Americans love Thanksgiving. There’s feasting and family, paper turkeys, historically elusive pilgrims, ticker tape, brisk winds, tryptophan, and faintly ringing jingle bells making promises of an even bigger and better shabang to come. Maybe it’s an inborn gluttony or a cultural draw to symbol and spectacle. But maybe, through a delicious twist, a singularly American holiday is one in which pride, that cornerstone component of the (quotation marks necessary) “American Dream,” is replaced, at least hypothetically, by thankfulness.
Thanksgiving traditions are fierce and hard to kill. More than Christmas dinner, the Thanksgiving meal is scripted. There may be variations on a theme, but the melody is always turkey, stuffing, green beans, potatoes (both plain and sweet), bread, cranberry, and gravy. Last year, when I proposed to make an ancho-chile rubbed turkey from a recipe I found in Gourmet, my youngest brother said, “You’re going to ruin Thanksgiving.” Motivated by that vote of confidence, I made the turkey anyway, and was surprised when he announced over dinner that it was the best turkey we’d ever had. Of course, after seeing the “I-told-you-so” look on my face, he quickly recanted the statement.
Thanksgiving in my family doesn’t follow a specific formula, per se, but there’s always a menu-related tug of war between tradition and innovation that starts about a month before the event. Green beans bathed in butter, garlic, and roast almonds or ascetically blanched and served with salt and freshly ground pepper, Southern-style cheddar biscuits or jalapeno-studded cornbread or Pillsbury rolls from one of those popping cans, cranberry relish or cranberry jelly or cranberry salad, stuffing with chestnuts or croutons, mashed potatoes, potatoes au gratin, and the piece de resistance – where to begin on the duel-inducing differences. Brined, baked, slow-roasted, deep fried, basted, barbequed, stuffing in, stuffing out, salt-rubbed, herb-stuffed – if the turkey makes it to the table without a death in family, there’s more than enough reason to be thankful.
I like the debate over what to cook – that in itself has become a sort of tradition in my family. Though I suppose the most important tradition in my family is to be together. I realized how significant it is to be with people you care about three years ago, when I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home. I had just finished a semester studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia, and had flown to Christchurch, New Zealand the night before with two other friends who I had convinced to go WWOOFing with me.
We spent Thanksgiving in a hostel common room, separated by a 5-foot divider from the cadence of gunfire emanating from The English Patient playing on DVD. Our meal was a Thanksgiving microcosm – rotisserie chicken, three potatoes mashed with butter, gravy from powdered packets, a pre-made salad, a screw-capped bottle of $5 wine, and biscuits from a box of Bisquick my grandmother had mailed to me. Observing ritual, we went around and said our thanks for family, friends, opportunities, and food. When the dishes had been cleared, we grabbed fresh plates for the icing on our Thanksgiving cake—still warm apple pie which came out of the oven sizzling with its butter and brown sugar crumble melting into sugar and cinnamon coated apples. Between the three of us, we ate all but two pieces of pie as we played cards into the night.
Emma and Dan might not have been blood relatives, but on that night, we were family. Three foreigners eating a ritual meal on cracked plates with plastic forks, re-enacting a cultural tradition. We thought about where we’d come from – how three strangers from Pennsylvania, New York, and Boston met in Australia and decided to go to New Zealand together – how thankful we were to have found each other, and how many more Thanksgivings we’d have to be grateful for the bizarre and probable futures awaiting us.