An instructor, who was leading a class I took recently, started off by asking the participants to go around the room and introduce ourselves and, as a little twist, to name our favorite Thanksgiving dish for everyone else. The choices ran the gamut from the plain yet delicious (mashed potatoes), to the more elaborate (a type of pie which sounded fantastic), to the outre (my own choice, my Mom’s lasagna, which I happen to love so, yes…I cheated…and yes, we have had it for the holiday meal). Folks spoke of their favorites–green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows or pecans–and the enthusiasm with which my classmates spoke about their favorites made me realize that there’s real emotion tied to our anticipation of what we think of as traditional holiday food. Of course, this includes turkey for many of us.
Now, I don’t care much for turkey myself and I don’t know that anyone in my extended family was particularly crazy about it. Yet there it sat, year after year during my childhood, providing a mighty anchor to my grandmother’s table. For just a simple Sunday dinner, my grandmother set what can only be described as a “groaning board,” and at Thanksgiving that poor table pretty much gave up and begged for mercy. The bird always seemed to dwarf the many side dishes that mobbed the turkey nonetheless like a bunch of underemployed paparazzi suddenly catching sight of Beyonce and Jay Z out on a double date with Angelina and Brad. I mean, there was barely room for our plates.
How is it that such food becomes a “tradition” in the first place? Well, let’s see.
- Turkey may or may not have played a part in the earliest Thanksgiving menus. Certainly the wild turkey has been a resident on this continent since it strolled over here from Asia about 50,000 years ago, but the best known record of the “first Thanksgiving” celebrated by the Pilgrims of Plymouth in 1621 mentions “wild fowl,” which could have easily been turkey, geese, ducks, or all three. There’s some logic to the thinking that the domestic turkey later seized its holiday seat of supremacy by virtue of its size (i.e., more people fed from one dish) and its lack of utility for egg production. At DCPL, see How to Cook a Turkey from the editors of Fine Cooking for all the information you will need to prepare next year’s bird.
- Pumpkin is another food that has traveled. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, but the pies didn’t become popular until after the pumpkin’s arrival in Tudor England from whence it hopped back over the Atlantic with the Pilgrims. Today, many–if not most of us–who choose to make a pumpkin pie select pumpkin in a can over fresh. If you’ve ever tried to cut up or peel any sort of hard-shelled gourd or squash, then you will understand this preference–although a pie pumpkin is much smaller than the one you might select for a jack-o-lantern. In any case, pumpkins are a true harvest vegetable so their inclusion at Thanksgiving makes sense. At DCPL, see A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies by Ashley English, and make Gingersnap Pumpkin Pie with Candied Pumpkin Seeds next year.
- Sweet potatoes–either baked, mashed or made into a casserole–were not a part of the first Thanksgiving. By the late 1800’s (right around the time Thanksgiving became a recognized holiday) candied sweet potatoes had developed a following in such northern cities as Philadelphia. Of course, folks in the South had already been eating sweet potatoes for a while. The addition of marshmallows came shortly afterward and the casserole’s fate was sealed. That is, unless you’re like me and prefer a crunchy, and infinitely more ethereal topping of crushed pecans, glazed with butter and brown sugar. See Clifford A. Wright’s Bake Until Bubbly: The Ultimate Casserole Cookbook to find a recipe for a sweet potato casserole that features a pralined, and thus correct, pecan topping.
While we’re talking about “traditional” food for the Thanksgiving feast, let us not forget that many, many families include dishes that reflect their cultural heritage and which are as important to a proper celebration as a specific kind of dressing or gravy (served from a boat and not a bowl) may be to you. People of Ukrainian origin might choose to include cabbage rolls and pickled herring with the meal. A Korean family might always be sure that kimchee and pa jun pancakes grace the table. From agnolotti to tamales, the presence and the taste of certain food just means holiday–and if you are cooking for others, you’d best not forget that.
I’ll never forget the year that I volunteered to make a green bean casserole. Regular readers of this blog might believe that I think of myself as some sort of fancy-pants cook–and all I will say to that is… some people would tell you you’re right. I steamed the fresh green beans to the point of perfection before mixing them with a carefully prepared cream sauce made with fresh mushrooms and spiked with sherry and lemon. Once I had topped my gorgeous dish with a layer of caramelized onions and baked it for the proper time and at the proper temperature, I took it to the potluck practically bursting with pride in my creation. Well, we all know what pride goeth before. Everyone was polite about my dish and, after all, there’s something to be said about carrying home one’s own leftover green bean casserole. It certainly reduces anxiety about what to eat for lunch the day after Thanksgiving (and the day after that). The problem, of course, was that my casserole simply didn’t have the flavor of the green bean dish that most of the guests knew. Most of that flavor comes from cans. But, that didn’t matter a bit. It wasn’t that my casserole didn’t taste good–it was that it didn’t taste the same.
I think that an excellent attitude toward food, and receiving it in the proper spirit of genuinely giving thanks, may have been summed up best by the late, and very great, Edna Lewis. Her book The Taste of County Cooking is revered as a true classic–both as a cookbook on southern cooking and as a memoir. Lewis was born and raised in Freetown, Virginia, which was founded by African Americans, many of them emancipated slaves, including her own grandfather. Lewis’s book is a delightful tour through the seasons and the wonderful food cooked by people whose lives were devoted to tending the earth and all of its gifts. These were people who truly understood gratitude. When Lewis’s editor Judith Jones asked her why she had not included a menu for Thanksgiving, Lewis answered with the quiet dignity for which she was widely known: “We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We celebrated Emancipation Day.” If you have never read Lewis’s wonderful book, I urge you not to pass it up. In the meantime, look here for Francis Lam’s insightful and beautifully written profile of Lewis which appeared in in the October 28th issue of the New York Times magazine. If you are as yet unacquainted with this fascinating and regal woman, you will be glad to make that acquaintance now.