked pumpkin collapsed in the oven with hot soup running into the floor was a very small window indeed.
I learned to cook the pumpkin on what I planned to serve it on, as transferring it from a baking pan was a fool’s errand.
I learned that a quiche dish or a glass pie plate sitting in a roasting pan was the best way to go. The pie plate made a serviceable serving dish and the roasting pan caught any potential disasters.
I learned that a pumpkin in the store or at the farmer’s market looked much smaller than it looked at home as I tried to shove it into the oven.
But mostly, I learned that it was all worth it.
Here is the recipe, created by Julia Child, adapted for Parade, made according to that recipe for years until it was lost, then made by memory for many more years and now retrieved for you by the miracle of Google and the internet.
Julia called it “Le Potiron tout rond”, which literally translates as “the all round pumpkin” but actually means “stuffed pumpkin.” We always called it “Pumpkin soup, in the pumpkin”. French doesn’t have a word that directly translates to the English word “pumpkin”. “Potiron” can mean any number of winter squashes. But you know what to use. A nice round pie pumpkin about the size of a soup tureen that will fit in your oven. Including the stem. Don’t forget the stem. And don’t forget to make sure it will sit level. That’s important.
When the oohs and ahhs have settled down after presenting your pumpkin soup to your enchanted guests, you will undoubtedly tell them that you got the idea from Julia Child. if you have guests of a certain age, the rest of the meal will resound with admonitions to “Save the livers” and requests for more wine.
You should say, as Julia always did, “Bon apétit.”
Le potiron tout rond
Stuffed Pumpkin or Pumpkin Soup Served in a Pumpkin
serves 6 to 8 as a first course (If you have a lot of guests and a big Thanksgiving dinner ahead, use very small bowls and it will serve many more. Shots of soup would be charming for a crowd.)
1 ½ cups (pressed down) fresh white crumbs from French bread or non-sweetened homemade-type white bread
A fine, hard, unblemished 4 lb. pumpkin (about 6 “ in diameter) with 2” stem
1 tbsp. soft butter
⅔ cup finely minced onions
6 tbsp. butter
½ tsp. salt
Pinch of pepper and nutmeg
½ tsp. ground sage
½ cup finely diced or coarsely grated Swiss cheese
2 to 2 ¼ cups light cream
1 bay leaf
Spread the bread crumbs in the roasting pan and let them dry out in a 300-degree oven, stirring occasionally; this will take about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, with a short, stout knife, cut a cover 4 inches in diameter out of the top of the pumpkin. Scrape all the stringy material and seeds from cover and inside of pumpkin (an ice-cream spoon and grapefruit knife are useful for this). Rub inside of pumpkin and the cover with the soft butter and sprinkle lightly with salt.
While bread crumbs are drying, cook the onions in the butter for 8 to 10 minutes over low heat until tender and translucent. Then stir in the crumbs and let them cook slowly for 2 minutes to absorb the butter. Stir in seasonings and sage. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese, then stir the mixture into the pumpkin. Pour in the cream, adding enough so mixture comes to within ½” of pumpkin rim. Lay bay leaf on top and replace cover.
May be prepared in advance to this point.
Bake in a preheated 400°F. oven for about 1 ½ hours, until pumpkin is beginning to soften on the outside and the inside is beginning to bubble. Reduce oven thermostat to 350°F. and bake another half hour until pumpkin is tender but still holds its shape solidly. (If pumpkin is browning too much, cover loosely with foil or brown paper.)
May be kept warm in a 200°F. oven for half an hour at least.
To serve, remove cover and dip into pumpkin with a long-handled spoon, scraping flesh off bottom and sides of pumpkin with each serving of the filling.
This variation is more like the recipe in Parade from the 1980s that I used for many years: Use a 6 to 7 pound pumpkin and the same ingredients, except replace the cream with enough chicken stock to come within 1/2“ of rim. Stir half a cup or so of heavy cream and a handful of chopped parsley into soup just before serving.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.