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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The true (?) turkey of the turkey table

Thanksgiving is a beautiful time of year for all of us, and whether you use this holiday as one last deep breath before the full onset of the Christmas season or spend the entire day planning your route for the 5:00 AM door-opening sales, one thing remains true: Turkey.  (Unless you’re vegetarian, and I’ll let you have your tofurky and eat your share of the dark meat.)
We all know that the first Thanksgiving was nothing to rave about.  There was no parade to watch, nobody did little cutsie pilgrim plays, and certainly there was no Snoopy special on TV.  They ate things like mussels and eels and turnips there probably wasn’t a whipped cream topped pumpkin pie in sight.
We can only pause and give real thanks that somewhere between then and now, this holiday has progressed.  From its start, it has evolved from the meager harvest of a settlement by the sea to what my husband calls the greatest holiday ever.  “You just sit around and eat and eat, watch a little bit of dishes, watch a little bit of football, and then eat some more.  And then its deer season.”
Taking center stage of the Thanksgiving meal is none other than Tom Turkey.  Historians may argue whether or not it was actually served at the first Thanksgiving, but by the time President Lincoln declared it a holiday in 1863, the gobbler had already found its way to our table.  Turkey seemed the ideal meat—it was fattened up from its birth in the spring and didn’t provide milk or preferable eggs.  Plus, I reckon, they figured a bird with a cavity that big could hold a boatload of one of my favorite Thanksgiving foods, stuffing. 
Or is it dressing?
The stuffing vs. dressing debate is one that not many people know the answer to, including me.  I will tell you that some people say that you call it “stuffing” if it’s inside the bird and “dressing” if it’s cooked outside the bird.  Others, from below the Mason-Dixon line, will call it all “dressing” no matter what you say.  I prefer to call it whatever you want me to call it, as long as I can have a second helping.
And speaking of second helpings, one can’t think of a modern day Thanksgiving meal without bringing up the one and only green bean casserole.  My grandmother spent her entire life being one of the best cooks around, and yet sadly I remember her mostly by the green bean casserole she brought to every holiday meal. 
She’s not really to blame, though.  What busy housewife wouldn’t jump on the chance to whip up the easiest side dish in all of American history?  It was Campbell’s Soup, in 1955 that released the brilliant idea and gave women everywhere a chance to hang up their aprons a few minutes early.  A can of beans, a can of soup, a bit of crunchy onions, and I dare say that old Mr. Turkey has some competition when it comes to being the quintessential Thanksgiving dish.
But no matter what is served during the main course, nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the traditional desserts served at Thanksgiving.  Although the first Thanksgiving may not have included them, nothing makes my family happier than a rack of pies, each with a bit of a milk glaze, crusty sugar on top, and holding a feast of cinnamon spiced apples or a moist and gooey pond of pumpkin with extra nutmeg.  Pumpkin pie, it seems, wasn’t around for the first Thanksgiving either.  It is believed to have appeared on American tables in the 17th century.  I’m not sure of the exact date, but I think it may have (or should have) coincided with the invention of whipped cream.
So this Thanksgiving while you dine on the actual meal or are sneaking leftovers, take a moment to say a little thanks for each of our traditional foods that fuel us for the Christmas season and be extra thankful that you’re not going to be eat eel salad sandwiches for the next few days.


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