The First Thanksgiving did not look like this. Sorry to disappoint you.
[I wrote this on my personal blog three years ago and some people seemed to like it. I’m posting it here because, well, I can. And because I’m still opinionated. Updated slightly from the original.]
Next week I will be cooking my 33rd consecutive Thanksgiving turkey. There have been other occasions in which a turkey figured prominently into dinner – sometimes at Christmas, a few times at Easter, and once a long, long time ago when we had my SIL’s uncle over for dinner. The actual total is probably in the neighborhood of 50, but for counting purposes, the 2013 model will be the 33rd.
Thanksgiving is the holiday for my family. We like Christmas but as with so many other people, for us it is a season fraught with sad and unpleasant memories, as well as expectations and spiritual significance for which there is seldom an entirely satisfactory conclusion for all parties concerned.
In this country there is an overload of angst about minute issues like stores who don’t allow the Salvation Army to solicit on their premises, who put the X in Christmas, and whether wishing someone Happy Holidays is insulting. I’ve made up my mind about the divinity of Christ issue but I don’t want to beat others over the head with it, nor do I wish to endure someone else yammering on with their feelings.
Further, Christmas is not just one day. It’s an entire season from approximately November 1 through at least January 1 and maybe longer, depending on whether you observe Epiphany. You will probably find yourself invited to all sorts of school plays and concerts, soirees, brunches, lunches, and parties at which there will almost certainly be people you’d normally cross the street to avoid.
Then there are the presents. It’s very nice to get presents but in recent years I have come out of the mall with a certain understanding of and sympathy for those people who suddenly go insane and start shooting in a shopping center. More than once I have gotten back to my car and collapsed behind the wheel, exhausted and nearly in tears, thinking, “Is this really the best way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus?” I no longer give Christmas presents so I have escaped this particular form of madness that envelops the country…. don’t even get me started on the entire Black Friday and Opening on Thanksgiving thing. Suffice it to say I don’t participate.
No, Thanksgiving is a better deal all the way around. No presents. No religious questions, save for the occasional dweeb explaining their version of the First Thanksgiving (to which the only appropriate response is “Uh-huh. Pass the cranberry sauce”). It’s about people you love, or at least tolerate, greedily eating an enormous meal together and being thankful.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written you know I’m opinionated. Here are some of my opinions about Thanksgiving.
After the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, turn the TV off. If you can’t sit down to one meal a year with your family without watching football, your priorities are screwed up. If you feel so strongly about it that you must watch the game during dinner, go to a bar for Thanksgiving. They’ll have the TV on.
No appetizers. If you need appetizers, you aren’t doing this correctly.
Within 5 minutes of sitting down, a big fancy floral Thanksgiving arrangement meant for the dining table will be on a coffee table. Stick to little cheesy pilgrims and turkeys, especially if they were made by children.
Homemade cranberry sauce only. No one really likes canned. What they like is the sound of it sliding out of the can and the funny ridges. Canned cranberry sauce is fruit-flavored jelled sugar water. It takes ten minutes to make fresh.
All turkeys cook in about 3 1/2 to 4 hours. If part of it isn’t done (like around the legs/thighs), cut that part off and stick it back in the oven or microwave it.
The turkey will not be all one beautiful even golden-brown color when it comes out of the oven, and it will be a bit shriveled. It might remind you of Nick Nolte’s DUI booking photo. Those photos on magazine covers of perfect plump tanned birds? Those are photos of raw turkeys photo-styled with Kitchen Bouquet.
I used to always stuff the turkey but I have stopped. One, less time in the oven for the white meat to dry out. Two, I am convinced stuffing sucks all the moisture out of the turkey. While the stuffing that cooks inside the turkey is most righteous, it can still be pretty damn good cooked separately in a casserole and basted with butter and turkey stock.
Do not attempt to cook one of those super broad-breasted turkeys unless you deconstruct the bird, then cook dark and light meat separately. Otherwise you are doomed to have a super broad-breasted hunk of dried-out white meat.
The proper time for the first alcoholic drink is noon, unless you have an earthquake, in which case you may start immediately. This actually happened once. Be prepared in case it happens again.
No green salad unless it’s an exceptional one – say, spinach and arugula with blue cheese and fresh sliced fennel and persimmons. People will only take a serving of green salad out of politeness and then shove it around in the gravy until it’s wilted. Why give up plate real estate for an ordinary head of lettuce?
Food magazines have lots of “interesting” recipes for Thanksgiving, most of which seem to combine two or more vital elements of the meal into one dish, i.e. Brussels sprout-yam medley with cranberry crust. Feel free to serve those but be prepared to hear remarks like, “So, no regular cranberry sauce this year? Hmm, that’s interesting…” and having lots of the new dish left over. Thanksgiving is not the time to spring new foods on your family. They want what they had last year.
I’m not crazy about dinner rolls, either. They fill you up too fast. If you’re going to have dinner rolls, get decent ones.
This is not the time for expensive imported Nicoise or Picholine olives. Get the canned California extra-large pitted black olives so the kids can put one on each finger. Hell, go ahead and put one on each of your fingers, then shake someone’s hand.
To carve a turkey: wiggle a knife tip in at the wing joint, pull off wings, and put them on platter. Dig around with a long knife at the thigh where it joins the body, detach the thighs, and pull the thigh & leg off. Slice dark meat off thigh and put on platter. Put the legs on platter. Make cut parallel to the table into the deepest part of breast meat, all the way to the bone. Then make slices from the breast at a 90-degree angle to that first cut. It will not be picture-perfect. It’s still turkey. They’ll eat it.
For special guests, sneak them bits of turkey skin.
Lots of hot gravy. This cannot be over-emphasized.
Ignore all those health and fitness columns that appear this time of year about how to have a healthy Thanksgiving dinner by skipping the butter and not eating turkey skin and having fruit salad for dessert instead of pie. Can we have one meal a year that we aren’t neurotic about?
No remarks allowed about whether someone really ought to take that third serving of stuffing. In fact, no remarks at all about anyone’s weight. I restrained myself admirably one year when one person said to me, “I wonder if I ought to say something to X about their weight…” but I wouldn’t count on any restraint a second time should the subject come up again.
Do not worry about the correct wine to go with Thanksgiving dinner. This isn’t the French Laundry. Put out a bunch of bottles of whatever you have. No one will complain that the 2003 Oregon Pinot Noir was incompatible with the sweet potatoes. Personally, I drink champagne.
Take a walk between dinner and dessert.
The correct interval between the conclusion of dinner and the first turkey sandwich is 30 minutes.