What Does Thanksgiving Mean?

The start of my favorite cranberry sauce

I know, I know! It’s super way too early to talk about Thanksgiving, especially since it’s not even Halloween yet! But I read this article on Epicurious today and it begged the question – what does Thanksgiving really mean?

In the article Molly O’Neill, author of One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking, talks about her travels across the country doing research for the book and discovering all the incarnations of Thanksgiving fare that immigrants of all sorts of backgrounds make. She suggests a “melting pot” of a Thanksgiving menu:

molly o’neill’s melting pot thanksgiving

Molly O'Neill's Melting Pot Thanksgiving

Tamale-stuffed turkey? Stir-fried brussel sprouts? Is this Thanksgiving fare?

It made me think. In my mind, Thanksgiving dinner is a mix of dishes from both sides of the family (although they live many miles apart in different states). Aunt Karen’s twice-baked mashed potatoes (complete with sour cream, cream cheese, and lots of butter), Grandma Ruby’s butter-rubbed roasted turkey, my own cranberry pomegranate sauce/salad, Grandma Eunice’s pecan pie (which she originally made because she thought my mom was from the South the first time she joined them for Thanksgiving), Grandma Ruby’s bread-maker bread and Grandma Eunice’s butter horns. And of course, the ubiquitous relish tray and at Grandma Eunice’s sea foam jello and at Grandma Ruby’s sweet potato pecan pudding.

But there are also “traditional” dishes I don’t like – green bean casserole (too many canned ingredients) for one and jellied cranberry sauce for another. We’ve also never had creamed soup onions or creamed brussels sprouts, both of which I doubt I’d like.

Here’s my ideal Thanksgiving menu:

  • Grandma Ruby’s butter-rubbed roasted turkey
  • Aunt Karen’s twice-baked mashed potatoes
  • Mom’s roasted sweet potatoes with pecans and brown sugar
  • my own cranberry pomegranate salad
  • both grandmas’ bread specialties
  • Mom’s pear salad with mixed field greens, bosc pears, and walnut oil
  • Grandma Eunice’s pecan pie
  • green beans in something other than cream of mushroom soup – like a mustard vinaigrette or just butter and salt
  • pickled or salt-cured onions in addition to garlic dill pickles and marinated carrots
  • my own pumpkin pudding (basically, the Libbey’s recipe but without a crust) – Chad’s favorite
  • Mom’s homemade old-fashioned applesauce
It’s a mix of Southern and Yankee influences. Even though none of us are Southern and are instead decidedly Scandinavian (we save the Scandi stuff for Christmas dinner).

Which begs the question – does Thanksgiving have to be about New England food? Molly O’Neill argues no, but I’m not sure. While yes, America is a melting pot, there is something to be said for celebrating our culinary history. Which is basically what many traditional Thanksgiving recipes are – historic. Traditional New England and Southern foods are rooted in history. In fact, New England and Southern foods – baked beans, clam chowder, cornbread, grits, boiled greens with ham, biscuits, pies, baked pumpkin or squash, Yankee pot roast, red flannel hash – are all foods that come to us nearly unchanged from a time when cooking over an open fire was the norm.

For most Americans Thanksgiving is about three things: family, food, and nostalgia. While I wholeheartedly embrace new tweaks on traditional dishes (for instance, I much prefer my mom’s version of roasted fresh sweet potatoes with pecans and brown sugar to Grandma’s version using canned yams and marshmallows), I don’t know if I could “Scandinavian-ify” Thanksgiving the way some of Molly O’Neill’s interviewees adapt Thanksgiving to their own ethnic flavors.

What do you think? Is Thanksgiving a fixed point in American culture and history? Or should it adapt to each family that celebrates it – or, god forbid – modernize it?

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