The Creed of The Thanksgiving Menu


Photo by iwona_kellie/Flickr CC

In Thanksgiving Puritanism there is a "text": the orthodoxies of menu and the insistence on stuffing yourself to the gills.

The menu is absolutist: turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans or Brussels sprouts (never a salad!) apple, pecan, and pumpkin pies. Dictated by custom, and noting Thanksgiving's actual historical debut as a national holiday under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the meal has been sanctified. Only in rare cases has a non-turkey, less-than-groaning board been welcome: even vegans need a tofurkey.

Then there is the orthodoxy of excess: In the reading of Thanksgiving as carnival--lusty consumption exceeding all sumptuary laws--you are meant to feel at least pain if not guilt afterwards. Telling yourself that your post-prandial sleepiness is caused by the trytophans in the turkey and not simply by eating too much isn't sufficient. It is not the turkey's fault. You have eaten too much and you are transgressing other laws than those of physiology. If you are monstrous in gluttony, those puritans inside us would say, you are going to suffer as in all other crimes against morality. And yet, you are supposed to, because in that contract, your job is to prove that you are, like all of us, a sinner.

NOTHING is "on the side" at Thanksgiving: it is all meant to be eaten, every dish has a top billing, and there are watchful patrollers of the amount as well as the foods to be served.

Oh, lighten up, you say. But this is all proven in personal history--mine.

First, the orthodoxy of the menu. I once ran all over Paris looking for a can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce with which to anoint a Parisian dinde, tough and small-breasted, to serve up at an American Thanksgiving in the City of Light. It had to be that--and the work of getting it, at great expense, I might add at Fauchon in the Place Madeleine, was an extra heroic garnish.

I once served an array of chutneys with The Bird--I was serving Thanksgiving to friends as well as my immediate family, friends who at other times of year were happy chowhounds searching out exotic ingredients and finding the best carnitas and alfaros Boston could afford. Chutney with turkey on The Day? That seemed treasonous even to my otherwise experimental friends; I felt betrayed. And then there was my mother-in-law who once served a transgressively (delicious) meal of lamb shish kebab, pilaf, garlic/yogurt sauce, and baklava. Even those of us who loved the meal felt we might sneak out later for a Thanksgiving blue plate special. It was almost like being asked to eat treyf. And where were the leftovers going to come from: the delicious cold turkey/stuffing/cranberry sauce sandwich I loved more than the meal itself?

Then there was the compulsory over-ingestion--if you didn't serve enough, a mistake I made one year by using a small-boned bird for five people, there was no excuse to sleep it off. I was charged with being sure that the next year I would have five instead of three desserts and a large bird and an extra casserole's worth of stuffing on the side. NOTHING is "on the side" at Thanksgiving: it is all meant to be eaten, every dish has a top billing, and there are watchful patrollers of the amount as well as the foods to be served.

With all this stressful warring between virtue and deviance, now further stretched by heated disputes over brining the bird or not, or slow or fast roasting, or what clever disguises to give the Brussels sprouts, how can one ever have fun at Thanksgiving? The answer is to exorcise your internal Puritan and exercise your culinary freedoms. And pass the cranberry sauce.