Updated: Nov 22, 2022
We’ve covered Thanksgiving Dinner past and present. Here are just a few more little details.
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The Mayflower settlers found cranberries growing wild on vines in Massachusetts, but it is highly unlikely that cranberry sauce appeared on the first Thanksgiving table. Although recipes for it appear in cookbooks from the 1700’s, commercially-produced cranberry sauce first appeared in the early 20th century as a solution to a problem– when the Ocean Spray company figured out that vine-grown cranberries could be harvested much more cost-effectively in bogs than on dry land, they became more widely available and way less expensive. However, wet harvesting damaged a portion of the yield, making them unsellable… and so they combined the damaged berries with enough sugar to balance their excruciatingly high acidity, relied upon its naturally high level of pectin to jellify it, and presto! An instant classic–
Meanwhile, numerous recipes are available for the ambitious home cook. Veteran NPR host Susan Stamberg famously shares her mother-in-law’s controversial recipe with her listeners every November. Martha Stewart, meanwhile, hews much closer to the original version, simply jazzing hers up a touch with orange zest and cinnamon. Every celebrity chef, it seems, has a version available on-line. I have nothing to add to this particular discussion because I absolutely hate cranberry ANYTHING. Indeed, I see cranberry sauce as the equivalent of the dreaded Christmas fruitcake– something ubiquitous at a specific holiday that wouldn’t be missed had it never been invented. My sense is that cranberry sauce has become a Thanksgiving tradition because A) it functions as gastronomic first aid for dried-out turkey breast; and B) the cranberry industry (i.e., Ocean Spray) hyped the crap out of it– just like Campbell’s did with their Beans & Mushroom Soup Casserole– and it caught on well beyond all expectations.
That being said, if you must have cranberry sauce on your table, you’ll certainly take a measure of satisfaction making your own. Start with a bag of cranberries, just enough water, and a cup of sugar. Cook it. Done. Adjust sweetness as needed, and add your own touches– spices, orange zest, even booze– as you see fit.
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Thanksgiving was never a big wine holiday until recently, and I can think of only two exceptions. Back when White Zinfandel was all the rage, it seemed like a perfect fit for the holiday– it was low in alcohol and thus better for daytime consumption, and its fruity sweetness at least partially redeemed a dried-out turkey breast. As a rosé, not even cranberry sauce could ruin it. And does anyone remember Beaujolais Nouveau, the light and fruity french quaff that was always the first taste of a given vintage? Up until a couple of decades ago, its mid-November release was not only met with much anticipation and fanfare, but also its timing was perfect for Thanksgiving. As of late, the release of Beaujolais Nouveau no big deal; furthermore, it has morphed into a much darker and more ponderous version of its former self at the expense of the uniquely joyful and innocent appeal that had made it so much fun to drink. (Significantly, I think, neither White Zinfandel nor Beaujolais Nouveau are noteworthy for any particular food pairings.)
Fast-forward to today. Americans are, by several orders of magnitude, more wine savvy than previous generations. A lot of us now extend our culinary sensibilities to Thanksgiving dinner, and the menu has become correspondingly wine-friendly. Back when I was a retailer, I used to recommend Conundrum White, an unusual blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Semillon for Thanksgiving. In a world of fish-friendly whites, supple and rich Conundrum paired quite nicely with the turkey dinner. But if a red better suits your taste, an obvious choice is Pinot Noir… especially if you are splurging for a fancier grade of turkey. Pinot Noir, the sole component of France’s great red Burgundies, is a natural fit with all manner of game birds. As such (and in case a persnickety food critic sits among your guests) you might even consider offering a Pinot Noir rosé with the breast meat and a full-bore Pinot Noir red with the dark meat.
All in all, as long as the turkey and all the side dishes are nicely prepared and serious food (i.e., not some sweet potato-marshmallow slop) it’s hard to go wrong with the wine.
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AND FINALLY, DESSERT
I am not a baker, nor do I intend to ever become one. I therefore have little to add at dessert time… just two ideas, really.
My bride Andrea has successfully weaned me from nearly all sources of gluten, and thus far I’ve managed to assemble a perfectly good Thanksgiving dinner without any. I was accordingly delighted to learn that I could make pumpkin pie without a crust– just follow the directions on the can and bake the resulting mixture in a Pyrex dish instead of a crust. Here is the easiest, simplest recipe I know for gluten-free pumpkin custard… even non-bakers like me can make it.
Indian Pudding– served warm so it melts the requisite scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Secondly, I’m frankly surprised that a dessert known as Indian Pudding has never become wildly popular for Thanksgiving. It is a wonderful marriage of Old World and New– the British technique for hasty pudding executed with American ingredients (i.e., cornmeal and molasses.) If it makes you feel better, go ahead and call it “Indigenous Peoples Pudding.” Just don’t serve it without ice cream.
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Dear friends around The Table, I sincerely hope that this three-part series on Thanksgiving, loaded as it is with my insights and suggestions, serves to increase your enjoyment of this wonderful holiday. Please feel free to reach out directly to me with any questions. I'm here to help.