Thanksgiving always stirs up random thoughts in my head. As someone of Native descent growing up in a Christian household, I got both the darker side and the lighter family gathering side of the holiday. So, here are some of my random memories/thoughts about The Super Bowl of Food.
Thanksgiving is, like way too many things in American history, where mythology creates a Santa Claus-like story to tell about our history that does not upset the children. The real story is more complex, and not really the “pilgrims and generic Indian” story you’ve been fed. Given it was my Dad with Native blood, his dry sense of humor often made an appearance during Thanksgiving, cracking jokes about the Pilgrim’s lousy farming skills being so bad the Indians had to save them from their own incompetence. The humorist Sarah Vowell did a lovely job skewering the myth, discussing how sitcoms often had an episode where the main cast are Pilgrims (she uses the infamous Pilgrim episode of Happy Days as one example) that almost becomes self-parodies of how Americans view the holiday. She also points out the revelation she had, one I had as well, that when she dug deeper into the Pilgrims and their beliefs, she realized that our nation’s founders were “a little crazy.”
I mean…hate to say it but I don’t think we ever got that crazy religious nut gene out of our American DNA, right?
But we still celebrated it, and my father loved every minute of it, including his eccentric belief that the best turkey meat was the bits picked off the carcass after it was carved (he was not wrong, really). At some point, my parents took over Thanksgiving hosting duties from my grandmother, who still ran the Christmas and Easter shows for years after.
I grew up in a house that didn’t seem all that small, about 1,000 square feet, to me at the time but today is practically a toolshed. We still got about 15 people in there for dinner. My grandmother’s house was a 900-square-foot old-school East Coast rowhouse, very narrow, and somehow we pulled off that many people for Christmas. I shake my head at people who will sell a 2,500-square-foot house because “they are having a new baby and with two kids now we need a bigger home.”
The food, given I grew up in York, PA, had a Pennsylvania Dutch/German twist. We didn’t do stuffing, certainly not “dressing” (such a term would get you the label of “fancy”) but “filling.” The York County version includes plenty of eggs and milk that turned the bread into a delicious onion-y lead weight which likely competed with the turkey for which one made you sleepiest. Another local staple is dried corn. The Amish found that dried corn, when rehydrated and either baked in a sort of savory custard or just heated in some butter and water, turns corn into a tasty, nutty dish.
One thing we did not have is NPR news person Susan Stamberg’s cranberry relish, which has sour cream, horseradish, onion, and a healthy dose of WTF from confounded NPR listeners. I’m pretty game to try anything, but I don’t know…
Speaking of NPR, a little while ago my wife and I were greatly amused by a caller to the Thanksgiving Day special episode of The Splendid Table, a young woman who was hosting her first Thanksgiving Day dinner for her and her new husband’s family. She was near tears, calling from the bathroom because the turkey was still frozen and she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified that she was failing and her in-laws would soon realize it, hence the stealth call from the toilet. Kind host Lynn Kasper eventually talked her off the ledge and gave her a solution, but here’s the thing.
Turkey really isn’t that difficult of a dish to prepare. I think people are intimidated by the sheer size of the thing, faced with something that can weigh up to 25 pounds and the biggest fear is dry white meat. I never have a dry turkey because I do a few things I picked up over the years. One is Alton Brown’s technique of stuffing the turkey with a quartered apple and a quartered onion, plus a bouquet of herbs (I use sage, sweet marjoram, winter savory, lemon thyme, regular thyme, and lemon beebalm from my herb garden but you can use whatever you like). The other technique I use comes from the late Pittsburgh radio host John Cigna, who recommended roasting the turkey upside-down. I do this with chicken as well. Sure, it’s not the photogenic Norman Rockwell painting turkey, but who cares if people are telling you how moist it is? The driest part of the bird is always the white meat, and roasting it upside down ensures it will get plenty of moisture from the dark meat fat and the pan juices. Yum.
The key is to make sure you start thawing early enough, but even if you have a still frozen turkey this Thursday morning, there are plenty of solutions on Google. Just relax, it will be fine. Who cares what that one aunt of yours might say about the meal, she never is happy about anything, right?
And if you are in a serious dating relationship and are going to your significant other’s house, please, offer to help with the cleanup. There will be at least several people in their family who will judge you forever based on whether you offered to help or just sat there in the living room. Even if they tell you “Thanks but we got it under control.”
Finally, avoid politics. Especially if you are a person who agrees with almost everything written in this blog. A big family argument never is good, and you just can never win as a liberal. Even if the worst uncle at the table says “I can’t wait for Trump to be president again so he can put liberals in concentration camps” it’s like in sports if someone gives you a cheap shot, if you retaliate you get the penalty, not the cheap shot artist. Grandma will lecture YOU about bringing up politics, even if you simply say “Do you really think I should be thrown in a concentration camp, Uncle Fred?” Just save the arguing for blog comment sections.
The last word goes to, who else, Arlo Guthrie. You gotta love that one of our American Thanksgiving traditions is an 18-minute rambling song, a tribute to our sometimes absurd system based on a true story, about a guy who accidentally avoids the draft by being arrested for littering because he took a nice person’s trash to the dump and left it outside the gate of the dump because they were closed for Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.