An improvised Thanksgiving feast

The snowstorm didn't halt one family's Thanksgiving celebration.

Paul Ruhter/AP
Snowstorm: A heavy snowfall blankets the streets and trees in Billings, Mont.

On a Thanksgiving morning about 20 years ago, we stared out at a white wall of snow. Lake-effect storms brew along the west shore of Lake Michigan where we live, and the mounds of snow insulate and water our farm's soil. Having experienced numerous droughts, we were usually thankful for moisture, but that Thanksgiving morning, we fussed. We were supposed to drive two hours east to celebrate the holiday with family, but the heavy snow halted traveling.

Already, gusts had sculpted the snow into white dunes that would continue to grow until the storm abated, so even if we could drive out of the storm as we moved away from the lakeshore, our half-mile driveway would drift closed during our absence. We called my brother and lamented over the situation. I had baked rolls and a pumpkin pie, so their meal would lack those items, but what would I now serve?

I hadn't planned on preparing a holiday meal and stores were closed. Even if I could've bought a turkey, I couldn't thaw or roast it by midafternoon. I had purchased a package of corn tortillas and boiled pinto beans to make enchiladas over the weekend and now this dish was all I was able to cook.

So instead of a kitchen scented with the fragrance of roast turkey and simmering potatoes, mine smelled of sautéed onions and garlic, tomato sauce, cumin, and coriander. I mashed up beans instead of potatoes, adding more cumin and cheese. My husband, John, cut up a butternut squash and set it to steam. While we cooked, the heavy clouds rolled east and the gale subsided, yet fat flakes continued to drift downward. The worst of the storm had lifted, but we still couldn't drive toward the center of the state.

"I'll call around," John said, "and see if any of our friends are in the same boat. Perhaps one of them could attempt driving in."

Most of the phones rang and rang, as those friends had already driven to their destinations, but one family answered. A couple of years ago, these friends had arrived in Michigan, leaving family behind in Pennsylvania, California, and New Mexico. Karen said she had roasted a chicken for her family of five and was stirring the gravy.

"Our car would never make it up your driveway, especially up that last hill. But if you want to try it, why don't you roll down it and come here?"

"What do you think?" I asked John. The wind had hushed and about eight inches blanketed the ground.

"Tell her yes. I'll take out the tractor, check the drifts, and see if I can make us some ruts to follow." John pulled on his winter coat and stocking cap, laced up his boots, and stuck on his gloves. While he rumbled away on his John Deere, I shoveled paths to the outbuildings. Momentarily, the clouds thinned. Perhaps for a few hours, we might have a respite from the snow, I thought.

"Load up the car," John said. "I think we can make it."

We hustled our casserole, the pie, and rolls into our Honda. John gripped the steering wheel, gunned the engine, and we zoomed along the ruts. A spray of snow filmed the windshield. Twenty minutes later, we parked at our friends' house. Karen sniffed the enchiladas.

"Not really a traditional Thanksgiving dish," I said.

"Maybe not here," she said, "but for me, they smell like home. They remind me of New Mexico, of strings of chilies drying outside adobe houses. Enchiladas are part of a different culture, but they're also traditional."

So our cheese-topped enchiladas snuggled on the table next to cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and golden winter squash; all foods from the Americas.

Although the originators of Thanksgiving would not have recognized the spicy dish, they probably would have relished the Southwestern offering that added to our meal. While the sunlight glittered on the snowy landscape, we held hands and gave thanks for the friends with whom we shared our holiday feast.

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