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.