Thanksgiving on the FarmPhoto Credit : Heath Robbins | Styling by Beth Wickwire/ Ennis Inc.
In southern Maine, November is the month that can’t quite commit. It might be chilly, it should be chilly—but just when you’ve pulled out the winter coats and resolved to embrace cozy pleasures, a sudden warm front can burn off the frost, inviting you to remember how good the undiminished sun feels on your face … and then wonder how you’ll live without it for the next four months. Ever more each year, as Thanksgiving looms, so does the question: Will it be football on the lawn, or 10 inches of snow?
If you’re like most people, you greet an unseasonably warm holiday by laying a cloth on the dining room table and cracking a window. If you’re Justin and Danielle Walker, you reroute the meal to the pasture behind the barn, repurpose a few hay bales, and plan for dessert around a firepit you build from field stones while the turkey roasts.
They have pulled off far more challenging meals than this over 17 years together in the restaurant business, first at Arrows in Ogunquit—where Justin rose through the ranks as a chef and Danielle trained as a sommelier and manager—and then at Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, where he was chef and she the GM. They have hosted more weddings, more charity fund-raisers, more Friday-night-in-July dinner rushes than most industry veterans their age. And now a new venture: a restaurant in their hometown of Cape Neddick. Earlier this year, they purchased the 1926 Cape Neddick Inn restaurant (to be renamed Walkers), bringing the dream of their own place to fruition. “Finally, finally, the right fit,” Danielle says.
That restaurant is just four miles from the farm where the couple now live with their son, Jackson, and a rotating cast of animals that, at recent count, included two horses, 24 goats, seven chickens, two barn cats, and a smattering of ducks. Danielle’s family has lived in the 1760 Cape-style farmhouse since the 19th century—her great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were born here—and since the couple took over the house in 2001, after Danielle’s grandmother passed away, Jackson has become the sixth generation to call it home. It’s an ongoing project, a family legacy they patiently renovate when they find a break from the restaurant, the garden, and the animals.
Today’s project: Thanksgiving dinner. Despite the fact that their jobs are to host and cook and create moments for paying strangers—or perhaps because of it—Danielle and Justin find themselves hosting more and more of the family holidays. Almost everyone lives nearby, and Danielle’s sister and mom are even on the same street. Three years ago, when a surprise storm knocked out their power, Justin cooked the entire Thanksgiving feast outside using a Caja China roaster, a metal-lined wooden box native to Cuba that’s large enough to cook an entire pig or goat (the name, roughly translated, is slang for “magic box”). “I could cook Thanksgiving dinner for 100 with this thing,” Justin says.
As he sets two large turkeys in the roaster, he tosses in a bit more fuel to maintain a gentle heat. With turkey, he says, “slow cooking is key. Be patient. The longer it takes, the better it’s going to be. And don’t be afraid to pull the thighs off and let them cook back in the oven if it keeps the breast meat from drying out.” Helping him out are friends and colleagues from southern Maine, including Matt Jauck, a pastry chef who has joined him at Walkers and who made the bourbon walnut pecan pies for today’s feast.
While Justin handles the cooking, Danielle checks in on some Nigerian dwarf goats that were born earlier in the week. The demands of a farm are relentless even now, when the tomatoes and shell beans and kale have given way to frost and the few wild cranberry bushes in the back field are yielding the last of their fruit. But compared with the busiest summer months, this feels like a vacation. “This is our nesting time,” Danielle says. She makes soap from the goats’ milk, as well as feta, chèvre, and ricotta. Sometimes the whey from the cheese making goes into homemade bread (Justin calls it a “cheater sourdough”). They partially heat the house with her grandmother’s cast-iron stove.
Today, however, the guys at the grill are in T-shirts, the morning’s sweaters tossed aside. By the time dinner is ready, the sun is getting lower, lighting up the rust-colored oaks that line the pastures. The goats are calling for dinner, but humans get to eat first today.
As everyone reaches the table, there’s a moment of hesitation: Who should sit at the head? Danielle’s mom, Denise, suggests it should be Justin and Danielle—and thus the torch is passed.
When it’s time for cocktails and dessert, the chill has settled in, so everyone heads to the firepit for pie and caramel-pumpkin sundaes. Now the goats can eat, too. Danielle pops up to fetch them, and their hooves thump the ground as they make their way from the pasture to the barn. “It’s the running of the goats,” Denise quips. Once inside, they gather around their feed tubs, their bodies arranged like spokes on a wheel.
Later, Denise gets up and pays a visit to Danielle’s horse, Twice the Take, who’s standing in the dusky light behind the barn. She whistles and takes an apple out of her pocket as he lopes over, then offers it across the fence. He turns his head. “That’s a first,” she muses. She looks up. “Around here, we’re so plugged into all this,” she says, gesturing at the barn, the fields, the trees. “A hawk just flew overhead. Did you see? I didn’t miss it. And it’s good to notice these things.”
The following recipes were served at Justin and Danielle’s Thanksgiving meal.