Tradition or Bust
Thanksgiving is the Innovative Cook’s Nightmare
by Gay Lyons
Once again my food magazines are taunting me, promising “New Twists on Old Favorites” or “New Dishes to Jazz Up Your Thanksgiving.” But twist and jazz are not what my family wants at Thanksgiving. They want a traditional meal. Frankly, as a cook, I find Thanksgiving constraining. Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet , admits the problem, calling the holiday “a food editor’s nightmare.” Who’s to blame for this situation?
According to Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie , by Kathleen Curtin and Sandra L. Oliver, the only documented information about the “first” Thanksgiving, which was actually a three-day harvest feast, mentions just two foods: venison and wild fowl, most likely ducks or geese. Food historians have speculated about what else was served. It is possible wild turkey was served. It may have been stuffed with onions or chestnuts. If cranberries were served, they were not sweetened. There may have been corn and boiled vegetables. The current “traditional” Thanksgiving menu has its roots in the early 1800’s, not the 1600s.
According to Curtin and Oliver, a typical Thanksgiving menu from the 1800s probably included roasted turkey and stuffing, turnips, squash, creamed onions and three kinds of pie: mince, apple and pumpkin. Why turkey? According to the authors, it was “the most festive meat an average American family could put on the table.” Its staying power is such that most Americans will eat turkey this Thanksgiving. By the end of the 19th century, the menu was likely to include oysters, mashed potatoes, cranberry jelly and celery, which was so prized it was served in special celery glasses.
Initially Thanksgiving was celebrated mainly in New England. It was declared a national holiday in 1863, but it was still not much observed in the South until closer to the end of the 19th century. As Southerners began to celebrate Thanksgiving, the menu expanded to include sweet potato casserole, ambrosia, corn bread dressing and pecan pie. Over the course of about a hundred years, a traditional American Thanksgiving menu was developed. While there were, and still are, regional and ethnic differences, the standard menu—the one in the Norman Rockwell paintings and on the covers of women’s magazines—was set: turkey with either stuffing or dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, various vegetables and pecan and pumpkin pies.
Curtin and Oliver also note that several convenience products introduced in the 20th century left their mark on the Thanksgiving menu. Congealed salads, especially cranberry congealed salads, became popular after flavored gelatin appeared in grocery stores. Marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes showed up in cookbooks around the same time as congealed salads. The recipe for cranberry sauce on bags of Ocean Spray cranberries was popular as was the pumpkin pie recipe on cans of Libby brand pumpkin and the pecan pie recipe on Karo syrup bottles. My Grandmother Bryant’s pecan pie recipe specifically calls for one cup of dark Karo syrup and is very close to the one on the syrup bottle, which calls for twice as much sugar but only half as much butter as our family recipe. The most ubiquitous Thanksgiving dish made from convenience products may be the green bean casserole introduced by Campbell’s Soup in 1955 made with condensed cream of mushroom soup, “French style” green beans and canned fried onions.
I’ve read the recipes in the November issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit , but I won’t be preparing any of them. I’ve served essentially the same Thanksgiving dinner for about a decade: turkey, cornbread dressing, roasted sweet potatoes, carrot soufflé, creamed spinach and artichokes, and a few other things. It’s really boring, but my family doesn’t want me to change a thing. I found that out the year I made cranberry salsa instead of traditional cranberry sauce. For the record, I thought the salsa was great. It really perked up the turkey. But I learned my lesson about removing old favorites without warning.
Last year I supplemented the usual smoked turkey breast, slow cooked in our own smoker with chips soaked in water and fresh sage branches, with Cajun Fried Turkey. It was such a success I’m skipping the smoked turkey this year. I don’t fry my own turkeys. I trust that task to experts in the field. This year I’ve also subcontracted desserts. Instead of baking pumpkin and pecan pies, I’ve ordered pumpkin cheesecake and triple nut cranberry torte from Magpies.
The 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking includes menus for meals celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Passover and other occasions. Of the 24 items on the Thanksgiving menu, the only dish also on my menu is stuffed celery. I’m obviously breaking some rules here. Good. I feel less constrained already.