Something that I’ve always wondered about is, if the traditional Thanksgiving dinner of “turkey and all the fixins” is so great, why do most of us only have it once a year?
Actually, I only started wondering about it when I began casting about for this morning’s essay a couple of days ago. I do, however, wonder about the “all the fixins” phrase that makes anybody saying it aloud would suggest that Mayberry might be a significant part of their backgrounds.
I’ve always been fond of Thanksgiving—not for its rather inauspicious beginnings and the signaling of the genocide of Native Americans—but for its celebration of food and family.
Sadly, the traditional Thanksgiving food that is generally celebrated tends to be mostly bland. There also tends to be an enormous amount of it, rendering that first celebration of bounty to one of abundance.
The sameness of it all is echoed on end aisles of grocery stores. The shelves are piled high with canisters of Durkee fried onions, cans of green beans and cream of mushroom soup, the three of which are blended together to create a casserole nobody will eat on any other occasion.
There are cans of pumpkin, yams and both cranberry sauce and jelly. Bread stuffing, in a seemingly countless variety of configurations, also get end-aisle display, replacing that space usually reserved for tortillas. Along side are the boxes of chicken stock needed to help moisten the dressing, dressed up with onions and celery.
Not everybody likes the same dressing (stuffing if it’s in the bird) and so having three or four dressings—traditional, cornbread, oyster, sausage—is not uncommon. And since not everybody likes turkey, there is frequently a ham or a brisket. There are also the obligatory mashed potatoes, potatoes au gratin, candied yams (with or without marshmallows), roasted carrots, brussels sprouts, creamed spinach, creamed onions, sauerkraut, biscuits, dinner rolls, tanker-trucks of gravy, and, of course, macaroni-and-cheese.
Don’t even get me started on desserts.
Everything is served at least an hour late. The food grows cold as the never-ending passing of each dish takes place. And then we’re expected to eat all of this at the same time.
What, I ask, would be wrong with chicken ala king, spaghetti and meatballs, or the classic Greek moussaka?
There are no courses in the traditional Thanksgiving feast which, along with some serious alterations to the menu, is something I’d like to suggest.
First of all, let’s replace the pathetic relish tray and ranch-dressing dip with a charcuterie board worthy of oohs and aahs. A variety of sausages, salamis, olives, mustard, and pickled vegetables, served with crusty bread, is sure to please. Add some chutney, nuts, fresh grapes, and strawberries to take it to an epic level.
Next, there should be a fish course. It would seem likely that shellfish would have been served at the original Thanksgiving, as it allegedly took place on the New England coast.
A fish course can be something as simple as Provençal style steamed mussels simmered in white wine, butter and garlic cream broth, or something more elaborate such as sole meunière, a delicate dish of sauteed fish with a sauce of butter, lemon, and parsley. My preference would be oysters Rockefeller—oysters on the half-shell topped with garlic, green herbs, breadcrumbs, and Pernod and then baked. Then again, there’s always Coquilles St-Jacques, a French dish of scallops poached in white wine, placed atop a purée of mushrooms in a scallop shell, covered with a sauce made of the poaching liquid, and gratinéed under a broiler.
The salad course should be something light and refreshing—lettuces with herbs, marinated shallots and a fragrant vinaigrette of oil, lemon juice and mustard. Or, thinly sliced cucumbers with a sprinkling of sugar, salt, pepper and fresh dill, dressed with some white wine vinegar.
While French onion soup is wonderful, it is also quite filling. For the soup course, I’d go with a light and brothy miso.
If you insist on turkey as the main course, I suggest a turkey roulade—a roasted breast stuffed with bread, sausage, and herbs. It’s easy to make and is wonderful with some simple sides such as mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus.
Sticking with fowl, my next preference is roasted duck. My Bohemian grandmother, who was an incredible cook, made a roast duck seasoned with salt, pepper and caraway seed. Beneath its crispy skin was moist meat that she served with boiled potatoes with parsley, bread dumplings, red cabbage, and sauerkraut. Of course, there was a rich gravy made from the drippings. We weren’t big on green sides.
Osso buco, the famed veal dish from Lombardy, Italy, is rich and delicious. It is a slice of the veal shank, braised in vegetables and stock until falling-off-the-bone tender. It is traditionally served over risotto Milanese, a rice dish flavored with saffron. I like to garnish it with horseradish gremolata.
For dessert, I would forgo the fruit and nut pies for a selection of cheese, served with fresh pears and apples.
So there’s my Thanksgiving food fantasy. It is a counter to the open-faced turkey sandwiches I’ve had alone on this holiday, as well as lasagna I’ve enjoyed with a large, loud Italian family whom I loved.
Even those unfortunate enough to not be able to enjoy a cornucopia of blessings on their own tables, there is no shortage of organizations whose members and volunteers donate time and money to ensure everybody can get a meal.
That is perhaps worthy of being thankful for—our neighbors, friends and families willing to sacrifice for the good of others.
In the meantime, I’d better start thawing the turkey.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Created at Antoine’s in New Orleans in the late 1800s, this is a decidedly decadent dish that was my father’s culinary contribution for every celebratory dinner.
1/3 cup unsalted butter, divided
1 small shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
1 Tbs. chopped parsley
2 Tbs. Pernod
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
24 raw oysters, shucked
4 lemon wedges
Melt half of the butter and add the shallot, garlic, parsley, and spinach. Cook briefly over medium heat. Deglaze with the Pernod. Melt the remaining butter and add to the breadcrumbs. Off heat, add the cheese and breadcrumbs to combine. Arrange the oyster shells on a baking dish covered with rock salt.
Divide the breadcrumb mixture over the oysters. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 400 degrees.