Thanksgiving is perhaps our most hidebound of secular holidays, strongly rooted in its traditions and staunchly resistant to change.
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Like so many people, my sense of Thanksgiving was formed as a young child– the road trip to Grandma’s house, the seemingly giant turkey, and her scrumptious pies. Who else recalls this jingle from second-grade music class?
Over the river, and through the wood, to Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.
Over the river, and through the wood, to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top, for 'tis Thanksgiving Day.
Over the river, and through the wood— oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose as over the ground we go.
Over the river, and through the wood— and straight through the barnyard gate,
We seem to go extremely slow, it is so hard to wait!
Over the river, and through the wood— When Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here, bring a pie for everyone."
Over the river, and through the wood— now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!
(Lydia Marie Child, 1844)
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The Norman Rockwell Museum is located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the
artist spent his later years and where my grandmother was born. She hosted our
annual Thanksgiving dinner just a few miles to the north.
Of all the holidays that we Americans celebrate, secular and religious, none is as precisely focused around a specific meal as is Thanksgiving. Both of my grandmothers were fabulous cooks. My mother’s mother, with whom we spent Thanksgivings, put on the same exact spread each year–
Relish Tray (grown-up food)
Date-nut bread (dark, rich, and sweet)
Roasted Turkey (the breast was NEVER dry)
Mashed Turnips (secret ingredients: lots of butter and brown sugar)
Creamed Onions (individually hand-peeled, of course)
Mashed Potatoes (clouds of Irish perfection)
Basic Bread Stuffing (simply Bread, Celery, & Onion… and something magical that made it impossible to replicate)
Cranberry Relish (straight from the can)
Dinner Rolls (because there weren’t enough carbs otherwise)
Pumpkin Pie (my favorite)
Mince Pie (my father’s favorite)
Lemon-Meringue Pie (my oldest sister’s favorite)
Chocolate Brownies (my other sister’s favorite)
I know… starch, starch, and more starch… but my God, it was all so fabulous! She used the pumpkin pie recipe on the side of the ONE-PIE® can and the cranberry relish straight from the can itself, but everything else was completely from scratch, from the date-nut bread to her hand-rolled, old-school pie crust with lard shortening, et cetera, et cetera… and she made it all look so easy.
Another Thanksgiving-related work of art– equally dear to the hearts of us Berkshire County natives as Rockwell’s iconic masterpiece– was inspired by a local crime as reported in this November 1965 article in the BERKSHIRE EAGLE.
Year after year our routine was the same– after an abbreviated school day on Wednesday, we’d pile into our car and make the four-hour trip from our upstate New York home to my grandmother’s house in the Berkshires. Once we got close, we’d pass the same scenery that Rockwell painted, and we’d always find “Alice’s Restaurant” somewhere on the radio. We’d wake up on Thursday, enjoy our feast, and then, on Friday, we’d do some Christmas shopping. We’d visit other relatives on Saturday, and then head back home on Sunday.
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My Thanksgiving memories from earliest childhood through my teenage years and into adulthood reflect, I think, a widely shared American experience.
During those precious few years before adolescent hormones come along and skew our priorities, the joy we all find in Grandmother’s Thanksgiving is pure– more so, perhaps, than any we ever experience as adults. Our innermost brains, coded for storing memories of flavors and aromas, exactly and permanently transcribe those of the entire menu in detail. Our subjective impressions, meanwhile– like, say, the size of the turkey or the dimensions of the table– tend to grow over time, as if in proportion to our physical selves.
Thanksgiving during one’s freshman year of college is a particularly important milestone, often a moment for inner conflict– after perhaps going a little wild here and there once well beyond parental observation, you have to balance your new-found (and irreversible) sense of independence with some measure of domestic tranquility… after all, depending upon your major, you might wind up living in their basement for a few years. Maybe you’ve brought home your vegan roommate or, even worse, someone who hates football… but you make it work, you learn a thing or two about diplomacy, and it gets easier through the next few years of college.
After you graduate and take a demanding entry-level job in a far-away city, you’re overwhelmed with an unexpected surge of sentiment and nostalgia when you make it to your family’s Thanksgiving table and suddenly feel like you’re a child again. And then Grandma is getting on in years, and she grudgingly relinquishes the cooking to the next generation. But her recipes themselves are as sacrosanct as an ancient prayer text, and the sons and daughters and their spouses diligently reproduce to the last molecule the flavors and aromas so indelibly etched into their memories.
One year, finally, it is your turn to don an apron in the Thanksgiving kitchen. Another big moment for inner conflict– You’ve been raised with far more food awareness than the previous generations; you feed your own kids a steady diet of healthy dishes from a variety of cultures, made always from organic produce, cage-free poultry, and sustainable wild fish. They even eat your gluten-free kale lasagna without reporting you to Child Protective Services.
Outwardly, your siblings and in-laws seem united in wishing to strictly preserve the family traditions, particularly in the aftermath of Grandma’s recent passing. But even though you all agreed to ban dinner table politics right about when the Supreme Court handed down Bush v. Gore (2000), you know darn well that a sister-in-law or two share your views about food and a few other touchy topics. Dare you broach with them, ever so delicately, the topic of Thanksgiving dinner? Dare you speak up and call for a healthier re-imagination of this most hidebound of secular holidays?
Or should you simply remain silent, carbs and calories be damned for a single day of the year? Because what kind of heartless monster would blithely revamp the multi-generational menu for the one meal that has long transcended adolescent awkwardness and politics and hundreds of miles of separation… and at times functioned as the only glue that held your extended family together?
OR– might there be a middle way… a Thanksgiving menu that honors Grandma’s traditional recipes and decades of selfless kitchen toil while simultaneously incorporating modern developments in artisanal agriculture, heritage animal husbandry, and current nutrition theory? Is such a union of seemingly polar opposites even remotely possible?
Ladies and gentlemen, dearest friends, neighbors, sisters, cousins, and in-laws around The Table– this is exactly why I’m here…
Hold my Merlot.
(TO BE CONTINUED)