I, as my friends and family will tell you, have always been one for celebrating. Birthdays, weddings, dropping of hats, I’m happy to have a reason to crack open the wine and fire up the stove, so the idea of appropriating American Thanksgiving was not really much of a stretch. After all, it seems a more joyful version of the Harvest festivals I remember from school, which largely appeared to revolve around donating the tinned food no one actually wanted to eat to an old people’s home. In the spirit of being thankful, therefore, I invited some friends over with the promise of food and warmth, in exchange for wine and their company.
Since none of us are American, either strictly or vaguely, we decided Tuesday would be near enough the right date. We also didn’t go quite the traditional food route – partly because I’d used my sweet potatoes the day before in some rather more-ish crêpes – but it’s the thought that counts, right? Anyway, I’d recently been given Maya Angelou’s new book ‘Great Food, All Day Long’ and was looking forward to using some of her recipes. We decided on her Lemon Roasted Chicken, Southern Style Green Beans, All Day and All Night Cornbread and roast potatoes.
I put the chicken in the oven before people arrived, prepped potatoes and started on the cornbread, feeling rather efficient and abstractly wishing I had kitten heels and a cocktail dress to make me feel fully Fifties American. There is an old-fashioned simplicity to these recipes; they are after all what the author has been cooking all her adult life, and as such they lend themselves to this sort of informal weekday dinner. Using them it is easy to create a stress-free plan for cooking, and as those of us who’ve catered Christmas know, this is also the key to happy holidays. By adding in some cranberry sauce, stuffing and sprouts, you’d have a pretty respectable festive offering. I would take a moment here to reinforce the notion that, especially with such simple recipes, the key to success is buying the best quality ingredients you can and allowing the flavour shine through. The hints of apple and lemon with the chicken, the velvety combination of mushrooms and green beans, the comforting texture of cornbread. The very idea of making cornbread evokes a series of memories of my American childhood. Not that I had one, you understand, but the power of food and its ritual place can do strange things.
Anyway, I was excited about making it, even when I discovered I didn’t have the correctly shaped dish. I improvised and put it in a normal loaf tin, reasoning that the one in the recipe book picture was clearly not made in a square pan either. (For those of you for whom tension is best avoided – it worked fine). The beans were straightforward, though I have to confess to tampering with the cooking time slightly, and, well, surely we can all roast potatoes after the amount of seasonal column space devoted to them over the years.
Reader, we ate it. And were thankful. It all came together remarkably well, even the incorrectly shaped cornbread. My friend Lucy had, in a moment of excess creativity made what she called a ‘Thanksgiving decoration’, or what we might normally call a candle in a pot plant, or even a fire hazard, which in a strange way did rather complete the table. The food worked well, and afterwards, as we sat round my roaring log fire (well, more smouldering, due to damp kindling) with our full stomachs, happy faces, and brimming glasses there was definitely a sense of thankfulness, particularly to Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the first dish-washing machine.
By Helen Sutcliffe