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Eats and Drinks

Rethinking Thanksgiving

Just what makes a traditional Turkey Day dish traditional?

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow


Thanksgiving is food. That is, a holiday existing primarily through the very specific foods eaten on this day, foods even a toddler can name without trying: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving has become a gorge-fest bookended by TV viewings of the Macy’s Parade and football games, but even so, most of us manage to recall that it has something to do with the Pilgrims surviving their first year in the New World.

We feast now, the story goes, to commemorate that first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. The Pilgrims had landed a year earlier, having the foresight to arrive in November so that the greatest number would starve to death during the winter. About half of them died; the remainder survived because local Native American tribes took what turned out to be extremely shortsighted pity on their sorry asses and gave them enough food to get through till spring. The survivors managed a decent harvest of vegetables the following summer and decided to throw a party to celebrate, inviting the helpful Indians.

Picture it: There were but 53 Pilgrims still upright by this time, while the leader of the Wampanoag Indians, Massasoit, showed up with 90 members of his tribe. He must have known that the pale-faces were incapable of throwing a decent party, because he showed up with five deer, which almost certainly composed the majority of the meal. In other words, the first Thanksgiving was basically a charitable outreach program by the Indians, who fed the Pilgrims with what is believed to have been the first food bank in the new world.

History is vague as to what dishes exactly were served that first Thanksgiving. The meal almost certainly included the trendy new vegetable of the day, corn, which was not eaten off the cob but rather dried, pounded like hell, and cooked into mush. Other vegetables were thought to include pumpkins and onions. It is thought that there were several kinds of wild fowl served, quite possibly including turkeys. Wild turkeys at that time still lacked pop-up timers and were thus cooked until they could double as doormats. There were no ovens, so no pumpkin pie. Also no sugar, so no sweets of any kind. There were no cranberries, partly because they had yet to be introduced and partly because nobody knew how to open the cans. But from this sketchy scenario arises our fairly rigid collective notion of acceptable Thanksgiving foods.

But there might be some room to improvise. Here in Baltimore, sauerkraut and kielbasa (preferably Ostrowski’s kielbasa) are traditional Thanksgiving foods. Growing up in the city, I thought they had the same status—not just here, but everywhere—as the turkey, and continued to believe this until I shared T-Day dinner with my college roommate’s family. Looking expectantly around the table for the kielbasa and kraut, trying to locate it among the dozen other dishes of food, and wondering how they got Ostrowski’s all the way down here in Virginia, it slowly dawned on me: There. Wasn’t. Any. I figured it must have been forgotten, left in the kitchen, and helpfully volunteered this information to the hostess, i.e., my roommate’s mom, who looked at me blankly. Sauerkraut and what? At Thanksgiving? I was ridiculously crushed by the lack of this—to me—essential Thanksgiving food. Seeing my distress, my roommate’s mom said consolingly, “Here, dear, have some cranbrosia,” and plopped a spoonful of what looked like cranberry-studded barf (cranbrosia apparently involved pineapple chunks, gelatin, and mayonnaise along with the cranberries) onto my plate. My family served cranberry sauce the old-fashioned way, a can-shaped cylinder dumped into a dish. I was suddenly achingly, unbearably homesick.

Ever since that formative experience, I’ve been extremely aware that treasured food traditions are highly subjective, even around a holiday as ritualized as this one. Ask 10 people what their family’s special Thanksgiving dish might be and you’ll get 10 very different answers. I have found in my informal investigations that turkey is almost but not quite universal. Stand-ins range from goose (“because that is what my dad shoots every year”) to seitan (rogue tofu made from wheat instead of soy), but interestingly, even upon the vegan table, there is always some kind of something representing that big bird.

So when we all gather round our respective tables on the fourth Thursday of November, it’s pretty certain there will be turkey. Also stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, in whatever form has evolved for your family. The rest starts to get a little loosey-goosey—green beans with cream-of-whatever soup and those fried onion thingies? Sweet potatoes topped with mini marshmallows? Even as the exact recipes vary, the food itself matters. Because it says to us, year after year, here we are. Things change, but this—this is fixed, unwavering. The fact that your mom mixes pineapple in with the cranberries is not important. What is important is that she does it every year, and when it’s your turn, so will you.

Here is the weird, proprietary thing on our Thanksgiving table every year: curried fruit compote. I know, it’s tough to hold Pilgrims and curry powder in the same thought. But this dish entered our family food lexicon 12 years ago, when I got married and it crossed over from husband’s traditions. Despite the fact that the marriage is in the process of dissolving, the curried fruit abides. This year we will be celebrating our own non-traditional Thanksgiving by gathering our fractured family around the same holiday table for the first time in three years and hoping for the best. Wish us luck.

Curried fruit:

You’ll need 1-pound cans of sliced peaches, pears, apricots, and pineapple (all in juice or syrup), and a small jar of maraschino cherries. Drain all, pat dry, and put everything in an oven-ready crock or bowl. In skillet, melt 4 tablespoons butter, add 2 tablespoons yellow curry powder, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and 8 ounces chopped pecans. Spread over top of fruit and bake in 450 F oven for 30 minutes. Serve.

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