Writers Writing About Comfort Food: Kabanos and Norman Rockwell

While perusing the Art and Appetite exhibit at the Art Institute, I came across Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting: Freedom From Want. It depicts a family at dinner conversing and laughing as the gray-haired mother sets a roasted turkey before the father at the head of the table. A white, celestial light shines through the window behind him and suffuses the entire painting. In the bottom right corner, a man’s eyes stare back at you, the spectator, creating the illusion you are to share in the meal.

I defy anyone to find a more idyllic representation of American Thanksgiving than Rockwell’s, as well as the most sanguine and chaste painting I’ve ever seen. It is hard to not interpret those enthusiastic eyes as ironic, as if the guy is leaning over to say, “like this shit ever happens.”

That’s not my Thanksgiving. My emblem of Thanksgiving is wrapped up in white butcher paper and crammed between the bowl of red cabbage, the plastic tray of broccoli rice casserole, and the gelatinous fat rendered from the roasting of turkey bones, which will be used as the base for gravy.

It’s still before noon when I open the refrigerator door. My petite sister is massaging the seasonings onto the turkey while standing on a kitchen chair. Each year she leans over and talks dirty to it as she suggestively caresses the skin until someone tells her to stop. I grab the heavy, two-foot long package, a butter knife, rye bread, butter, and a jar of beet horseradish.

Before the food can touch the table, my family begins to wander over from the couch to the dining room. A cornucopia has already been served and the turkey is not even in the oven. A halo gleams over the butcher paper alluring others with its heavenly aura.

The food has been splayed out in a fan: the relish tray of gherkins, black and green olives, and pickle spears, the cascaded slices of rye bread, lemon-yellow and maroon kolackzis, nut cups, the small jar of purple horseradish wafting its sweet-stinging scent. My parents and siblings, nieces, brother-in-laws, and friends await behind me as I unwrap the centerpiece.

The long wrinkled links of kabanos are stacked together like kindling. It’s a thin pork sausage cooked then air-dried. My father often reminisces about his childhood in Poland living on a farm in the mountains and seeing kabanos hanging over the stove. It’s the perfect hiking food. You can eat it cold and it doesn’t spoil.

It’s a mixture of pepper, caraway seeds and smoked pork. A dollop of purple horseradish adds a blend of tangy and sweet without masking the smoky notes. Beware of cheap horseradish–they use too much sugar!

No reheating necessary, no knives or forks–just break off a section with your hands and listen to the snaps of casing. It’s a free-for-all of hands after that. Everyone slathers the purple horseradish over the sausage. Some tuck it between the rye bread. It’s not meant for plates nor to be rigidly served out around the dinner table. Soon everyone’s breath reeks of horseradish and pepper and your hands smell of smoke.

That’s Thanksgiving.