As a food writer, I should never admit this, but I really hate Thanksgiving. Not the day, not the food, not the cooking or the shopping, not even the sappy reason Americans ostensibly gather to gorge in late November. What makes me totally crazy is the persistent pressure to reinvent a wheel that has been going around quite nicely for more than 200 years. Every fall, writers and editors have to knock themselves out to come up with a gimmick—fast turkey, slow turkey, brined turkey, unbrined turkey—when the meal essentially has to stay the same. It’s like redrawing the Kama Sutra when readers really only care about the missionary position.
The first recipe story I ever sold, 25 years ago, was pegged to Thanksgiving—a piece on ways to use cranberries besides the inevitable sauce, as if anyone would want them anywhere near steak or salad or anything but turkey. And it’s been downhill ever since. I’ve done a healthful Thanksgiving, budget Thanksgiving, lavish Thanksgiving, ethnic Thanksgiving (Chinese sausage in rice dressing, anyone?), even the “real” first Thanksgiving (a re-creation of a Spanish event out in El Paso, Texas). Just in the last six years, I wrote on turkey at 33 rpm (ways to keep people at the table longer), turkey in a hurry (the whole meal, supermarket to dishwasher, whipped up at the last minute), turkey in a covered roaster (a revolution in Speckleware), appetizers that won’t spoil your appetite, and a menu for an “after-party” using the turkey leftovers. I should have known the well was dry when I was persuaded to write an overwrought ode to the color of cranberries for the L.A. Times’ wannabe literary turkey section last Thanksgiving.
During my short time as deputy editor of the New York Times’ “Dining” section, the pain was different. Rather than writing the damn stories, I had to help generate ideas for the poor reporters to wrestle with. The general groaning started in early October as we all contemplated the worst deadline of the year. Christmas (and every other holiday) was a piece of fruitcake by comparison. Even at Easter, cooks have a choice between ham and lamb, and anything goes in the basket.
We whip ourselves into a lather trying to make Thanksgiving trendy, but no one really wants to mess with the hoariest menu. In a country that worships sickening candied yams under marshmallows, I know that almost no one will try something like sweet potatoes Anna—a gratin of thin slices layered with thyme, Aleppo pepper, and lots of butter. I can angst over a new recipe for shredded Brussels sprouts with fancy-pants pistachio oil and know for certain that most tables will be disgraced by green bean casserole with onions from a can. I can’t begin to count the number of alternatives to cranberry sauce I have developed—salsa, chutney, whatever—yet most cooks will blithely follow the recipe on the Ocean Spray bag (which is actually pretty hard to beat). The more we make ourselves insane in mucking with the classics, the nuttier we make our audience. Every story purporting to take the stress out of the day actually reinforces the notion that the easiest feast of the year is the most harrowing. When you think about it, Thanksgiving is not so different from a roast chicken dinner with sides. You can’t screw it up; there are too many saving graces for even an under- or overcooked turkey. But that’s not the message anyone absorbs from all the magazines and newspapers with their absurdly perfect birds garnished with overkill.
I guess I’m a total hypocrite, though, because I do the work I’m assigned each year and then get up on Thanksgiving morning and ignore everything I wrote. I make my stuffing as usual, roast my turkey as always, whisk up the same pan gravy, peel and mash potatoes, don’t get fancy with the cranberry sauce, and cook whatever green vegetable looks best at the farmers’ market. If I have time this year I’ll make pumpkin-thyme dinner rolls and the sweet potato-pecan pie I have baked 20 times before. It’s amazing how efficient you can be without new recipes. And if I’m thankful, it’s because it will be months before it’s time to tweak the turkey yet again.