Far from their families, a group of food-loving friends in Oakland, California, pulls off the ultimate potluck Thanksgiving.
I have spent the past decade in Bay Area kitchens, and now, as a freelance cook and writer, one of my obsessions is working to build a sense of community around food. So when a bunch of "orphaned" friends and I realized that schedule or circumstance would keep us apart from the people we typically spend Thanksgiving with, we decided at the eleventh hour to celebrate and cook together. The guest list was populated by chefs, farmers, and other friends many of us had come to know through cooking. And although this was the first time we were sharing Thanksgiving, we've been having dinners like this -- a mishmash of flavors assembled around a single theme -- for years.
Our venue: the hand-restored home in Oakland, California, of Charlie Hallowell, owner of nearby Pizzaiolo. As always with a successful potluck, the delicate balance between careful menu planning and a sense of whimsy was critical. With a little nudge from me, chef and butcher Christopher Lee agreed to prepare a Tuscan-style turkey alla porchetta. Charlie tackled a sausage-prune stuffing, and Lori Oyamada, who bakes at San Francisco's famed Tartine Bakery, brought the bread. I decided to make lasagna -- my favorite thing to cook -- and an heirloom-squash and pumpkin pie. We left the rest up to chance, trusting that our friends' kitchen experience and Northern California's fall bounty would steer the menu in the right direction.
As chefs and growers in the Bay Area, we're acutely aware of the constant shift of the seasons. And at liminal moments, like when fall moves toward winter, one day's farmers' market can look dramatically different from the next day's. Cooking and living this way offers a chance to be fully present in the moment.
Christopher and his wife, Janet Hankinson, were the first to arrive. While Christopher turned to boning the turkey and stuffing it with a Tuscan-style mix of herbs, Janet, a landscape designer, began setting the table. (She also revealed the rustic lemon tart she'd brought.)
Novella Carpenter came after harvesting the last of the figs, bunches of garden greens, and a pile of Triamble squashes from Ghost Town, her farm in Oakland. I took some of the squash for the pie and the lasagna, and Janet used the rest to decorate the table, where she had already laid out persimmons, citrus, and bay branches she'd foraged from friends' yards.
Our potluck menu kept growing. Cal Peternell, cafe chef at Chez Panisse, gave a nod to the Northern California tradition of including first-of-the-season Dungeness crab in the Thanksgiving spread with his colorful salad. Sampada Aranke, a graduate student who spends her weekends working a stand at the local farmers' market, brought everything we'd need for a salad of chicories.
Our gathering may have taken place far from our families, but in the end it had the most important element of any Thanksgiving: It inspired us to see the abundance that surrounds us and to share it.
Samin Nosrat blogs about food on her website, ciaosamin.com.