Thanksgiving may be a secular holiday, but the dinner menu is sacred. Ask your friends. Can you find anyone who doesn’t eat turkey for Thanksgiving, or Tofurky, the turkey’s processed vegetarian cousin?
Skipping even one turkey dinner can be cause for embarrassment. A friend of mine admits that once, when she was in college and far away from home, she and a friend planned to cook a modest Thanksgiving meal for themselves. But that was before they discovered a 24-hour marathon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Dinner that year? Cheese and crackers, consumed in front of the TV.
She gave me permission to share this story only after swearing me to secrecy about her identity. Nothing, it seems, is quite as much of a holy cow as the Thanksgiving turkey.
I understand. I’ve often had to defend my own unusual Thanksgiving eating habits. I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t eat turkey, but I don’t want any turkey substitute either. All I really care about is eating mashed potatoes. Protein would take up space in my stomach that could otherwise be filled with potatoes and mushroom gravy. Other people usually think this is weird.
And they have a point. The items on the Thanksgiving dinner menu weren’t randomly selected. They have meaning. Turkey and the other traditional foods of Thanksgiving — cranberries, potatoes, corn, and pumpkins — are all native to the Americas. These are the foods we’ve long imagined the helpful American Indians introducing to the starving Pilgrims at Plymouth.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that farmers in the U.S. will raise 272 million turkeys and harvest 6.9 million barrels of cranberries in 2007. (If you’re interested in buying a barrel of cranberries, you should know that one barrel weighs 100 pounds. That’s a lot of sauce.) The vegetarians are a little behind, but they’re getting organized. Turtle Island Foods sold its 1 millionth Tofurky last year. This year they expect to sell 230,000 Tofurky roasts.
But think about it: We have many more food options than the Pilgrims did. Why not expand the traditional dinner to give thanks for the bounty now available at the local farmers’ market and the grocery store? Some folks are already doing this. They’re making different kinds of dishes, going international, and even preparing food that doesn’t require any cooking at all.
Sarah Ankersmit, 28, of Seattle, became a pescatarian (a vegetarian who also eats fish) when she was 13 years old. That’s when her dad started barbecuing a whole salmon for Thanksgiving dinner. She’s not allowed to help, but she’s watched him cook the fish. He wraps it in foil with lemon slices and butter, and he pours beer on the fish every time he opens the foil to check on it.
Ankersmit’s dad lives in Idaho, where buying a whole fresh fish in November is somewhat extravagant — perfect for a holiday meal. Where does he get the fish? She says there’s a man in his town who drives to Seattle once a week to buy a boatload of fish, then drives it back to Idaho and sells it out of the back of his truck in a supermarket parking lot.
Ankersmit says her dad is a great cook, but the salmon is the only non-traditional food on the table. She’s not allowed to contribute anything for dinner, because, she says, she would bring “weirdo stuff. Too weird for them, like roasted carrots.”
Helen Helms left England when she was 18 years old for a yearlong babysitting job in Seattle. Sixteen years later, she’s still in Seattle, and her Yankee husband and two children love eating her Yorkshire pudding on Thanksgiving.
When Helms was young, she watched her mother cook Yorkshire pudding, but she never tried to make it herself until she was on her own, living in the U.S. It required several attempts to get it right, and more than one late-night call to her mum.
Describing true Yorkshire pudding, says Helms, is challenging. It’s not like chocolate pudding, and it’s not like bread pudding. “It’s like a doughy cake,” she says, “crispy on the outside, with a hollow middle.” Like a popover, or like a cream puff without the cream? “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like,” she says. She bakes the pudding puffs in a muffin tin, and serves them hot out of the oven, filled with Bisto gravy.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry