Thanksgiving in Nanton

In years previous, I’ve spent Thanksgiving with my family. This year, however, I spent it with Erin’s.

This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. In fact, this was loosely planned from the last (and first) time I’d met Erin’s parents. The idea had arisen during the dinner, when (thorough engaged in conversation, not at all affected by the wine we were drinking or by the comradery Erin’s dad and I felt as we took on Erin in a battle of wits) Erin’s father had suggested that next time we might stay the night and not have to worry about what we ate or drank.

Thanksgiving was just the next logical opportunity. And with my family out of town, there seemed no reason not to go.

Not there wasn’t any possible apprehension. Let’s be realistic here — I’m spending over 24 hours with my girlfriend’s parents (in their home). I’ve met them from before, so in that respect there’s no pressure, but this is a slightly different aspect. In my last serious relationship, I spent the night on my first visit. But I slept in a separate bed. Erin and I were destined for the same room, same bed. At times, I almost worry that there’s too much acceptance. If that actually makes any sense...

We headed out from Calgary late Sunday morning. I love long weekends — Sundays never seem sad because you don’t have to go to work the next day. I think I’ve always disliked Sunday for that reason. (I’ve never minded long weekend Mondays, though.) The day was cool, but bright, and the trip down to Nanton was fairly speedy ... except for that stretch of Highway 2 just north of High River being repaved.

Dinner preparation was already well underway. The turkey was due to hit the barbecue (yes, not the oven — you’d be surprised how well it works) at 13:00. As Erin and were running a little late, the original plans for lunch had to be altered. While Erin’s dad stuck around to ensure that the turkey hit the heat on time, Erin, Erin’s mom, and I went on a little trip to retrieve sustenance.

Nanton’s a small town. Erin’s parents live a block away from the "downtown" core. (If you drive south from Calgary on Highway 2, you’ll pass right through downtown Nanton.) You can walk around the downtown in about 20 minutes, I think. About half of the stores are antique shops, there’s a couple of restaurants, a pub or two, a CIBC, one hotel (near as I can tell, anyway), and a few grain elevators.

Nanton, once upon a time, was a (fairly) major station on CP’s MacLeod subdivision, when it ran from High River down to Ft. MacLeod. (Assumedly for lack of profitability, the subdivision was closed and the tracks ripped up south of High River between 1998 and 1999.) Today, the rail bed is still very visible, and the grain elevators sit forlorn, no longer in active (rail) use.

Whether or not the disappearance of the railroad has led to Nanton’s shrinking commercial base (there are a number of closed businesses) is a debatable one. The loss of the railroad has affected other towns in the past (Hanna, Biggar, Melville, Stratford), and some manage to recover through various efforts (such as the Stratford Festival). Nanton, however, seems quite content to be as it is.

The three of us wandered across a somewhat chilly downtown to a small restaurant on Highway 2 north (the highway divides running through Nanton), sitting between the road and the rail bed. While the name of the place completely escapes me, it’s the only (open) restaurant on that side of the road. There you’ll find all sorts of homemade-type foods. And without a doubt, possibly the best sandwich I’ve ever had. (Mind you, the uber-fresh, all-natural bread from a little bakery in High River contributed to that.)

After some discussion, Erin and I went for a walk around town. Specifically, I wanted to see all the antique shops. I think Nanton’s second-largest industry after agriculture is antiques — there’s more stores in two blocks than in most of Calgary, I think. And the prices are actually pretty reasonable (well, except for one place). Most of the items are quite interesting, too, and you don’t have to spend huge amounts of time filtering through things.

One store in particular is massive. Once upon a time, it was a hardware store on the main level, with apartments in the second floor. Now the entire building is nothing but antiques. Name it — it’s probably in there, somewhere. Once upon a time, so I’m told, the store owners had things laid out very carefully. The apartments were laid out as "suites", with entire collections made out so you could (in theory) buy an entire suite at once. The original owners sold and moved on, and now things are just stacked to the ceiling.

There was only one shop we didn’t make it into before closing time. But by then, Erin and I didn’t really care too much — the whine of Erin’s parents’ fridge and the musty smell of the antiques gave the both of us headaches. We retreated to Erin’s parents’ home to do something about the pain.

Dinner was the traditional fare for Thanksgiving: turkey, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, and buns. For most of the day, I managed to keep myself clear of food preparation. But as Erin was mashing potatoes, I felt the urge to suddenly interject.

I have issues with mashed potatoes. I hate them. Well, to be specific, I hate plain mashed potatoes. They’re boring. They have no flavour, and almost no texture. It bothers me immensely. So when I saw Erin’s mom bringing out the milk, I suggested a slight modification to the dish: Beer.

Yeah, I know, beer’s my solution for everything. In this case, it partly is. You want to make really good mashed potatoes? Here’s what you need:

Clean, but do not peel, the potatoes (there’s a lot of flavour in the skin). Cook as you would normally, until ready to mash. While cooking the potatoes, chop the onion and put into a frying pan on medium-low heat. Cover the frying pan with a lid, uncovering only occasionally to stir (you don’t want anything to burn). This will caramelize the onions. When you’re ready to start mashing the potatoes, chop and add the garlic to the onions. Mash the potatoes with a hand masher — it’s more work, but the texture is better than with a blender. Pour in only as much beer as you need to mash the potatoes. You can go for thick and chunky or “creamy”, depending on what you like (I find that just enough beer to take most of the large lumps out is perfect). Add the onion/garlic mixture, sprinkle some rosemary, and mash some more.

Everyone seemed to like them. (Well, why wouldn’t they?)

I also dabbled in making the gravy, when Erin’s mom tried to back out of making it by saying there weren’t enough drippings. (Small children could have swam with all the drippings we had.) I was more than happy to dive in and “solve” the problem.

The turkey was completely free-range organic. The farm it came from (Sunworks Farm in Armena, AB) is so eco-friendly that its pamphlet even advertises that it’s “predator-friendly”. It’s more expensive, to be sure, but I have to say — you can taste what turkey is supposed to taste like. This is a farm I’m definitely going to have to look into much closer in the future.

Oh. I have to mention the cranberry sauce. (I can hear the “oohs” from Cathy and Mom.) I’ve never liked cranberry sauce. Felt it was just not the sort of thing I would eat with turkey. Well, Erin’s mom pulled a recipe for “Gourmet Cranberry Sauce” from one of the bazillion “Best of Bridge” cookbooks. It’s essentially cranberries (fresh or frozen), oranges, and Gran Marnier. Screw the turkey — that stuff you can eat on its own.

Even though we were quite full from the first round, we had to partake of dessert — pumpkin pie. As we briefly congregated in the kitchen to carry out the dessert, Erin’s mom suddenly thrust a small crystal bowl mostly filled with a transparent green substance.

Lime Jell-o.

Now, there are probably a few people in my family who will laugh at this. The rest of you are probably confused beyond all heck.

What’s the deal with the lime Jell-o? This stems back to the last time I was in Nanton. I’d told Erin’s parents about Christmas (and other family dinners) at my father’s mother’s home in Leaside (Toronto). At the time, I’d hated all the other desserts: pies, some cakes, trifle, etc. So Grandma had always make bowls of Jell-o for me, which I sometimes had to fight over with others.

Erin’s mom had remembered, and made me a bowl of Jell-o. Erin was thorough confused, apparently having forgotten that conversation. Heck, even I hadn’t realized why Erin’s mom had made it at first, until I remembered the stories I’d told the last time I was there.

Needless to say, I like Erin’s parents.

We had a late harvest Riesling with dessert. By that point, my stomach was crying “uncle”, and I spent about 45 minutes trying to put myself in a semi-comfortable position as not to feel too ill. Turkey coma kicked in about an hour later, and I ended up crawling into bed shortly after midnight.

The next morning, it was my turn to cook. (I’d made this request from when it was suggested that I was coming to Nanton.) I’d been wanting to make my dad’s pancakes for years — I hadn’t had them since Christmas of 2001, and was dying to have them again. So, with Erin’s family watching, I whipped up a batch of pancake batter, fried up some sausages (Erin’s mom made some really good bacon), and julienned a couple potatoes for hash browns.

My poor stomach hadn’t recovered from dinner the night before.

The sausages were thoroughly delightful, not the least of which was because they (like the turkey) were all-natural. Instead of fillers or sweeteners, there were cranberries. I’m certain the casings weren’t edible plastic, either.

Having completely ruined my diet for about a month, Erin and I set up to head back to Calgary. Both of us had things to do, and while sticking around was a good thought, we readied to roll. But not without trucking back enough food for a small battalion.

I love leftovers. Especially when it’s turkey.

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