My husband is notorious for popping off at the Thanksgiving dinner table with controversial comments like, “Let’s cook something different for Thanksgiving next year.” My family comes unglued! It’s like firing a flame thrower at a scarecrow convention.
When it comes to the Thanksgiving meal I am like Tevye, the father in the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” shouting “Tradition, Tradition! TRADITION!” He treasures it! He fights for it! But his family is straying from it. TRADITION! Tevye respects it and he is consumed by it! Without traditions he fears their lives would be as shaky as a “fiddler on the roof.” There are rules that need to be followed!
Now, my traditional Thanksgiving meal is unlike the harvest meal shared between the European settlers, “pilgrims” as we call them, and the Native Americans, “indians”. Circa early 1600s, they probably served venison, some mashed pumpkin and a little corn porridge. Chances are they didn’t like each other much. The pilgrims had been crammed on a boat together for far too long and the Native Americans were not thrilled about having unexpected company. But together they were thankful that the land provided food and that for the time being, they were alive and well.
Today we mimic that meal and share it with family and friends (whether you like them or not), and count our blessings. We have added to and expanded upon the original menu based on our accessibility to a treasure trove of modern day ingredients, but I myself, will only go so far.
In fact, I am 55 years old and I have had pretty much the same Thanksgiving meal for approximately 50 of those years. We have perfected it so why mess with perfection? If it’s not broken why fix it? Our menu consists of:
Basic roast turkey. I’ll stray occasionally with a brine or a little herb butter tucked under the skin.
Gravy. I am saving chicken drippings as we speak to stretch the gravy into a triple batch. I will make a vat of gravy. We go through this stuff.
Mashed potatoes. Cream, salt & pepper. I usually use a combo of Russets and Yukon Golds. No goat cheese, garlic or other nonsense.
Cornbread stuffing. Onion, celery, black olives, lots of parsley. It can be cooked in the turkey or outside the turkey. Just follow the recipe. No dried fruit or sausage.
Candied sweet potatoes. Sliced, caramel sauced and baked. Save the marshmallows for s’mores.
Vegies & Ranch Dip. Carrots, celery and packaged Hidden Valley ranch dressing made with 3 equal parts of sour cream, mayo and plain yogurt. I’ve got this down to an art.
Hot Vegetable. Some of my family member refuse to make room on their plate for this. But visually, I like something green. Usually fresh green beans because they withstand the heating tray longer than, oh say, broccoli, which turns to mush. And I don’t do brussel sprouts (one of the FEW things I don’t like to eat in all the world).
Cranberry Sauce. Sometimes with a little orange added. Although this relish is easy to make from fresh berries, I will buy the canned variety in a pinch, but not the jellied kind – although it does slice and sit well on a sandwich the next day.
Pickled Beets. This is our family’s Norwegian influence.
Canned Black Olives. At least one can per child under the age of 56. These, in addition to assorted nuts in the shell, are the only snacks or “appetizers” allowed. Save the smoked salmon spread and cheese balls for another party.
Pumpkin Pie. We have allowed slight variations on the basic recipe. My sister makes a pumpkin pie with a schmear of apricot preserves across the crust and we have accepted it.
“What happened to the other 5 meals out of your 55?”
I’ll tell you what happened. We let the outside world influence our recipe boxes and kitchens. We threw tradition out the window and allowed caramelized shallots, black truffle buttered purées, herb-infused reductions, and oyster-stuffed geese to invade our table. We still shake our heads over my sisters’ Pumpkin Roulade which took her hours and hours to make, but couldn’t be eaten since she used some questionably old sour cream in the filling. “So what did you learn from this?” I asked her. “To check expiration dates more closely.” she answered. I held her hands in mine and looked deep into her eyes. “No. We are pumpkin pie people. Don’t ever forget that.”
I have also been a guest elsewhere and had a splendid time with someone else’s traditions, or lack thereof. But, I know I won’t get my Thanksgiving cravings met and make sure my refrigerator and pantry are stocked to make our traditional Thanksgiving meal later that week.
Another tradition we have is to end the meal with a discussion called, “Name the Thanksgiving Foodstuff You Could Live Without”. We all think for a moment. Someone suggests mashed potatoes. WHAAAT? Noooo! Mashed potatoes have the perfect grainy, earthy texture to complement the silky, smoothness of the gravy. “Perhaps two potato dishes is too much. How about letting go of the sweet potatoes?” NNNOOOOO! Sweet & salty, sweet & salty! You have to have sweet and salty! GET REAL! “Pumpkin Pie. I think I can live without Pumpkin Pie,” one of us chimes in. But my older sister won’t agree and argues that it is makes an excellent breakfast and is somewhat healthy as it is made from a fruit. She has a point. Next turkey is analyzed for omission. For me, it rarely ends up on my plate during the Thanksgiving meal. But it is the base for the gravy and throughout the day exudes its hypnotic aroma as it roasts. It gives us crispy fatty skin to pick at and the quintessential sandwich the next day…utter folly to consider leaving it out. “Aha! The veggies and dip. You don’t even use silverware for those.” But my mom bemoans the loss of the crisp, cool celery to combat the richness of the meal. She’s right. We shake our heads. There is nothing we can let go of…unless… How about the water? The acidity of wine or the tingle of sparkling cider is best when paired with this style of food! So yes, it’s agreed that we can live without water for Thanksgiving.
This year, as I am lured by recipes for Butternut Squash Soup or Wild Mushroom Bundles, I keep telling myself “NO!” These dishes would be fine for the 3rd Thursday of November or the first Saturday of December or any other day in between. Just not for my Thanksgiving.