November draws to a close with bright bushes of marigolds just now bursting into a riot of reds and yellows, and white eggplants still weighing down the plants' branches in my raised bed out back. Comfort foods start filling the diner special boards, Turkey Day menu-planning builds to an ambitious frenzy, and I am reminded to once again be thankful for food. I mean that "aren't we lucky to have food on the table when so many go wanting" gratitude, certainly; may I never forget how the world's precarious food-providing balance is tipped in my society's favor.
But I'm also trying to make it a tradition this time of year to celebrate the small food joys, the things that are so easy to overlook—the bargains, the sweet gestures, the shared meals, the neat stuff in stores and on our plates right here in Knoxville. I give a special thanks for:
• The spiced tea, unsweet, at Sitar Indian restaurant on Kingston Pike. It seems a little different to me every time, more cardamom, a touch less anise? I enjoy each iteration, and the free refill.
• Mayfield's mini ice-cream sandwiches, 16 per box, food of the gods and made within our foodshed at the ice-cream plant in Athens, Tenn.—and the teens who weren't too cool to come over and play cards and help me eat them last summer.
• The touch of Mediterranean spice in the Vol Burger at Vic & Bill's on Broadway, just a smidgen, and the hand-patted fresh patties.
• Knowing not to offend the cook by ordering the above burger "with cheese," as it comes with cheese.
• The food served at the Holston Hills home gathering after our much-loved family friend Ted Cope's funeral. (He died August 30.) The marinated shrimp, with its thin shaved onion slices and capers, his wife Judy Cope's specialty, and the fresh and tangy strawberry-and-cream cake made by neighbor Linda Sangster were delicious reminders of the gracious hospitality and fun-loving air that were Ted's trademark. He will be missed.
• The salmon patty plate lunch at Pete's Coffee Shop downtown Tuesdays and Wednesdays; the patties are crisp, with a little onion, the green beans wide and not cooked in pork—it's just like I would make, only I'm too lazy.
• Weigel's Skim D-Lite milk, which tastes lots creamier than it has any right to, is produced at a locally owned dairy and is downright cheap: $2.38 per gallon this week.
• The spicy oregano plant from Gregory's Greenhouse that has come back for its record third year in a planter in front of my driveway; it's not bitter like some oregano varieties and has enlivened countless two-minute-prep crock-pot stews I make with about a half-pound of cube round steaks (I don't worry about browning it), 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, and a tablespoon of the fresh oregano leaves on top of about three cups of peeled and chopped potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and mushrooms, and doused with a can of cream of mushroom mixed with 3/4 cup of cooking sherry or Madeira and then cooked on low for six to eight hours. Welcome home!
• Bruce Bogartz' pumpkin spoon bread at RouXbarb on Northshore; elegant and comforting at the same time.
• The shrimp curry from, yes, a Chinese restaurant—Szechuan Garden on Chapman highway, which includes bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and stir-fried onions. I ask for "mild" and it still cures colds, puts a swagger in your step, and comes complete with friendly conversation from the servers about world travels and grad studies.
• Being able to write about food for Metro Pulse in the 12 months since my last list. Thanks for the opportunity, readers, cooks, and eaters—none better anywhere in the world.