Food, family, and fall colours: Reasons why I love Canadian Thanksgiving

autumn colours
© Lloyd Alter

Canada really did choose the best time of year to celebrate Thanksgiving. The weather in early October is still lovely, the trees are brilliant, and the bountiful fall harvest is at its peak. No wonder it's my favourite holiday!

There is so much bounty to celebrate at this time of year, and never has it been more noticeable to me than when I signed up for a CSA share. Just when I thought the flow of summer vegetables would start trickling off, the autumnal crops came in with a bang – loads of cool-loving vegetables filling the fridge and pantry shelves to overflowing, almost more than my family of four can eat in a week. The desire to join with others to share this fresh, delicious food is instinctive, which makes it easy to understand why so many people and cultures have developed harvest holidays at this time of year.

My family’s harvest holiday, Canadian Thanksgiving, is taking place this weekend. Although Monday is the official holiday, our big family dinner is on Sunday. My parents’ home on a lake in the forest near Algonquin Park, Ontario, is the destination for all extended family members who are within driving distance. Unfortunately, with one sibling living in Belgium, another in Newfoundland, and a cousin in Laos, it is a smaller group than usual, but that doesn’t detract from the loads of laughter, stories, and fun that are shared over the course of three days.

Seasonal, local food plays a central role at Thanksgiving, as it should. The meal’s centerpiece is an heirloom turkey, raised on a friend’s nearby farm. It tastes completely different than the genetically modified, breast-heavy, dry Butterball turkeys that are incapable of reproducing naturally and dominate 99 percent of the North American turkey market. My mother orders the heirloom bird months ahead of time, as supply is limited.

Thanksgiving turkey© Lloyd Alter

The rest of the family contributes whatever local bounty they can. I live in farm country, so I take a bushel each of apples and tomatoes, excess squash from my CSA, and several pounds of honey. My aunt and uncle from the Niagara region bring late summer fruits and artisanal breads. Grandma comes laden with homemade canned relish, chutney, and jam.

While the bird roasts, we head out on the annual pre-dinner hike that includes all guests. A crowd of loud, talkative family members and friends that ranges from age 2 to 85, we traipse through the beautiful deciduous forest, brilliant with red, orange, and gold leaves. By the time we get home a couple hours later, the house smells fabulous and our appetites are ravenous.

family dinner© K Martinko

It’s a meal that I look forward to every year. It’s comforting and satisfying to eat a meal that is tied to the historic local food production system that is often forgotten in this era of food-importation, and yet is one of the reasons why early immigrants to North America were able to settle here. The way we eat at Thanksgiving should be an inspiration for the rest of the year – a reminder that we are surrounded by local, seasonal bounty that’s worth seeking out and eating on a regular basis.

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