Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Category: Holidays

Comfort Food & Christmas Coming Up: Jansson’s Frestelse

by lyzpfister

Jansson's Frestelse recipe

Is it just me, or does it feel like holiday food necessitates buckets of heavy whipping cream and gobs of butter? Not just me? Alright, fine, let’s proceed.

At my other job, I’m already knee-deep in Christmas things. We like to stay a couple weeks ahead of the curve, and I spend my days translating articles about the best Christmas gifts, pretty sugar-cookie scented bubble baths and artfully wrapped cosmetics. The end result being that all I’ve wanted to do for the last few weeks is bake gingersnaps and indulge in a few “harmless,” late-night, online shopping sprees.

onions

pre-cut potatoes

Jansson's Frestelse

So when my other job said, photograph some Christmas foods for us, I said, absolutely and instantly ran to the grocery store to purchase buckets of heavy whipping cream and butter. Obviously.

Jansson’s Frestelse is a traditional Swedish Christmas casserole in which starchy potatoes play an understated backdrop to buckets of heavy whipping cream, butter, lightly caramelized onions and salty anchovies. When it’s all baked together in an oven, it becomes a rich medley of hot, bubbling cream beneath a crackling bread crumb crust. Holiday food at its finest.

swedish anchovies & potatoes

It was about the time I was halfway through the dish of Jansson’s Frestelse (also known as Jansson’s Temptation for good reason), that I realized I had just single-handedly consumed one 250g carton of heavy whipping cream.

This brought me to the conclusion that holidays are meant to be shared with others not simply because they are about family and friends and togetherness, but because we should never have to eat so much butter by ourselves. (Or at least a holiday dinner allows us to do a better job of managing our feelings of guilt at having eaten so much butter by displacing them onto the rest of the assembled company.)

onions, anchovies, potatoes

Jansson's Frestelse

Anyway, I’m sure the extra lipid layer will come in handy here in Berlin as the Christmas markets start popping up around the city and all the boot-shaped mugs of Glühwein in the world won’t keep me warm…

Jansson's Frestelse

Jansson’s Frestelse (Jansson’s Tempation)

5-6 medium potatoes, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, sliced
15 Swedish anchovy fillets (usually from a tin, in oil)
3 tbsp butter
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
Salt & pepper to taste
1 tsp sugar
½ cup bread crumbs

Sauté onions in 1 tbsp butter with a pinch of salt and pepper and 1 tsp sugar until translucent and lightly browned. Set aside. Butter a glass baking dish (approx.. 8 ½ x 11 inches). Layer 1/3 of the potatoes in the dish and top with ½ of the onions and ½ of the anchovies. Repeat the layer, then cover with the remaining 1/3 of potatoes. Dot remaining butter over the top of the potatoes and pour cream over potatoes. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 400ºF for 30 minutes. Remove foil, sprinkle with bread crumbs, and return to oven for another 20-30 minutes until potatoes are tender and the bread crumbs have browned and the cream is burbling.

The Nontraditional Easteralist or Curried Easter

by lyzpfister

The smell of frying fish and mangoes shocks the apartment as Sigourney drapes slips of catfish into a hot skillet. We’ve dragged ourselves out of bed for the third time today and this time, the effort seems to have paid off. Last night was a late night. An Easter party, whose connection to Easter seemed to veer toward the irreverent and bunny-themed took up the latter part of our night and the majority of the early morning. There was dancing, neon gin and tonic, and an Easter breakfast haloumi sandwich from the still-open or maybe just opened döner place by the train station.

This isn’t usually how I spend Easter. First of all, I’m usually still in bed at six. Secondly, I’m usually not roaming around the streets of Berlin with a pair of lopsided bunny ears haphazardly thrown together from a paper towel roll and some tape. Usually, I’m with my family. I make everyone dye Easter eggs, I cook an Easter feast, we unwrap baskets on Easter morning, and at Easter lunch we smash eggs together like our Bulgarian guests taught us once.

I guess this is what happens when you decide to uproot your life and move across the world and across the ocean. You make new traditions.

So our Easter feast this year is a roast Jamaican fish and mashed potatoes. There’s not an egg in sight. There’s no ham, no quiche, no rack of lamb. Just me and Sigourney and rap music and a roasting fish.

I love having visitors. Showing people around makes you more aware of the positive qualities of the place where you are. When you have to convince someone else they’re having a good time, you often end up having a good time yourself. Even though Berlin has been a bit moody this week (As Sigourney said, as it started to snow, then hail, then be sunny, “This weather is on its period.”), I’ve really loved watching someone else love my city and know that to some extent, I am responsible.

We’ve eaten well, and like all good Berliners, taken as many meals as possible outside, no matter what the weather. We even tried to picnic one day – from the apartment on the fifth floor, the bright sun tricked us into thinking that the weather would be balmy. But as we stepped outside, the sky turned overcast, and even as we walked to the canal, we pulled our jackets closer. We were the only people crazy enough to sit outside, much less picnic. And though our food was delicious – an Asian-inspired noodle salad and grilled chicken, bread, cheese, nutella, and salami – let’s just say we didn’t linger. We walked quickly past the swans, skimming the water and nipping each other, past the line-less ice cream truck, and back up to the warm fifth floor where we had a cup of coffee.

I could think of this Easter fish as just another good meal. But it’s Easter. And I have a tendency toward traditioning. By which I mean, I’m the one who makes us dye Easter eggs every year. I’m the one will never be too old for an Easter basket. I’m the one who insists on making deviled eggs even though no one eats them.

In reality, though, all traditions are tidal. They are broken and created as families shift shapes, through marriages or divorces, children being born, children moving out. Every moment is the possible beginning of a tradition. Which means we should always surround ourselves with people we love and imbue our actions with kindness.

“Happy Easter,” Sigourney and I say to each other, and eat our fish.

Jamaican Strawberry and Pepper Roasted Fish

Preheat the oven to 420ºF. On a baking sheet rubbed with olive oil, arrange a halved pepper lined with strawberry slices. Combine 1 cup mango nectar with chili, paprika, cumin, curry powder, oregano, salt, and pepper. Set aside. In olive oil, sauté 1 chopped red onion, 1 tomato, 1 clove garlic, and 4 large chopped strawberries. Sweep the fish (any white fish will do) through the mango sauce and pan fry until lightly browned on both sides. Add about half the sauce and a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice to the skillet. Remove the fish from the skillet and arrange in the peppers. Top with the sautéed vegetables. Bake for 15 minutes or until cooked through.

Curried Mashed Potatoes

Boil 5-6 peeled, small/medium potatoes until soft. Drain off water and mash hot potatoes with ½ cup milk, 2 tbsp butter, and the other half of the mango sauce.

In Berlin, They Call Berliners Pancakes

by lyzpfister

Well, it’s edible, says my grandfather, as he pops a hot beignet into his mouth and then quickly shakes the heat of it from his fingers. This means that it is actually very good. My grandfather is Schwabisch, where the phrase nichts g’sagt ist Lob g’nug, meaning nothing said is praise enough, is, in fact, nearly the highest form of praise. As far as I can tell, the most generous expression of delight is: Man kann’s essen, which means, you can eat it.

My brother and my grandfather and I are standing in the kitchen, deep-frying Fasnet’s cakes, the south-German name for beignets. We’ve developed an assembly-line of sorts – I’m rolling out dough and cutting it into diamonds, my grandfather is manning the deep-fryer, and my brother is dusting the cakes, blistering with hot oil, in powdered sugar. We’ve developed an unhurried camaraderie, mock-criticizing each others’ methods, telling old jokes, jostling against each other with batches of dough, making faces, taking pictures. The kitchen is warm and smells sweet.

This picture freezes in my mind. My grandfather grins at me in a half-laugh and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, Well, what do you think about that? His eyes are wrinkled into crescents, his eyebrows lifted like a mischievous child’s as he swings a bottle of Oettinger Pils up to his mouth. And then his back is to me as he flips the Fasnet cakes in the deep-fryer. My brother catches the hot cakes on a plate of sugar and the powdered sugar he dusts onto them melts.

Fasnet (aka Fasnacht, aka Carnival) is mainly celebrated in the southern, Catholic parts of Germany. In Berlin, there were a handful of people who looked at me with confusion. They’d never heard of it.

In Burladingen, however, people belong to Fasnet clubs (called Vereins) which supposedly exist solely to march in the parades and plan parties during the two weeks or so that Fasnet is celebrated. However, upon further inquiry, it turns out that the clubs meet at least once a month or so throughout the year to talk about next year’s plans, or reminisce about the last year’s Fasnet, or drink beer.

Each club has a traditional costume which members spend vast sums to purchase and which they are only allowed to wear during the parades. In the weeks ambling up to Fat Tuesday, a loose affiliation of neighboring towns hosts these parades, sometimes a parade a day, especially as the specter of Lent looms nearer. The costumes are elaborate, hand-sewn with hand-carved masks of wood, specially suited to each individual’s face. When you join a Verein, you’re in for life. I guess this means people don’t move from town to town very often, I tell my cousin. She looks at me with mock horror, Don’t even suggest it!

Hidden behind their masks, the paraders dive into the bystanders. Witches with apple-red cheeks and stringy black hair made from horse tails hurl themselves at attractive young women and bind their feet together with those plastic ties that get tighter as you squirm and can only be removed with a pair of scissors. They fling the girls over their shoulders and run a good portion of the parade route with them before letting them go. We later learned that most of the witches are actually teenage boys, the girls they “kidnap,” their classmates, and the Fasnet parade a coy ritual of flirtation.

Marching bands playing purposefully off-key trumpet down the street. The cats from Gammerdingen hop and the bells across their chests jingle in beat. A rogue bear grabs a bystander by the foot and won’t let go. A tree grabs my aunt and kisses her.

Every time a new group walks past, they shout Nari! to us and we answer back, Naro! The snow, which had fallen that morning, is still piled along the sidewalks. The witches flick it at us with their brooms.

My grandfather doesn’t go to the parades anymore. While we stand out in the cold, watching the devilment unfold, he works in the church. He is home by the time we come back, shivering and laughing, candy in our pockets. Most of my family has come down for the parade, and so we set up the living room table for coffee. People have brought cakes, my brother and I place our beignets from the night before on the table.

So you made the cakes after all, my aunt says as she slips a beignet from the stack. When did you have time?

Last night, I say, after you left.

Last night! She exclaims, and my brother and grandfather and I laugh. Because we’re remembering how we’d said goodnight to my aunt and an uncle late at night after an evening spent cooking pizza together, watching a few rounds of ice crushing, and learning to knit. We were tired and full and ready for bed. But the dough we’d made earlier in the day and forgotten about was still sitting out on the counter. These have to be made tonight, my grandfather said as he tried to send my brother and I to bed. To bed! We laughed – We’d never let you stay up to make these all yourself.

So we three stayed up, cracked open another round of Oettigners, and set to work rolling out dough, heating up oil, dusting with sugar.

Right Down Santa Claus Lane

by lyzpfister

In Berlin, there’s a Christmas market on every corner.  Really.  Every corner. There’s Gendarmenmarkt and Opernpalais – classy affairs – while the market at Alexanderplatz is a sprawling menagerie of fun houses, fair rides, and staggering, drunken teenagers.  But even besides these large Christmas markets (and those aren’t nearly all of them), there are tiny markets tucked into strange corners, scant strips of wooden houses lined up along the street, as if wherever you go, you absolutely, positively, need to be within arm’s length of Glühwein, gingerbread hearts, and 3-foot long sausages.

Of course.

But there is a certain amount of charm to these closely clustered cottages, though the markets are all relatively alike. Wandering through some of the larger, maze-like getups, you almost forget, for a moment, that you’re actually in the middle of a city. As if you’ve been stuck into a blown up fairy tale land, powdered sugar snow and gingerbread houses.

Bundled-up bands of people huddle around warm places – in Potsdamer Platz, there are tall fire pits, at Alexanderplatz, cylindrical heat lamps – and depending on where you are, these groups of people are students joking about their classmates, or whispering, huddled couples, or Prolls in pink velvet sweatpants and slick and shiny, black down-filled jackets. Conspicuously absent are young children, at least during the evenings, which is when I manage to make it to the Christmas markets. These gaudy shacks, stacks of candy, and carousel rides are for grownups? Na, cool, as the Germans say.

Last week, we walked around the Alexanderplatz market, and when it started to rain, we posted ourselves under the corner of a cottage and sipped Glühwein out of mugs shaped like little blue boots. We people-watched and gossiped, huddling closer together as the rain shifted from a fine mist to an insistent, thick-dropped drizzle. On the way out, we passed the flying swings, circling high in the air at a dizzying clip, almost twice as high as any flying swings I’d seen before. We’d hurried past the swings quickly on the way in, saying, never, no, absolutely never could we be induced to sit in one of those chairs. “Let’s do it,” I said, and impulsively, Elisabeth agreed. As the chairs began to swing and lift up into the air, we were amazed at how easily we’d convinced ourselves to ride. High over the fair, the wind was icy and pellets of rain stung our faces as we whipped around. But the pinpricks of light below were beautiful and in the cold there was a calm silence. Back on the ground again, surrounded by the chatter of the emptying fair, last calls for toasted nuts and bratwursts, we looked up at the swings starting to rise again, amazed at what a little Glühwein made us do.

On Second Thought

by lyzpfister

Maybe the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers.

Turkey sandwich with mustard and mirin slaw:

Love is Wherever You Find It

by lyzpfister

Warm murmur, glasses clinking, candlelight, the smell of herbs and browned butter, a room full of people crammed around a long, improvised table, a whole roasted turkey. Thanksgiving in Berlin, beautiful.

Jamie and I have spent all morning cooking. Turkey with herbs and butter and apple cider gravy, bratwurst, apple and cranberry stuffing, celeriac and potato mash, carrots glazed in sherry, green beans in toasted walnut vinaigrette, cranberry nut rolls, roasted sweet potatoes with sage, kale and Brussels sprouts salad, apple pie, pumpkin pie… All of the good things Thanksgiving means. Elisabeth comes home around one after a long day at school and a quick shopping trip for some last minute menu items, and begins to set up the living room. At three, a quick pick-me-up (vodka/muddled orange, mint, brown sugar/goji berry smoothie), and back to work. We sneak finger-fuls of gravy base at regular intervals, dance around the kitchen to tacky party pop with whisks, improvise baking dishes from cake pans, toast with cans of champagne.

Our guests arrive between six and seven, I slip into my party dress, purchased at a vintage store last weekend in Paris, wipe flour from my face. We work through until eight – the last minute touches to a big dinner party – adding the olive oil to a dressing of Dijon, shallots, garlic, and sherry vinegar whose flavors have been melding all day, pouring pan juices into gravy base, shrieking at how good the gravy is, grating parmesan.

Everyone is seated at the table. Elisabeth and I make a toast, piles of food behind us. I look around at the table of people – new friends and old – and remember why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, no matter where I am or who I’m celebrating it with. It’s about sharing what you have, being together, being thankful, loving, and allowing yourself to be loved.

Don’t Play With Your Food. But Think About It, Do.

by lyzpfister

A scene from this year’s Easter fête:  all of us, except mom, standing over two racks of lamb, discussing raw meat’s lack of visual appeal.  Gross, disturbing, almost human-looking.  An actual carcass.  Mom was busy bleating in the background, “You killed my baby.  I’m going to come get youuuuuu….”  She refused to come any closer and did not participate in the subsequent lamb-eating, to be sure.  But the rest of us were fascinated by the lamb.  It was covered in filmy plasma from the fleshy strip of base up through the gangling, sawed-off ribs knocking against each other, and it gave off an earthy smell, like blood and dirt.  Horrible, raw, food for Hannibal.

The cooked lamb was benign.  Delicious to be sure, buttery soft and pink near the bone, tasting of rosemary and mustard on its crisp, fat-browned crust.  Less like dead baby lamb and more like dinner.  Perfect, delicious, dead, baby lamb.

What a contrast with the raw lamb, which made even a meat eater like me uncomfortable.  The feel against my fingers of placental slime, the bones’ raw clack, the way it looked like the ribs ripped out from a child’s back.  There’s nothing dangerous in ground beef or pork cutlets, nothing to fear from a link of sausage or a sliver of cold honey-glazed ham.  But a rack of lamb is visceral.  The other day, in my yoga class, as we folded into half-pigeon, the instructor said, “You’re opening one of the largest joints in your body.  You might feel a release of raw emotion.  Just breathe into it.”

How ridiculous, I thought.  A flow of emotion held captive in my hip?  And then I made a rack of lamb and realized that some stretches take us places we’d rather not go and unless we breathe, we’ll never understand where we were.

My first response to the gnawing discomfort was to play with my food.  Like the monster in Pan’s Labyrinth, I gripped each bloody rack with my fingers and manipulated the meat to wiggle my new, bony fingers in front of my face.  The shriek of horror from my mother almost made the experiment worth it, but it felt wrong.  Sacrilegious to the dead lamb to use its body that way.

I am not squeamish and I don’t have the emotional constitution of a vegetarian.  But I’m rarely confronted with food that makes me so uncomfortable.  A few other times:  frog legs on a cruise – the way I could make them hop across my plate, those legs suddenly unappetizing; escargot in Paris, a single grain of sand reminding me of a snail’s slow, slimy journey over earth; pig ears from a Brooklyn bodega, the unexpected way cartilage dented under teeth as if a real ear had been too deeply nibbled, a heady smear of gelatin on my tongue; scallops, always.

It could be texture or taste, though a scallop is not an ear is not a frog.  Besides, I don’t much like the taste of celery, but it never makes me squirm.  And I love the salty, melting softness of a snail, the tender, sweet meat from a frog.

Maybe some food is too real.  It is too much like a separate self, a thing that once had a soul.  Does a scallop have a soul?

I don’t think the quorum here is as simple as to eat or not eat meat.  And it’s not as simple as some meat is ok to eat and other meat isn’t.  (A small digression on cannibalism:  Who was it who decided we can eat cow, pig, duck, emu, and in some cultures even cat or dog or horse, but never other people.  Is it for health reasons – like, cows shouldn’t eat other cows because it leads to mad cow disease?  A historical aversion to the habits of conquered peoples and their frightening beliefs of soul consumption?  A desire to not be eaten oneself?  The conclusion, I think, is that not participating in cannibalism is really good for establishing a lowest moral common denominator.  If we start eating each other, we lose the most basic agreement between neighbors – whatever else I might do to you, I will not eat you.  I may shoot you, rob you, slander you, cheat you, or beat you, but I will never eat you.  When people eat people, all rules are thrown out the window.  Because if we can’t even agree not to eat ach other, what can we agree upon?  Then again, why is eating other people so taboo?  It must have something to do with souls.  My question:  does a scallop have a soul?)

I think part of the problem is that we never really think about our food – where it comes from, what it was, what it reminds us of that makes us uncomfortable.

Back to yoga’s lesson, back to breathing.  I put the lamb down and threaded kitchen string between each bone until a rough crown stood up on the plate.  I smelled the blood and herbs, the grass and flesh.  And like a mantra, I breathed, I am going to eat this lamb.  This delicious lamb. If it had a soul, I made my peace with it.  Preparing it not like just a slab of meat, but an animal whose death meant my dinner.  And my uneasiness faded as I stuffed a sauté of kale, pine nuts, and golden raisins into the crown’s empty center.  I’ve always treated vegetables with respect – they are magical to me in all their combinations of sweet, bitter, fresh, warm, or salty flavor punches.  I somehow missed the memo that meat deserves that respect as well.  Perhaps even more so than a vegetable, which will never look at you with big, brown eyes.  I grew up down the street from cows.  I know all about their big, brown, eyes, intelligent and condemning.  I still love beef.

So the moral is not this: don’t eat something with a soul.  Because first of all, does a scallop have a soul?  And second, if a scallop has a soul, there’s nothing wrong with eating other people, assuming people have souls too – because is one soul better than another?  Maybe the moral is: love the food you eat, know that you live from other life (a carrot was also once alive), and thank it.  Ok, I know, let’s sing a round of Kumbayah and hold hands.  But really, I find myself often putting no more thought into my food than: this is delicious or this will taste good with that.  But our food deserves more.  Because just in case a scallop really does have a soul, I’d want that soul to be consumed feeling like it was, at least, loved.

When those tender, perfect, oven-kissed shanks were on my plate, I almost forgot about the pain, the need to breathe when the meat was raw and real in my hands.  So what is my moral dilemma, really?  Maybe some foods just make me uncomfortable.  I don’t know.  But the lamb – it was so good.

There was much less trauma involved in the asparagus tart, and that was pretty delicious too.

Better With Butter (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

The first thing I said when I woke up this morning was: “No more butter.  Please don’t make me eat any more butter.”  And then, because there was nothing else to eat for breakfast, I stuck a square of macaroni and cheese topped with a dollop of tomato puddin’ in the microwave.

If you’re unfamiliar with tomato puddin’, let me enlighten you on how it’s made.  Two cans of chopped tomatoes are mashed with five pieces of white bread and one cup – yes, one cup of sugar.  This concoction is then baked until all the natural health benefits of the tomatoes have been removed.  Also good to know is that according to my family, this dish counts as a vegetable.  Just some trivia.

Christmas in my family is predominantly loud.  This year, though the pair of almost-octogenarians presided over only two braches of the family tree – my mother, father, me, my two brothers, my aunt, her husband, her two daughters, one daughter’s husband, his two children, her three children, and a dog – the decibel level was impressive.  Everybody’s stories needed to be told at the same time, their recipes recounted in maniacal tones.  The children seemed unable to have as much fun if someone wasn’t screaming and the camera’s shutter clicked so often the room began to resemble a disco rave.

I love my family very much.  But I am a quiet person, and it takes a little time adjusting to the chaos of the (almost) entire Cohen clan.  Fighting passionately about the rules of Mexican Train dominoes, telling the story (again) about that embarrassing thing you did at your baptism (like poop your baptismal dress) when you were a few months old, or belittle other family members’ sports teams as creatively as possible.  It’s very Norman Rockwell, but a little louder and with less pastel.  I like to think that since the other half of my family is so very German, my American family is so very American just to balance out my genetic chi.

Before we eat Christmas Dinner, the whole gaggle circles around the table to bless the food.  I figure that the food needs all the blessings it can get if it’s going to nourish my body, rather than just the cellulite on my thighs.  I’ve already oogled the food – two roast turkeys and gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes drenched in brown sugar, greens, sweet corn puddin’ (the lack of ‘g’ is not optional), tomato puddin’, biscuits, mountains of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and for dessert two pecan pies, apple crumble, and my aunt’s justly famous banana cream pie.  As if chanted by a Greek Comedy’s chorus, the words “butter” and “sugar” jingle through my mind.

It’s Christmas, so I take some of everything, and it’s not really until the reality of post-holiday leftovers sets in that I regret my family’s liberal use of fat.  But it’s ok.  I’ll take some long walks on the beach, stretch my legs as I watch another season of Dexter from the couch, and keep my mind sharp on card games and dominoes.  And I’ll store up an extra layer of blubber to last for the rest of winter.  I hear it’s cold in New York.

Aunt Lynda’s Corn Puddin’
It took quite a bit of work to track down this recipe.  But I got it.  And you should make it – when it’s cold outside and you’re in need of some comfort food.  Or you’re feeling particularly skinny.

3 cups canned corn, drained
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
1/3 stick butter, melted

Beat together the eggs until they’re light and fluffy, then gradually add the sugar so that it doesn’t form lumps.  Add the salt, flour, and corn, milk, and butter – mix well.  Grease an oblong pan, pour mixture into it.  Bake uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour in a 350 degree oven until firm and golden brown.

Leftovers Regifted (a post by Josh)

by johamlet

It all started with leftovers. Not those things that sit in Tupperware containers in the back of your refrigerator for too long, growing mold because you didn’t want to eat the same thing on Monday as you did on Saturday. Maybe that’s just me. But it did all start with leftovers. The type that isn’t prepared. That one ingredient that you buy for one recipe but the recipe only calls for about a quarter of the container so now you’re stuck with a lot of buttermilk. That’s what happened to me, at least. And during the Holidays, of all times. What joy!

Read the rest of this entry »

Come Together (Right Now, Over Me, Ba-da-da-da-dum) (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

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.