Thankful for Thanksgiving

veggie basket towel

I have much to be thankful for. But I’m not going to write about it because you already know; I’m thankful for the same things you are—family, friends, bounty, health, happy memories.

I just want to say how thankful I am that, in the United States, today is set aside specifically for giving thanks.

I try to recognize, every day, how lucky I am but I can still fall into the morass of worry and envy, seeing only how things could be better.

But Thanksgiving Day encourages me to be mindful of every single thing, small and large, that makes my life happy, easy, full.

Thanksgiving isn’t commercialized and all tarted up like Christmas; it isn’t tied to a religion or subset of Americans; there’s no incessant, annoying soundtrack for Thanksgiving.

It’s just a nice, quiet day where we all think about, and maybe even say out loud, how lucky we feel.

We should have more days like this! Enjoy today and count your blessings, wherever you live!

A Daydream Made of Caramel

IMG_3990 I spent the early morning hours with family. “Big deal, Kerry,” you say. “It’s Thanksgiving in the United States and most Americans are spending it with family.”

But I spent my morning with a grandmother who has been dead since I was 12, two cousins who live hundreds of miles away, and a sister sound asleep in the guest room.

No, I didn’t have a séance and I wasn’t Skyping. I spent the last three hours wrapping a gazillion (really—I counted) little squares of caramel in a gazillion little squares of waxed paper.

As I stood at the counter and wrapped, I daydreamed and I am, if I say it myself, a world-class daydreamer.

I daydreamed about my history with wrapping caramels.

Caramels have been a part of the winter holidays for me for, literally, my whole life. I grew up on a farm and my grandmother made caramels (and divinity) only at this time of year, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was a big event.

I’m still using her recipe—it takes a full two hours or more to make a batch and involves instructions like, “add the milk, drop by drop. Add the butter, bit by bit.” We kids—my sister and two cousins and I—weren’t encouraged to be around while the caramel was cooking because the hot syrup can cause the most awful burns but, once the caramel was poured and had time to set, our work began.

We were the caramel wrappers!  We didn’t see this as work at all. Or, if it was work, it came with great benefits! I’m sure we didn’t eat as many as we wrapped but I’m also sure we needed some time outside after we were done, to work off the sugar high.

My grandmother would carpet the kitchen table with little squares of waxed paper, cut the caramel into strips, and cut little pieces—plop, plop, plop—onto the paper. Little hands would pick up each square, wrap the waxed paper around and twist the ends to seal the caramels in.

Nowadays, a lot of my caramel gets dipped in chocolate or added to some other candy, like turtle bark or candy bars. The chocolate-covered fleur de sel caramels are by far my best-selling item.

But sometimes, I do get orders for the pure, unadulterated caramels and, as was the case this morning, I find myself wrapping little bites of caramel in squares of waxed paper.

And my mind wanders to a different warm kitchen, four little girl cousins, a plump farm grandmother, sweets made with loving hands at home—a scene out of Norman Rockwell and perfect for daydreams and happy memories. Wrapping caramels still comes with benefits.

I hope you have the chance to daydream and enjoy family memories on your day of thanksgiving!

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Ghosts of Holidays Past

ghost linensThis is the time of year that we all start thinking about setting a nice table for whatever holidays we celebrate. Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Thanksgivukkuh, Christmas, Kwanzaa—you name it, it involves a meal and we want the meal to be special in both the foods served and in presentation.

It will surprise no one who has been following along, that I like to use vintage linens on the table at these big holidays. A few of the items I have belonged to one or another ancestor but, mostly, I’ve accumulated my linens second hand.

Over the years, I piled up dozens of damask linen napkins to use at parties and many tablecloths as well.  Good-quality damask is like no other fabric—it is heavy and crisp and has a beautiful sheen. It looks good in any setting and doesn’t compete with the rest of your serving items.

Another benefit of these beautiful linens is that you can find superior quality at very good prices—just take a look at Etsy or eBay and you’ll find tablecloths in all sizes and napkins ranging from cocktail size through the huge size that some people call “lapkins.” The lapkins were often as big as 25 inches square and were used both to cover expensive clothing, in a time when laundry was a lot more difficult to do and as a display of wealth and refinement.

One problem with buying vintage linens, though, is that most of them have been used and, if they were used for meals, they probably have some sort of spots or stains.

In my time as a purveyor of vintage linens, I’ve learned a lot about getting stains out; most of the techniques involve patience and a willingness to let the items soak, for long hours, in hot water and whatever concoction I’m using.

I’ve also learned, though, with my own linens, to leave the spots alone. I see it this way—the spots on the cloths came from a family having fun. They were sitting around a holiday table, maybe the only time all year they’d get together. The men, at least in my family, were talking about the farm and the herd and the women were talking about how they shouldn’t have another piece of pie but maybe just a sliver . . .

The kids were at the “children’s table” in the kitchen and, mostly, glad to be there because the grown-ups sat around the big table FOREVER, talking and talking and drinking coffee and talking.

And in all of that family time, things got spilled on the tablecloth. Maybe it was when the gravy boat was going one direction and the cranberry sauce headed the other. Or someone was laughing and sloshed the coffee.

And the spills left the shadow of a spot. The proof, really, that a good time was had and people weren’t worried about the furnishings when there were stories to tell and relatives to get caught up with.

So I pretty much think of the faint spots on my table linens as the ghosts of good times past. Good times that left little marks on the linens but made a far greater impression on the people around the table.

Autumn Senses–Sight of Snow Geese

In late autumn, the leaves are off the trees, after that amazing show they put on before they blew away. The flowers are gone, the grass and fields are brown, everything is a little drab and monotone and low key. The lights have been turned down on the show.

And the snow geese, clever birds that they are, know that at this time of year, nothing can upstage them! They have the spotlight, they are the stars of the local stage.

I posted last week about a magical moment when I saw snow geese taking off against a dark sky. Since then, I’ve pretty much stalked them like a paparazza. They are always fascinating but still photos don’t necessarily capture their glory fully. The constant, seemingly chaotic, movement that suddenly resolves itself into a perfect V in the sky and the raucous, noisy chatter are a critical part of the overall experience.

But I can offer you photos. Many of these are taken at a distance, to show the spectacular numbers of geese gathered in one spot. I hope you’ll click on the photos to get a better look!

Chocolate Vs. Blogging

lucy and chocolateDo you know this episode of the old American TV show “I Love Lucy”? Lucy and her pal, Ethel, get jobs in a candy shop and are soon overwhelmed by the workload. It’s a classic!

As you may recall, I make candy. I can totally identify with Lucy and Ethel right now! I am pretty fully occupied by the demands of the holiday candy season.

I love what I’m doing–I’m up to my knees in chocolate! A dream come true! But it may mean that my blog is updated less frequently and my posts are short.

Please understand that I am thinking of you and will be back with more thoughtful posts as soon as I can be!

That Magic Moment, When I Looked into the Skies . . .

IMG_3855And saw thousands of snow geese taking off from the lake and swarming south.

IMG_3852I was tempering chocolate for an order, and glanced out my kitchen window. The sky was black and blue, and the geese sparkled against it.

IMG_3841I wish I could provide you with sound effects, too!

Ten minutes later, the sky was overcast and gray and the geese were out of the picture. Isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing?

Michigan Red Hots–Hot Dog!

 

IMG_3809Looking for a new recipe for a tailgate or fall party? Need to feed a lot of people at a Super Bowl gathering? Want a recipe that most people will never have heard of before and will have them clamoring for more?

You need to make Michigan Red Hots!

Michigans have something for everyone. Well, except vegetarians. And the gluten intolerant. And dieters. Almost everyone.

They have a history, dating back to the 1920s.

They are the subject of long-standing debates and rifts among family members.

They are homey and regional yet are on the verge of being discovered. You can be on the leading edge of the Michigan revolution.

Make these now and you’ll be able to say, “I was Michigan before Michigan was cool!”

Okay, okay—so what is a Michigan? It’s a hot dog in a bun with meat sauce on top.

Don’t you think that sounds special? Well, it is.

Michigan Red Hots have been a favorite in the North Country of upstate New York almost 90 years. This area is the northeast corner of New York State, closer to Montreal, Quebec, and Burlington, Vermont, than New York City.

It’s not quite the same as a chili dog or a Coney or a Texas Red Hot.

In this part of the world, people have been going to roadside stands since the 1920s, looking for Michigans.

No one really knows where the recipe came from or why the delicacy is called a Michigan. There are many tales about Coney Island hot dogs meeting sauce made by a woman from Nashville. The Nashville woman married someone from Detroit and then they moved to Plattsburgh, New York, and starting selling the hot dogs and called them Michigans.

I say, who cares? It’s not important where the name came from. What’s important is trying Michigans at as many stands and diners as possible, to find the uber-Michigan.

Everyone, everyone, has an opinion about the best Michigan. Once there was a stand called Nitzi’s that was definitely in the running but Nitzi retired and sold the business but, the lore says, he didn’t pass his sauce recipe along to the new owners.

Is Nitzi’s sauce lost? Or is it being used at another small shop? Was it best?

Many will say Clare and Carl’s is best. You could buy them here, as long as the building continues to stand! clare carl's Others swear by Gus’s Red Hot’s as the quintessential Michigan. McSweeney’s is a relative newcomer, Ronnie’s has been around forever but is very different than all the others, and so on, and so on.

The differences among these are subtle but don’t try telling that to the fans of any of them. Husbands and wives can’t agree. Parents and children are split. Compromises abound—“I’ll go to Clare and Carl’s today but next time we go to Gus’s!

The keys for a Michigan seem to be:

  • A thick meat sauce, slightly hot with spices, spiced with cumin and almost grainy in consistency
  • A steamed hot dog, often a bright red hot dog made with a natural casing
  • A big, sturdy, top-cut bun
  • Rough-chopped raw onion, either on top or “buried” under the sauce
  • A line of yellow mustard

IMG_3822If you order a Michigan in a restaurant and want to sound like a local, you say “Two Michigans with” if you want onions. My husband says, “Two Michigans with, buried” and I say, “One Michigan, without.” They are usually served with French fries and coleslaw, which is all really nice but the focus here is on the Michigan.

In the last couple of years, the secret has started to get out. Serious Eats made the Michigan one of their hot dogs of the week a couple of years ago and the reviewer said, “New York state’s Michigan “Red Hots” are one of the most fascinating hot dog varieties that I’ve come across so far.”

Rachael Ray did what I consider to be an evil thing—presented a recipe for basic Michigan sauce but then felt the need to add macaroni and cheese to it and put the whole con-glop-eration on top of a hot dog. The woman has no sense of a) tradition or b) moderation!

If you can’t make it to upstate New York but yearn for this special treat, the recipe that follows is one I’ve had for about 30 years. It is purported to be Clare and Carl’s recipe but tastes, to me, more like the Michigans from Gus’s. Whatever. This recipe makes a sauce that is very close to the typical Michigan you’d get at most places in the North Country.

Michigan Sauce

1 29-ounce can of tomato sauce

2 pounds hamburger

3-6 tsp. chili powder (I use 4 ½)

2 tsp. dried onion*

2 tsp. garlic powder*

3-4 Tablespoons Tabasco sauce (I use 3 Tbls. and use Frank’s Hot Sauce because I lived in Buffalo a long time and Frank’s is the primary ingredient in Buffalo wing sauce!)

2 tsp. black pepper

2 tsp. cumin

  • Mix all ingredients together, except meat.

  • IMG_3792Add meat raw and cook while stirring occasionally with a fork. The fork is important to get the consistency right! Michigan sauce doesn’t have chunks!

  • IMG_3798Simmer 2-3 hours. You can do this all in a slow cooker but, if you leave the top on, the sauce will be very soupy. You want the sauce to be pretty thick when it’s done.

The recipe makes quite a lot of sauce. I freeze some of it in ice cube trays and, when the cubes are frozen, I pop them out and put them in the freezer in a freezer bag. Then, when I want a Michigan, I just grab two cubes and put them in the microwave for a little while!

If you’re not a fan of hot dogs, you can put Michigan sauce on a hamburger roll, for a Sloppy Joe kind of sandwich; up here that’s called a sauce burger!

* You can get fancy and use real onion and garlic—maybe it’ll taste good but it won’t be a Michigan any more!

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