Gratitude during a pandemic

There is nothing I love more than to gather a big crowd of family and friends for a fall harvest celebration. It’s my favourite meal of the year: I get to cook with a season’s worth of local foods and then sit with people I care about to enjoy the bounty.

It was obvious by late August that our usual approach to this fall feast was not going to be an option, but my partner and I were determined to find a way to make it work. Just bringing our immediate family together would put us over the maximum number of people allowed to gather inside and, with grandchildren back in schools in different cities and my daughter’s partner teaching in another school, we were reluctant to get too close. We considered an outside meal, but by mid-October the odds of good enough weather for such an event would be middling, at best.

Garage party!

As we sat in the sun in our backyard in late September wondering what we could do, my partner suggested we use my daughter’s spacious garage. With both big doors open, we felt it would qualify as outside. It was more than large enough to allow us to spread out, and with some radiant heaters suspended from the ceiling, we figured we would be warm even if the day were chilly. We opted for a mid-afternoon meal so that if we got a warm, sunny day, we could move the festivities outside.

My daughter immediately agreed, and the planning began. We decided to stick to family, which would make us 12 – plenty in these pandemic days. To keep things simple, we decided to rent tables, chairs, dishes and cutlery (no dishes to wash at the end of the meal!). We planned a menu that had the old favourites, with turkey as the star, of course, but also included a few new ideas. We began work to create a harvest cocktail.

My partner’s son who, with his kids, lives in Hamilton, was concerned about staying with any of us, in case his sons had been exposed to the virus at school. That proved to be only a temporary spanner in the works: his sister offered to stay with their mother for the weekend, so the out-of-towners could use her place while they were here.

Distanced seating

We wanted a seating arrangement that would let us be close enough for easy conversation but distanced enough to keep us in our household bubbles. My daughter drew many seating plans until we settled on one. We decided to set up the food and drink on separate tables so people could serve themselves, bubble by bubble. We added personal-sized bottles of hand sanitizer to the other treats in the favour bags.

I began food preparation several days ahead of time and filled our freezer with pastry and cooked pumpkin ready to be made into pie, cranberry sauce, squash soup, maple ice cream and, a trick I learned from my partner’s daughter, gravy made ahead of time. We would cook most of the meal at our house and then transport it to the party garage just before meal time. We watched the weather compulsively, as the forecast shuffled back and forth between warm and wet and cool and sunny.

Nimble pivoting

Through this process, we knew there was every possibility that plans might have to change. By early in the week leading up to the harvest feast, our worries seemed to be coming true, as numbers of COVID-19 cases across the province went through the roof and the government implemented ever-tighter restrictions. However, the really strict measures did not apply to Kingston, and our Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Keiran Moore, who has kept this community ahead of the curve since the pandemic began, continued to promote the usual cautions: hand washing, mask wearing and keeping a two-metre distance between people. We checked the local rules every day and were satisfied we would be following them.

Just as I prepared to head off to pick up the turkey the day before our feast, my daughter texted to say there was a confirmed case at her son’s school. Not in his cohort, no requirement that he isolate or get tested, but she thought everyone should know. Suddenly, our dinner participants dropped from 12 to six: one guest had eye surgery scheduled for the following week, another was a nurse working in a congregant living setting, the out-of- towners did not want any possibility that they would carry anything more than leftover turkey back home.

We folded up one rental table and set it aside and reduced the quantity of the harvest cocktail, but otherwise carried on. While we could not hide the wall of paint cans in the garage, our table decorations made the space very festive, as did the sunshine that poured in through the open doors.

When my partner and I arrived, we were greeted by a lifelike model of Keiran Moore made by my daughter, with outstretched arms that measured six feet from hand to hand.

The turkey — brined for 24 hours then roasted in our Green Egg smoker was delicious, as was the rest of the meal. The harvest cocktail protected us from the worst of the chilly wind that developed over the afternoon. Most importantly, we were able to gather together, visit, and celebrate the richness of the fall harvest: all the main ingredients in our meal came from very close to home.

And, early the next morning, we packed the car up with leftovers and headed to Hamilton for a visit and walk with that branch of the family.

Here’s the cocktail recipe, which makes six drinks: Place 3 slices crystallized ginger, ½ cup ginger lemonade concentrate, 3 very ripe pears, 2 Tbsp. lime juice, 4 Tbsp. simple syrup and 12 ounces bourbon in blender and whir until smooth. To serve, mix with sparkling water to taste and pour over ice.

You will feel thankful in no time at all.

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