Over the river and through the woods
To Grandmother’s house we go
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Through the bright and drifting snow-oh
Over the river and through the woods
Oh how the wind does blow
It stings the nose and bites the toes
As over the ground we go.
This traditional Thanksgiving-time song would be present in my mind as we made the five hour drive north to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in the Big Woods when I was a little kid. I’d watch the tree-lined miles slip by with my nose pressed up against the glass car window, steaming up the pane. The farm was a magical place to come for Thanksgiving dinner, which it still is even now that I live here full time.
Coming down to the farm has, historically, been a memorable part of Thanksgiving traditions for many families. Why else would there be all the fuss over the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the golden winter squash with caramelized drizzle, the mashed potatoes with melting butter, the custardy pumpkin pie with Grandma’s famous crust, or the ruby-red cranberry sauce? These are all bountiful parts of late autumn’s harvest on the farm—lovingly raised and lovingly prepared by family for family.
We’ve all heard the stories of the “original” Thanksgiving dinner. But however true or fabled this national story is, the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today was established by Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War to give thanks for the preservation of the Union. The reuniting of family (some of whom travel great distances) around the farm table is, in its own way, a celebration of the coming together of the disparate factions of our country. If nothing else, at least we can be grateful for the harvest together.
And there is much to be grateful for this year. In the Northland, the drought was not as severe as further downstate. Our farm was spared any fires, tornadoes, or large hale. We hope to have enough hay to get by. The turkeys grew up healthy and vigorous, as did the lambs and piglets. The garden is harvested and nearly all put to bed, and life is winding down towards its winter routines. It’s a time for reflection on the growing season’s learning points, with plans beginning for the coming season’s preparations.
A good old fashioned agrarian Thanksgiving is not about football, or a parade, or a shopping frenzy—it is about giving the gift of time to each other. Time to talk, share stories, and laugh; time to peel potatoes and pass the apple cider; and time to relax by the stone fireplace and read a book aloud or play a rousing game of Sorry or Backgammon.
There’s something about the smell of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, made by hand with farm-fresh ingredients. It is amazing how much more flavorful a turkey can be when it spent its life on grass and was never injected with oil and salt. The aromas of the baking stuffing with bread, celery, and herbed pork sausage can drive an imaginative and hungry child nearly crazy with anticipation—but of course, the wait always makes the difference.
The commercial food system has taught us not to wait for food anymore, that having to wait for our meal is somehow bad. Why peel those potatoes you dug out of your garden when you can mix them up right out of this box? Why boil and mash those cranberries from your neighbor down the road when you can just plop it out of this can? Why even bake the turkey when you can have this plastic-encased rotisserie chicken instead? Well, folks, have any of those pre-processed items actually made you feel better than the home-grown variety?
There is a reason they don’t. They may be easier, but they are not fulfilling. In many folk cultures, it is considered unwise to allow someone in a bad mood to fix a meal. This is because that unhappy energy is believe to be transmitted to the food, which will not be physically, socially, or mentally nourishing for the people who eat it. Why were Mother’s cookies hot and gooey out of the oven always the best? Because, besides being full of chocolate chips, they were packed full of motherly love. While this idea is not easily proved by science, experience can speak for itself. I would take a homegrown turkey prepared by my grandmother over a rotisserie chicken any day!
That poor rotisserie chicken was raised on a factory farm, butchered by a series of machines, and shipped a long distance before being roasted in a commercial oven somewhere in corporate America. This is the processed food reality that we live in. The chicken might never have seen a person, let alone felt love or care. Something is missing on the ingredient list that we all need—nurturing attention.
Getting back to foods infused with nurturing attention means reaching back and embracing traditional agrarian meals prepared the old fashioned way. Michael Pollan, the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” says, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” This is certainly a great place to start when choosing what to eat. I never did know my great grandmothers, but I suspect that they would have preferred their own garden, the local butcher shop, and the farmer’s market over the commercial food industry.
Small-scale, sustainably minded farmers have learned to focus their lifestyle on what really matters—doing the right thing for the land, their family, and their community. And that is something to give thanks for this holiday. Maybe you and your family can even take a moment this week to share your thanks with your farmer—they probably don’t hear it very often.
I don’t know what your Thanksgiving will be like this year, but I hope it is filled with the warmth, love, and care that surrounds the old farm dinner table. I hope it is encircled by smiling friends and family, accompanied by the friendly waging tails of beloved pets. Maybe you will even take a moment to go outside and enjoy this beautiful corner of earth we live upon. And most of all, I hope that we shall all take this moment to give thanks, together. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com