Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving bread

I live in a primarily Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Every day, Mexican food vendors set up shop on the main streets with big containers of tamales for sale. To accompany the tamales, they sell cups of atole or champurrado, a thickened hot breakfast drink. When I lived in Mexico, in the countryside, atole was a breakfast staple. Tamales, however, were special -- festival food. Anyone who has made them understands why. They are a labor of love, each tiny packet of masa individually wrapped in a sheath of corn husks. An elderly woman from central Mexico was lamenting the other day about the sheer availability of tamales in the neighborhood. "They used to be special", she sighed. "Now they are a daily food, and this is no good". She herself only makes them at Christmastime, and she feels that their appearance on her table but once a year make them taste all the better to her family.

I, too, have learned the value of special, annual foods. Even if they are not labor-intensive, it is worth saving certain recipes for festivals, large and small. It adds a thrill of anticipation, and sets the day apart, especially in a commercially-driven environment that has created holiday "months" rather than days. My son is still remembering the apple-studded challah I made for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and asking when "Rosh Hashanah Bread" will come again. My husband has already started the countdown to the duck in clementine sauce that I always make on Christmas. Thanksgiving always brings a special sweet bread, from Martha Stewart . Rich, citrusy and studded with dried fruit, it is just the thing to eat before facing the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. It will fill bellies until the mid-afternoon meal begins. This bread is a memory-thread that runs through the beginning of my adult life: I've eaten it in a small New York apartment with my sister and mother, in Minnesota with my in-laws and in Chicago with my own small family. To eat it more than once a year would diminish the strength of these memories.

This year, the bread actually features a home-grown ingredient: poppy seeds. I was browsing for early spring-sown seeds at a local nursery, and found a packet of "Hungarian Bread Seed Poppy". The lady at checkout gave me the eye after I told her I wanted to grow the seeds for my kitchen and reminded me curtly that this was the opium poppy. I did my research, and the seeds of this particular flower have been saved for generations for culinary purposes. A state extension office website gives this advice:

"All plant parts except the seeds are toxic and contain alkaloids used to manufacture opium and morphine. It is legal to grow Papaver somniferum in the United States for garden and seed production purposes".

The lady could have saved her attitude! The seeds grew into tall, sturdy plants with delicate pink flowers and gorgeous dusky green seed heads. In early fall, I gathered up the seed heads and hung them to dry for a few weeks, until the seeds rattled inside. After sacrificing a few as maracas for my son, I split them open to harvest about a tablespoon of blue-grey seeds per head. From a very small flower plot, I generated a cup or so of seeds. I stuck them in the freezer, specifically thinking of the Thanksgiving bread. Today, my harvest was gently folded into the cream cheese filling of my bread.

I toasted a few tablespoons of the seeds last night to garnish our carrot soup. As my husband and son scooped the speckled orange soup into their mouths, I did have one horrible moment of imagining the two of them nodding off in a heroin haze like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Needless to say, we all survived the night. Today, as I bite into my bread, there will be no fear. I will thank the Eastern European seed-savers who brought this culinary seed to this area. I tried to get every seed head in the garden, but I know a few split before I could dead-head. Poppies are enthusiastic self-sowers, so I'm looking forward to a new crop springing up in the over-wintered bed. Here's to a new Thanksgiving tradition....maybe next year I can add my own dried cherries or blueberries.


  1. Tamales are hard to come by where I live, especially good tamales, so they remain special to me.

    Poppy seeds are easier to obtain, they grow very well here, but I just return them to the garden instead of eating them.

    Enjoyed your post.

  2. I enjoyed your post very much. I also remember special foods that Mama only made at Christmas, or Grandma only made for Easter.

    Tamales can be had here in any Mexican restaurant, but to buy them from good tamale makers, you have to wait at least until the cool weather of fall is on us. We buy them by the dozen at Christmastime, and put them in the freezer, if there are any left over. I love tamales!

    Alas, I cannot cook anything with poppyseed in it. My husband is subject to random drug tests at his job, and the tests will show positive if he eats poppy seed. He loves poppy seed kolaches, too! He says when he retires, he is going eat anything he wants!

    Great post!