As before, we’re bringing you some holiday-themed mini-essays by a few of our regular contributors. Today we’ll be providing some philosophical reflections on Thanksgiving, tradition, and FOOD.
It’s Not the Turkey, It’s You
For years, I’ve made Alton Brown’s turkey recipe (or some slight variation), and ever since then, I’ve never thought turkey was dry. The recipe involves brining. As I understand it, brining and marinating meats does not actually make them juicier. Well, that’s not quite true. It makes them retain a little more moisture than they otherwise would, but actually not that much. What brines and marinades really do is infuse the meat with more flavor (salt, acids, sugar, spices, and so on). What happens then is magical.
As Brown describes it in one of his cookbooks, “the salt and acid flavors divebomb your taste buds, which in turn tell your saliva glands to start pumping. By the time you’re onto your third chew your food is thoroughly lubricated, and since saliva contains enzymes like amylase, the meat is already well on its way to becoming an easy-to-digest goo.”
So let me say this to all of you who complain that turkey is dry and doesn’t deserve to be served at Thanksgiving (or at any meal for that matter). It is not the turkey who is at fault for being too dry. It is you who are at fault for being too dry.
Minimalism vs Embellishment
I alternate between two different cranberry sauces. The first is whole berry with the juice and zest of an orange and a little bit of clove and ginger. The other is Spartan. Just berries and enough sugar to achieve the right sweet-tart balance, cooked to the jelling point and then strained. Similarly, I do several different versions of mashed sweet potatoes. The most embellished version has maple syrup, eggnog, baking spices and ancho chili, while the minimalist version just has salt, pepper, butter, and cream.
I am bringing sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to a friend’s house for dinner and I found myself pondering recipe selection criteria. I concluded that while the embellished versions are sometimes appropriate for a meal that one has executive control over, the minimalist versions are far more appropriate for a democratic potluck. The Thanksgiving plate must harmonize! It’s not about the separate elements; it’s about the glorious synergy of turkey, stuffing, sauce and sides. If I am devising the meal myself I can decide “There shall be an overall theme of ancho and baking spices!” In a grab bag meal, however, this flavor profile might end up clashing with another element, thereby either destroying the harmony or forcing an unhappy dilemma. A Spartan cranberry sauce can always play the role cranberry sauce is supposed to play. Minimalist mashed yams are going to get along just fine with all reasonable stuffings. Even if one prefers an embellished version as a stand-alone dish, one must set ego aside and err on the side of restraint when heading into the uncharted waters of a potluck.
Taste the Nostalgia
Mary Beth Willard
It’s something of a commonplace for the educated urban professional type to, well, if not sneer exactly, politely disdain many traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. Understandable: they’re where mushroom soup and Jell-O go if they’ve been bad. (Not Pittsburgh.) Solutions abound: re-conceive and elevate the side dishes; enjoy the side dishes, but ironically; perhaps even abandon the turkey. The problem with the first solution: you may be the only one who enjoys the food. The problem with the second: by parity of reasoning, you shall be condemned to laugh ironically at Uncle Frank’s joke. The problem with the third: why not just cook a bald eagle, you commie?
More seriously, Thanksgivings are potlucks, and it’s likely someone is going to bring green bean casserole. So it might be wise to develop an appreciation for the food not merely as food, but as a tradition filled with love and meaning. Perhaps your grandmother, as mine did, harbored a Depression-era-gained love of sweets, including that ambrosia salad with those little oranges, which as it turns out has an interesting culinary history. To appreciate Thanksgiving aesthetically is to appreciate the aesthetics of nostalgia.
And if you’re going to a potluck, make this. Trust me. No one says that you can’t make new casserole traditions, after all.
My whole massive family of Vietnamese immigrants embraced the American traditions with maximum fervor. Their view of America was one of profound affection and gratitude. They loved America, not with the abstract sentimentality of the typical born-and-raised patriot, but with the specificity and fervor of people who think that, at an identifiable moment, America stepped in and literally saved their lives.
So we did Thanksgiving in a maximally American way. The dishes were foreign and odd, but to my family it was a heartfelt ritual of gratitude. We made them in a meticulously correct way, at least by all the information we could glean from our favorite TV chefs, right down that green bean casserole. But after enough years, the flavors started to pale, and they came to me with a question. Were they allowed to modify Thanksgiving? I think I was only ten at the time, but I was viewed as something as an expert in these matters, as the only one of us who had been born in America and educated in American schools. I gave them the potted version of the Pilgrims and Native Americans Having A Friendly Feast I’d been taught, and decided, in my ten year old wisdom, that nothing would be more appropriate than a modified feast.
So what we did was this: the first half of Thanksgiving was totally Vietnamese, which climaxed in Cua Rang Moi, a glorious dish of crab prepared in a salty, garlicky fried sauce of the crab’s own corals. Then we took a brief pause, and restarted Thanksgiving with all the American dishes. (Though we took the opportunity to boot the green bean casserole from the menu.)
Not all eating ritual traditions will permit such updating, because not all of them are culinary. Imagine criticizing the taste of the salty water and bitter herbs at a Passover Seder, or protesting that the communion wine was of a poor vintage. But Thanksgiving is a tradition that gets its meaning partially from its culinary satisfactions. So, at least to me, watching my immigrant family, in a state of genuine and profound gratitude, half-adapt the meal to their own tastes seems just right.