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November 7, 2009

Thanksgiving Thoughts #2

Filed under: Be Super Fantastic,Food — Twistie @ 8:30 am

When you go to make that Thanksgiving feast, you know what you’ll be making, right?

Turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, yams with marshmallow topping, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and rolls.

Well, that or something extremely similar is expected. Then again, just because it’s expected doesn’t mean it works for you.

“But Twistie!,” some say aghast, “It has Always Been This Way! You cannot go changing it willy-nilly!”

To which I reply the same excuse has been used to explain enslavement of populations, female circumcision, and Richard Simmons’ hair and exercise outfits. Do you really want to fall back on an excuse that allows this to continue?


I thought not.

There are reasons why the typical Thanksgiving menu evolved as it did, and they have little to do with pilgrims or Squanto or Plymouth Rock.

You see, the holiday wasn’t formalized in America until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared the third thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. It wasn’t the first time a president had declared a national day of Thanksgiving. George Washington had already done that on October 3, 1789. He proclaimed another national day of Thanksgiving in 1795. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson also declared Thanksgiving days during their presidencies, and a number of state governors did so in their terms, until in 1858, some 25 states and two territories held  Thanksgiving on one date or another.

At the urging of Sarah Josepha Hale (editress [her preferred title] of the influential Godey’s Ladies Book and author of [among many other poems and prose pieces] Mary Had a Little Lamb), Lincoln came to the decision that it was time to go ahead and make Thanksgiving a permanent, annual event. Mostly Lincoln said everyone should thank God for their blessings and didn’t say a lot about eating, but feasting has always been a popular way of celebrating and of expressing gratitude, and everyone had heard about the feast the pilgrims had, so it didn’t take long for the whole food thing to be adopted.

This was a time when massive grocery stores and refrigeration did not yet exist. People ate what they had access to, and what they had access to was a great deal less exotic and season-negotiable than what we have today.

Turkeys roamed wild, though they had also been domesticated by then for eating purposes. Root vegetables like yams and sweet potatoes come into season in the fall. Cranberries had become a popular crop that came into season with the colder weather. It’s not difficult to see how the standard menu developed. After a couple generations, it got set more or less in marble with a few regional and familial variations.

But what about today? The Menu made sense in 1863. It was an elaborate version of the things that were most readily available. Today we have a great many more options. We have access to cooking techniques that hadn’t been invented when Great-great-grandma developed her stuffing recipe. We can get strawberries in November, if we please. We have tasted flavors from cultures other than our own. We don’t have to eat what Great-great-grandma ate.

Am I saying there’s anything wrong with the standard Thanksgiving fare? No. Of course not. I love turkey and pumpkin pie (and not just because my two most freakish abilities in the kitchen are turkey that never dries out and pie crust that is always flaky and delicious) and cranberries. Okay,  not so hot on smothering innocent yams and sweet potatoes with marshmallows, but that’s personal. If they’re your thing, have at them!

What I am saying is that if you’re a vegetarian, or require a gluten-free meal, or just aren’t wild about roast turkey and cranberries, it’s okay to eat something else. Serve butternut squash lasagna and vegan cupcakes, sit yourself down to the best Thai food you can drum up. It’s all good.

The point of the day isn’t turkey, it’s taking a moment to appreciate and celebrate the good things we have in life, wherever we think they came from, whatever we consider the important ones. You get to choose whether the food that sums that up best is roast turkey or a steak or cheese enchiladas or the perfect PB&J.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. If you pick the expected, it should be because you love it. If you don’t, you’re not going to make the planets spin out of control and hurtle themselves into the stars. Eat what you love, and love what you eat.

After all, it’s hard to drum up much thankfulness for food you dislike or that actively sickens you.


  1. This made me think of my favorite Thanksgiving dinner ever. There were a large assortment of Dietary restrictions. Between the seven of us, we had: 1 Fish eater, 1 onion allergy, 1 milk allergy, 1 gluten free, & 2 diabetics.

    We had a side of salmon home smoked on the grill, steamed Broccoli and summer squash tossed with olive oil and sea salt, Roasted Yams with rosemary and garlic, and individual ramekins of “make your own dressing” so everyone could put in the ingredients that said Thanksgiving to them without tripping someone else’s dietary problems.

    Comment by Stormfire — November 7, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  2. Wow, Stormfire, if you ever decide to do that again, be sure to call me! Sounds delicious!

    Comment by Twistie — November 7, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  3. I just spent half an hour searching YouTube for the MST3K Thanksgiving song that so wisely reminds us, “Personally I prefer turkey, gravy and salad – but let’s not forget that all cultures are valid.” Couldn’t find it, but I hope I’ve at least shared that earworm with someone.

    We’ll be subverting the British system again at another expat potluck, this year hosted by a Canadian (so nice of her to postpone her holiday). I can’t wait to see what various traditional fare everyone brings – last year we were introduced to banoffee pie. My contribution will be broccoli-and-bacon salad, while my husband’s making his bourbon-licious baked beans.

    (I actually do raise a glass in toast to Happy Days‘ Donny Most. Long story.)

    Comment by B.S.A.G. — November 7, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  4. I love thanksgiving. To mangle a quote, it’s a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

    Comment by zanthine — November 7, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  5. @zanthine: I, too, have a deep and profound love of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. And ritual sacrifice with pie.

    @B.S.A.G.: Broccoli and bacon salad??? Recipe, please!

    Comment by Twistie — November 7, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  6. I’m making the same thing I’ve made for the past couple of years for Thanksgiving: reservations.

    I really don’t like most of the foods served at the traditional Thanksgiving feast – I don’t hate them, but I’d honestly choose something else over most of them. Except stuffing.

    And even though yeah, I can cook them all and cook them well (with the exception of sweet potatoes which I consider an abomination no matter how they’re prepared), I don’t like cooking them. Especially when there’s only two of us because there’s no better way to ruin a holiday than spend it with my family.

    So I let someone else cook, I get to have something like a yummy steak which most restaurants will happily serve with a side of stuffing because they’re always serving some variant on the traditional meal, and I get chocolate for dessert.

    About the only thing I miss is the leftover stuffing.

    Comment by TropicalChrome — November 7, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  7. @Tropical Chrome: could you not ask for a side order of stuffing to go?

    Comment by Twistie — November 7, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

  8. Why would you put marshmallows on sweet potatoes when you could make a sweet potato pie? SO much better than pumpkin, which I always finds tastes soapy.

    I admit to being a total sucker for the traditional menu, but I’m eyeing this turnip gratin recipe. Mmm, gratins.

    Comment by Nomie — November 7, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

  9. Nobody in my family really loves turkey that much, so we haven’t had turkey for years. For a long time, we had chili (a family fave) and gave the turkey money to the food bank. Now we tend to celebrate Christmas at Thanksgiving, so I’ve made lamb for a couple of years. I’ve also made lasagna once, and roasted cornish hens once.

    Comment by Elizabeth — November 7, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

  10. Our family tradition is spaghetti! We have an ice cream turkey for dessert (drumsticks are ice cream cones).

    Comment by Nancy — November 8, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

  11. This year we’re having a turkey breast, salmon, rice, green beans with lemon zest, baked sweet potatoes, sauteed kale with garlic, and for dessert pecan pie.

    Comment by Kai Jones — November 9, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  12. My Husband found a South Western Thanksgiving feast in a Magazine we subscribe too the first year we were married. I normally don’t follow a complete menu from a magazine, but this just looked SOOOOOOOOOOOOO good that I gave it a shot. It was a lot of food, so we opened our home to those who needed a place to have Thanksgiving- mostly people from our church, but there have been other people in our Circle of friends that show up, and we are grateful for their presence. The Turkey has a tamarind glaze and is stuffed with Poblano and Guajillo Chiles, the sweet potatos are made into a savory tamale, we have roasted corn and Chipolte mashed potatos and sauted green beans with a manchengo and white wine sauce, corn bread, bacon and chipolte dressing. The dish de resistance is a poblano and cauliflower gratin made with cotija and monterey jack cheeses. Ohh- and the roasted pablano gravy- INSANE!! I make pies and bread pudding for dessert and my grandmothers cranberry sauce. It is a lot of good food, and as we are living on the East Coast and we are from the West, it brings a bit of the flavors from home here. The hardest thing to do is to convince my butcher that, yes, we need 5 pounds of Chorizo and my produce guy that really, we will use the 5 pounds of poblanos. Every year I order the ingredients, every year they look at me in disbelief, and every year I invite them to join us- maybe this year they will take me up on the invite.

    Never once has anyone said to me that they miss the green bean casserole. I personally think that casserole looks like a dead frog when you serve it.

    Oh- we have a huge post Thanksgiving leftver party on Friday- everyone brings their leftovers and we have a lot of fun.

    Comment by Kimks — November 9, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  13. Dang, Kimks! That sounds fabulous.

    And you should have seen the look on my butcher’s face the first time I asked him if I could get suet. I needed it for a steamed pudding. As things stand, I have to plan a week in advance if I want to make one because that’s how long the special order takes. Sigh.

    Comment by Twistie — November 9, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  14. I’ve done Rock Cornish Game Hens, and I’ve done duck three or four times. Mmmmm…. duck!

    Comment by La BellaDonna — November 9, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

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