As autumn moves along during this month of November, the lawn chairs become empty and lonely, leaves fall gently to the ground and the trees' naked limbs are ready to welcome the snow flakes that fall from the sky to their resting place until the reawakening of nature and birth of spring.
November is my favorite month for so many reasons: It's neither too hot nor too cold, and there's a vast array of wonderful aromas that fill the air from the chill of mountain morning air that covers the valley here in north Atlanta to the smell of fallen leaves when I take my forest walks, and the different spices that fill the air in my kitchen as I experiment with new seasonal recipes from vegetables I find at the farmers market. I push aside the aromatic basil that I love on my tomatoes and mozzarella, and bring out the cinnamon, nutmeg, curry, saffron and other more exotic herbs and spices to add to dishes I will experiment with during the colder months.
When I think about the aromas from cooking I don't think that there's any other month in the year that focuses more on food, religion and gratitude than this month. Food after all helps define us as a culture--wherever you are in the world, so this blog is devoted to food and to the celebrations that occur during my favorite month of the year.
Tonight is the eve of Diwali--when Hindu, Jain and Sikh families are gathering to start celebrating what is called the "Festival of Lights" for the next 5 days. Diwali is a tradition in this culture that signifies the victory of good over evil and people pray to the Goddess Lakshmi for purity and wealth. The aromas during this important festival range from sweet to savory and differ from one region to another, but you can be sure there is an abundance of delightful sensory experiences not only from the food but from the ceremonies. I was fortunate to be in Varanasi to witness the Festival of Lights on November 16th, 2017, and sat next to the platform where the male celebrants chanted, rang golden bells in one hand, and waved smoking incense in the other. Candles and bright lights lit up the sky and vibrantly -colored marigolds were strewn everywhere. The sensory stimulation was almost overwhelming, but I know I'm fortunate to have been able to witness such a grand tradition of this religion and culture. A big part of this festival is feasting on some of the iconic dishes prepared for this holiday which is a true delight if flavors and aromas! I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but the Karanji - a pastry with coconut, sugar, nuts and cardamom was sublime. What I found very interesting is that the Aloo Tikki is very much like a latke --a potato pancake that is also fried, just as Jewish peoples eat during Hanukkah--but is served with a fresh mint or tamarind sauce (vs. sour cream). Indian food overall is abundant of exotic spices that, when you walk into any home or restaurant making this type of cuisine your olfactory memory will store the aromas of what I like to describe as "sensual" spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, and clove.
Here in the US, we will be celebrating Thanksgiving on the 25th. For anyone reading this blog from outside of the US, Thanksgiving is our holiday for expressing gratitude--and for those who are religious--to God. It also commemorates harvest time, as celebrated by pilgrim colonists in 1621. Since my childhood, I have always loved Thanksgiving more than any other holiday because it involved family and great food without the pressure of gift giving. And it is the one time of the year that it's okay to overstuff yourself! The family meal is centered around eating turkey as the main dish. When I grew up, there was just one way to roast turkey, and that was the Betty Crocker way, but while looking through food magazines and on the internet for unique ways for roasting turkey, spices and stuffings have gotten quite elaborate. For example, there are a multitude of suggestions for roasting turkey--everything from beer, injecting vodka into the turkey, bacon wrapped, a cinnamon, clove nutmeg and brown sugar rub, and even mole (chocolate)-marinated! My mother often prepared for our feast days in advance, so our little farm house was filled with the various aromas of pumpkin spice, apples, cinnamon and fresh homemade pie crust, and when it came to the big day, roasting the smell of the turkey and stuffing that usually consisted of celery, onions and spices such as oregano while fresh cranberries simmered on the stove tickled my nose making my mouth water from the tart aroma. I can still recall the smell my of mother's kitchen on that day, and despite all of the creative ways that food magazines and chefs have concocted, I still prefer the simple turkey basted with the drippings from the pan.
Once Thanksgiving is over, the Jewish religion celebrates 8 days of Hanukkah that starts on the 28th. Although Hanukkah is not the most religious of Jewish holidays, it one of the widely observed because celebrates the defeat of the Maccabees and rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem many centuries ago. Hanukkah is also known as the "Festival of Lights" that is symbolic of the menorah that was illuminated in the temple. Well-known traditions of Hanukkah include playing the dreidel, giving gifts each of the 8 days, lighting the menorah, and eating. The foods eaten during this holiday are often fried to celebrate the oil that was used to light the menorah in the temple and some of the most well-known dishes for this holiday are latkes, which are fried potato pancakes and jelly-filled donuts, chocolate gelt and beef brisket. I was once assigned to make latkes for a holiday party to take to a friend's home to join her family's celebration, and found a recipe that included onions. Much to my distaste, its aroma filled the house for days afterwards. At first, I really did not like the lingering aroma but in retrospect, it is an iconic scent never to be forgotten, and the cinnamon apple sauce served on top was just the right "hook" to give the latke a je ne sais quoi and I forgave the onion! My girlfriend had started making her beef brisket adorned with potatoes and carrots very early in the day and upon arriving at her home, my mouth immediately started to salivate, bringing back memories of my mother's kitchen when she made beef stew or pot roast, and my own home back in Paris when I made beef bourguignon or daube (sans vin rouge).
The November holidays I have written about above are special family traditions for people around the world, and all include eating wonderful food in a joyous celebration of life. I often think about my childhood memories of me and my three siblings racing to the dinner table when the feast was ready --eager to dive into that turkey and all of the sides that my mother had prepared. Once we sat down, we said our pray of thanks, then immediately we all watched the ceremony of my father sharpening the knife and then carving the turkey. Then came the sides, always starting at the head of the table where my father sat and he always passed to his right--the corn, turnips, bread stuffing, gravy and the every-so wonderful homemade cranberry sauces I still crave once a year.
If you have made it to the bottom of this blog--whomever and wherever you are in this world, I hope you are mindful of the aromas and flavor of food you are gifted...not just during this month's holidays, but every day, and be grateful. Wishing you a wonderful, safe and happy month!
- Ruth Sutcliffe, The Scent Guru