Published November 23, 2010
“Let’s see,” says Carrie Vitt, wife of Major Pete Vitt, of this year’s Thanksgiving at Edwards Air Force Base in California, “it’s my husband and our daughters. The Deas are coming with two kids. The husband’s been in Afghanistan since March, back the first week of December, so she’s in the homestretch. We’ve known them since pilot-training days.” And then there are the Phillipses and their three kids who are moving into TLF (temporary living facilities) the night before Thanksgiving.
“Most husbands arrange to arrive at night so the wives don’t see it,” she says. “It,” being the miles and miles of dry lakebeds and nothingness surrounding the base. “Every woman breaks down the first time she sees Edwards,” laughs Vitt. “You think: ‘I can’t believe Air Force sent us here.’ Takes a week of crying before you figure out that you’re going to be just fine.”
This year, family and friends will enjoy a made-from-scratch Thanksgiving bounty: smoked turkey; carrot soufflé (steamed carrots pureed with maple syrup, butter, eggs, flour, cinnamon and vanilla and baked); Spinach Madeleine (Carrie’s grandma’s creamed spinach kicked-up with pepperjack cheese); mashed potatoes; Carrie’s mom’s favorite salad of mixed field greens, pecans, cranberries, blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette; pumpkin pie and pecan pie served with hard sauce and whipped cream. They’re all organic and they taste the way they ought to, usually an oxymoron with organic cooking. That’s why Vitt wrote, “Deliciously Organic: Simple Dishes, Vibrant Flavors Everyone Will Love,” due in early December. It includes recipes that she worked on tirelessly to make organic, but not to taste organic.
Edwards, the site of the Air Force’s Test Pilot School, is home to more aviation records than anywhere else in the world. The program is so rigorous that only seasoned pilots with advanced technical degrees in aeronautics, physics, mathematics, etc. need apply. It’s where Major Vitt instructs and trains top pilots, navigators and engineers how to conduct flight tests on new and experimental aircrafts. And it’s where Carrie Vitt cooks and bakes her way through squadron coffees, dinner parties and family meals, testing and perfecting Butterball Chive Biscuits, Crawfish Etoufee and Chocolate Cream Pie.
It’s a toss-up whether Vitt’s all-organic-all-the-time food is more of an accomplishment because she moves to a new base every few years (often located in the middle of nowhere), or because she’s done it for a family of four on a military salary for nearly a decade.
“I honestly thought organic was for people who wanted to pay more for food,” she says. Suffering from 24/7 migraines after the birth of her second daughter, which didn’t respond to medication, she did some research and decided to try organic. Several months later the headaches disappeared. “I’m not a scientist,” she says. “I only go from personal experience. But I was better and the kids were less hyper.”
Her reputation now precedes herself. When they returned to Edwards last year after Major Vitt’s first tour, “the general’s wife came up to me and said, ‘You’re the organic cook!’” After squadron coffees Vitt often fields “how-do-you-do-it” questions for as long as an hour. She suggests replacing one item per month with an organic one. “In six months you’ll be organic,” she says. “You don’t need fancy stoves and granite counters to go organic. You just have to be curious.”
Moving to a new base means logging onto eatwild.com and localharvest.org to find local organic markets and suppliers. When the Vitts were stationed at Eglin AFB in Florida she and some other wives created a co-op and got organic bulk deliveries on-base. She sources local organic farms and together with other families, buys a whole cow and has it butchered. “The last one averaged $3.50 per pound for all cuts,” she says.
Other than cost and availability, the main issue with organic food is that it often doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to. If you’ve ever substituted whole-wheat flour for white you know that pancakes can go horribly, tragically wrong. Because Vitt grew up with a gifted grandmother and worked for a mom who is a caterer (“The Festive Kitchen” in Dallas), making food taste like it should is her priority. She gives healthy, unprocessed versions of family favorites that don’t ask people to trade-off taste for health.
Her first foray into whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies was disastrous: big, dense, hard globs of dough. “My mom’s famous for her cookie dough so I had to get it right,” she says. Six months of experimenting yielded dough as good as her mom’s. The secret: combine the right proportions of whole-wheat pastry flour, whole-wheat flour and ground oats. She created a mock cream of mushroom to replace the canned soup in her grandma’s Crawfish Etoufee. “I’ve got a good handful of grandma’s recipes that are now organic and taste exactly like hers.”
The only thing Vitt won’t be making for Thanksgiving is the turkey. She and her husband inject it with garlic butter and cover it with Herbamare, a blended organic seasoning. Then her husband gets up in the middle of the night and smokes it over mesquite for fifteen hours. “It’s his thing. You cut into it and the juices just run,” she says. It’s unbelievable.”