Imagine sitting down six months from now to a most amazing Thanksgiving dinner. Piping hot casseroles made with potatoes and yams gathered from your make-shift root cellar, a relish tray brimming with homemade pickled beets and cucumbers from jars that have lined the pantry shelf for months, and a hearty kale soup made with greens harvested fresh from the garden that very morning.
Seems too good to be true, right?
A year ago, I would have thought so. As my family sat down for our traditional turkey dinner last fall, I noticed how much of what we prepared and ate that day was bought with little thought and, more than I wanted to admit, came from a box.
I began to wonder: Was it possible to make next year's Thanksgiving meal entirely from scratch? Beyond that, could we grow the majority of the feast in our own back yard, even though the traditional gardening season ends long before Thanksgiving?
This spring, I set out on a fascinating gardening journey. Working backward through the process, I planned our Thanksgiving meal seven months in advance, figuring out what I would need to grow. My thumbs are not green, and the difference between a rutabaga and a parsnip was beyond me, but I was eager to learn.
I quizzed our local gardening guru, Seedleaf founder Ryan Koch, over coffee. From his sunny dining-room table, he coached me through old methods: root cellars, food preservation and cool-weather gardening.
Armed with a ton of new knowledge, I left those meetings with a desire to learn more. Eventually I scored a phone interview with Emmy award-winning chef Walter Staib, of City Tavern in Philadelphia. Staib, host of the PBS show A Taste of History, is a crusader in preserving Old World cooking techniques, and he spends many hours with Bruce Cooper Gill, the curator of the Harriton House in Bryn Mawr, Pa., planting edible heirloom crops.
We talked about what vegetables would have been present on early American tables in winter, long before grocery store produce aisles existed. Staib gave me great encouragement that many vegetables I had hoped to serve in late November could indeed come fresh from my garden.
He reminisced about his own childhood days in Germany's Black Forest region, when his mother would send him out to the garden to snap frozen Brussels sprouts from the stalk and dig leeks out of the snow-covered ground. He gave fantastic ideas about many things, including infusing vinegar with fresh herbs for salads and making centerpiece displays with dried ornamental corn and gourds.
I have learned that growing a Thanksgiving garden was not only possible but achievable for this city gal. Nowadays, I find myself sitting at stoplights daydreaming about nestling late-fall potatoes in layers of damp leaves, freezing Ziploc bags of pumpkin purée and blanched green beans, and finding the best vinaigrette recipe for the fresh dark, leafy salad greens I plan to serve to family and friends.
Now, if only I had persuaded my husband to let me raise a turkey. There is always next year for that, I suppose.
In a day when sustainability is a buzz word, planting a Thanksgiving garden might not seem that obscure. Many people long for a connection to their foods' production, whether through a garden of their own, buying from a local farm or shopping at a farmers market.
At my house, this year's Thanksgiving table will be a true reflection of our thankfulness — for the health and strength to tend the garden; for fertile soil, changing seasons, rain and sun to grow food in; for the space to plant, whether in our own back yard, on a terrace or in a community garden, and most importantly, thankfulness for loved ones to share the harvest with.