About a decade ago I volunteered to take over the Thanksgiving meal for my family. My aunt had reluctantly done it for several years after my grandmother passed away, but she was eager to pass the torch. I like to cook and my wife and I had purchased our first house and so I convinced her we could handle it. I will spare readers the tales of meals gone terribly wrong and some dishes nearly inedible. I will pretend my wife and I did not schedule an annual fight on Thanksgiving week where she declared we would never do this again. For the sake of good storytelling, let’s just pretend that for the last 10 years everything has gone perfectly.
In order to preserve my marriage I was forced to slowly apply catering principles to the meal. Good passes for excellent when you are cooking for a large group. Crock Pots are your friend. If everything is served hot, you win. With a well-timed vacation week (so graciously provided by my employer) and an attention to detail learned from 15 years in the logistics business, things mostly go off smoothly these days. Everyone gets plenty to eat, I get a few compliments after the dessert course and we pack everything away to repeat the next year and it’s all very…boring.
My mother, whom I love dearly, is not an adventurous eater however, she does love to experiment in the kitchen. In me she has found a willing accomplice on more than one occasion. Once I helped her make a pumpkin-beef stew that we served in an actual pumpkin. I thought it was festive, while the rest of the family still talks about it as though they are lucky to have survived. Despite these complaints from our ungrateful relatives, she has passed on to me a love of experimentation in the kitchen, which makes our rinse-and-repeat Thanksgiving all that much harder to produce every year.
Lately I have begun polling family members about the Thanksgiving meal. “What is the one dish that is non-negotiable?” Some said stuffing. Some said corn or green beans. After making roasted fingerling potatoes at a recent birthday party, I mentioned to Mom that maybe I could make them for Thanksgiving. Being a mother that likes to encourage her children she responded, “It’s your house, you make whatever you want.” I was excited at first until she said that of course I would still need to make mashed potatoes…because it’s not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes.
Julia Reed said it best:
“Thanksgiving ends up being a forced march down the assorted memory lanes of way too many people.”
I felt myself tear up a bit the first time I read that line. Lying in bed with the November issue of Garden & Gun, I told my wife, “That Julia really gets it.” Every year I vow there will be new recipes and that our guests can eat them or do without, but that is a strategy that is dangerous for someone whose ego does depend on the occasional positive affirmation. As an illustrative lesson I need only remember that the simple act of substituting cornbread led to the Great Stuffing Fiasco of 2013, when my oldest daughter accused me of trying to ruin Thanksgiving.
As Julia went on to explain in her essay, the word ‘tradition’ is completely arbitrary. There is no mention of turkey at the first Thanksgiving, but we know that the Pilgrims dined on venison, cod, clams, and lobsters. Thanksgiving itself did not become a national holiday until 1941. Culture is funny in the way it tells itself that things done for a relatively short time are the ways we always did them (I’m sure there is a political analogy to be made there, but someone else can figure that out.) Having spent a great deal of time in New England this year, I thought that maybe being geographically closer to Plymouth Rock might mean the locals had not strayed as far from the original menu as we Southerners have. Alas, with the exception of oysters appearing in their stuffing more frequently, it seems my Yankee coworkers will be cooking roughly the same items in their homes.
So what will be served in the Dwyer household this year? I am going to smoke a few turkey breasts instead of doing the whole bird (there will no doubt be a complaint about the lack of dark meat). The green beans will be traditional Southern-style, because even I cannot tolerate the under-cooked offerings of our friends in the North. Potatoes will be mashed. Corn pudding, yams and homemade cranberry sauce will round things out. Not very much of a departure from previous years, but I keep telling myself that the turkey will be my first volley in a multi-year war to make Thanksgiving more interesting. Or I may keep giving in to the vocal majority, just try to keep the savages happy.
Long live Tradition and Happy Thanksgiving.