Growing up in Australia, we only occasionally heard of this magical day through tv shows, movies and the like. The third Thursday in November when folks come together to feast over the course of hours. This is definitely a holiday I can get behind and I really do enjoy the meaning of this North American tradition where the focus is on sharing a meal, enjoying a sit-at-the-table-with-good-linens meal and giving thanks (obviously) rather than gifts.
Thanksgiving is really a collection of family traditions. So, naturally, I adopted my husband’s family traditions during my early years in the U.S. I remember receiving recipes from my mother-in-law for stuffing/dressing (I prefer the latter while my husband won’t let a turkey go unstuffed) and pecan pie. And recommendations for side dishes like the essential mashed potato and green beans, crescent rolls and cranberry sauce. For those who are unfamiliar with “dressing”, it’s not the salad kind but rather the stuffing for the bird baked in a pan rather than in the bird, so it gets a crunchy texture on top. And pecan pie is made with corn syrup – an ingredient common in North America but it was completely foreign to me.
Then, there is the art and science of cooking a turkey. No small feat when you have to a) figure out how when to pick it up to ensure it is not still frozen when you want to cook it; b) figure out how to prepare it – brine? butter and herbs? simply salt and pepper? I’ve tried them all; c) figure out what time to start cooking it and; d) figure out when it is done so the white meat is not overcooked while the dark meat is undercooked! All this with a set of weights and measures that would have been more familiar to our medieval friends than to me.
Since we live far from family and in a region not always travel-friendly in the winter, my husband and I have created our own Thanksgiving tradition that goes something like this:
Tuesday: collect the Amish turkey (10-12 lbs) from our town butcher and weigh it twice then Google “How long to cook a turkey”;
Wednesday: try to make as much ahead as is reasonable. This includes the pie, which has become a phenomenal failure each year. We often ended up making two pies – rather, I make the first one following the steps in my mother-in-law’s recipe to the nth degree and it fails. Then my husband (who doesn’t really cook) will make the second one using the same recipe with great success. Go figure! I will also make the cranberry sauce, whip cream, and prep the bird, re-Googling “How long to cook a turkey”. Set the table and pull out the good silverware and dishes and prepare the kitchen game plan.
Thanksgiving Day: A big pot of coffee and cinnamon rolls start the day. My husband gets to work with grading papers (fun tradition right there, hey?) while I agonize over the order to make each part and double checking that I have the right pots, pans, dishes and utensils for each step. Timing, of course, is everything. I spend the next several hours in the kitchen with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television, followed by the Purina Dog Show while I wrestle the mammoth beast in and out of the oven basting and analyzing the thermometer. Meanwhile, the mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, green vegetable, sweet potatoes, and crescent rolls become part of the kitchen choreography while I hurry up and wait for the main event.
We try to time the meal so we can sit and enjoy it during the other traditional event – the NFL game. But no matter how organized I am, it’s always a crapshoot. The bird seems to cook much quicker than planned creating panic in the last hour. I can’t tell you how many times I have studied the “right way to carve” a turkey, but frankly, it never ends up being as pretty as the Food Network shows. Gravy is a great disguise.
So our first few Thanksgivings were a learning curve for me. Before making my first Thanksgiving dinner, I had never cooked a turkey, never made stuffing (didn’t know what dressing was!), never made pecan pie, did not know what corn syrup was, and had never tasted a cranberry! The year we bought our first house, we also purchased a new gas oven which arrived the day before Thanksgiving, so it was literally christened with a turkey dinner. The year we moved into our second home, my perfect pecan pie was tasted tested by a mouse — so that had to go. I have never dropped the bird, but have come close. And I often forget to put the rolls in the oven.
Each year, I try to make it a little easier looking for ways to simplify. I also try to convince my husband that two people really don’t need a 12lb turkey and perhaps a roasted turkey breast would be…..no, no, no, he’s not having it at all. It’s all about tradition, and that means cooking a whole turkey. Last year, I had a successful breakthrough in buying a pie and we’ll do that again this year, taking one thing off the list. I’m also going to try to do more prep the day before so there are fewer panics, but let’s face it -it’s still a feast and we will keep creating our own traditions while maintaining those that are near and dear to his heart. This year, I’ll also try to get a photo of OUR dinner!
Then Friday, Saturday and Sunday – Thanksgiving leftovers toasted sandwiches!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!