Timothy R. Smith, a 26-year-old single guy, says that he is in the position this year of having to prepare a Thanksgiving Dinner for himself and a bunch of his friends. He reports his relief at coming across Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well by food critic Sam Sifton, which gives step-by-step instructions on how to do everything. From Smith’s review of the book:
Sifton sets down rules that must be followed to guarantee success. Some of those bylaws seem to turn the tastemaker into a taskmaster, but that lends the book a certain charm.
For instance, one should always carve the turkey in the kitchen, not at the table; a first course should never precede the turkey — serve the whole meal at once; do not cook anything out of season; begin serving libations once guests arrive; and salad is always an unwelcome guest. He eschews marshmallows in any form at the Thanksgiving table, whether on sweet potatoes or dessert.
The glue of the meal is cranberry sauce and gravy. “Debate that all you like,” Sifton declares. “But they tie every element on the plate together.” And dessert should be the meal’s blissful, final amphetamine. “A proper Thanksgiving should close out with a blast of warm, gooey flavor — a burst of sugar that can give a guest just enough energy to make it from table to couch, the holiday’s final resting place.” Dessert must be a simple American classic, preferably apple or pumpkin pie with a breast of whipped cream. He disapproves of tartlets or parfaits and any form of innovative pastry.
Above all, Thanksgiving must be traditional, Sifton argues.
I would add that the final point about tradition has to trump all other rules, including that idiosyncratic rejection of marshmallows. He has a point about salads in the sense of green leafy healthy salads–unless one comes in under the tradition rule–though salads containing Jello and/or Cool Whip are permitted, especially if it’s never eaten except at Thanksgiving.
This made me think of other Thanksgiving rules:
(1) To determine how big of a turkey you need to buy, count the number of guests and estimate how many portions each is likely to eat. Then buy the biggest turkey you can find.
You need a gigantic turkey in order to create the impression of abundance, which, in turn, makes people feel a jolt of thankfulness. Also, you want lots and lots of leftovers, enough to replay the feast until the Jello and Cool Whip salads run out, and, above all, to have turkey sandwiches throughout the holiday weekend and as long after that as possible.
Recipe for turkey sandwiches: Get two pieces of soft, airy, pillowy white bread of the kind people who are serious about food scorn. (You may have to get on E-bay to get some Wonderbread [current bid for a loaf: $25]). Lubricate one side of both slices with a thick layer of mayonnaise. Pile high with turkey. Than add a thick layer of salt, not as seasoning but as an ingredient. Top with the other piece of bread. Eat with potato chips. The culinary principle is that it’s all white. You may, however, eat it with a sweet pickle on the side.
(3) Tradition resets with the beginning of a new family. Thus, newly married couples having their own Thanksgiving Dinner for the first time are entitled to start their own traditions, as long as they maintain some thread of continuity with the traditions of each person’s childhood. The husband and the wife should each choose one or more dish they always had when they were growing up. The criteria is, “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.” In this way, two families come together into a new family. Newly-married couples are free to add any foods they choose. But if it is served for two successive years, rule #2 applies.
(4) Thanksgiving is about gratitude, so no fighting or sniping is allowed on Thanksgiving. That can wait until the rest of the weekend. Thanksgiving customs and observances should all provoke a response of thankfulness. That applies to these rules themselves. We are thankful not just for the food and the abundance and the material blessings they represent. We are also thankful for our families, here and stretching back through time, for the memories, for what it was like to be a child and to grow up, for our history–personal and corporate and national–and for our culture, from the little community of our family to the local and regional and national cultures that we are part of. We are thankful for the continuities, the social order and our place in it, as well as the uniqueness of everyone at the table. And we are thankful for our senses and for so many sensory pleasures and so many good gifts, all of which we receive from the hand of God.
That’s how we do it in the Veith household, since time immemorial. I hasten to add that since tradition trumps EVERYTHING, you and your family may do things differently. So what are some of your rules for Thanksgiving?