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Thanks­giving Turkey

Back in the day of scheduled tele­vision spe­cials, one of my childhood favorites was the classic Peanuts Thanks­giving cartoon. Pep­permint Patty invites herself and her friend Marcie to Charlie Brown’s home for the holiday dinner. She doesn’t let “Chuck” get a word in edgewise, making him unable to tell her that he was going to his grandmother’s home for Thanks­giving. Charlie Brown ends up “cooking” (with the help of his beagle, Snoopy) the only foods he knows how to make: popcorn and but­tered toast. When Patty sees this feast, she exclaims, “Look at this! Is this what you call a Thanks­giving Day dinner? Did we come across town for THIS? We’re sup­posed to be served a REAL Thanks­giving dinner!” Clearly, she had spe­cific expec­ta­tions of what foods a Thanks­giving feast required. Charlie Brown actually did provide some of what we asso­ciate with that first Thanks­giving feast, cel­e­brated by Sep­a­ratist Pil­grims and Wampanoag Indians at Ply­mouth Colony in 1621: corn and bread of some sort. What Patty lamented was the absence of turkey and all the trim­mings. Turkey, of course, is the mainstay of Thanks­giving. It’s the trim­mings, though, that truly make a Thanks­giving one that deserves the very sub­jective label of tra­di­tional. Much of that reflects regional back­grounds and even gen­er­a­tions. Canned or homemade cran­berry sauce? Green bean casserole or fresh green beans? Pumpkin pie made with frozen pre-made crust or pastry crust from scratch? Sweet potatoes baked with a marsh­mallow topping and lots of sugar, or fresh ones mashed with cin­namon? The quin­tes­sential trimming, dressing (stuffing if it’s put in the turkey cavity to bake), speaks to regional dif­fer­ences more loudly than any­thing else. Chestnut-based dressing has an East Coast prove­nance, while corn­bread-based dressing has more Southern roots. Which version one prefers is an expression of family history.

The absence of proper dressing can make or break Thanks­giving. When I was in graduate school in the late 1990’s, I spent one Thanks­giving holiday hous­esitting for my mentor, a favor that included per­mission to host some friends for the day. Intent on being a good hostess, I let my guests choose the dressing. They went with chestnut, which I had never eaten, let alone cooked. So, I bor­rowed a friend’s Williams-Sonoma holiday cookbook and wrote my shopping list. One small problem: the only chestnuts I could find were the water chestnuts in the Asian section of the grocery store! The resulting dish was cer­tainly edible, but it wasn’t the corn­bread dressing that I loved. Without it, Thanks­giving dinner wasn’t quite right.

The next year, I found myself cooking Thanks­giving dinner once again, but in much dif­ferent cir­cum­stances. I had been invited to spend the holiday with my boyfriend and his brother’s family in Meridian, Idaho (that boyfriend became my husband the fol­lowing summer). This was my first intro­duction to the extended Birzer family, who met me at the airport while Brad drove through a blizzard to get from Helena, Montana to Meridian (a Boise suburb). Brad had warned me that if I wanted a tra­di­tional Thanks­giving meal, we would have to cook it our­selves as his Japanese sister-in-law was not familiar with that kind of cooking. I arrived armed with my mom’s recipe for corn­bread dressing, but not quite real­izing that she had given me the large group version of the recipe. Brad and I did not get the turkey in the oven soon enough either, so his nephew and niece (ages 6 and 4 at the time) declared to their grand­mother on the phone that they were starving. These were kids who happily ate sand­wiches of Japanese fish egg jelly, which I was instructed to pretend was normal. With this intro­duction as the person respon­sible for the “starving time,” I was then given the phone so that I could “meet” Brad’s mom. After that rather nerve-wracking dis­traction, the turkey was finally ready, as was my first attempt at making corn­bread dressing — enough to feed 25 people, it turned out. Post-dinner clean up included direc­tions from Todd to remove ALL of the turkey meat from the carcass, another first for me in that holiday week filled with new expe­ri­ences and rela­tion­ships, into which I brought my tra­di­tional corn­bread dressing.

I don’t recall the family’s reaction to my dressing, perhaps because I was so happy to eat it. Now my own children insist on corn­bread dressing at Thanks­giving (actually, they’ve never had any other kind). It’s part of our family’s holiday tra­dition, though I’ve scaled back the recipe to feed a family rather than a restaurant. More than any other holiday, Thanks­giving revolves around food, and not just any food. The dishes we each asso­ciate with this day of grat­itude link us to gen­er­a­tions of family and to the par­ticular places those gen­er­a­tions have lived. The varying regional ver­sions of “turkey and all the trim­mings” remind us that this very American holiday unites us in all of our vari­a­tions of ethnic and regional back­grounds into one grateful people, cel­e­brating the abun­dance of food and fel­lowship occa­sioned by the will­ingness of American Indians in the Ply­mouth Colony area to help the new­comers from England survive, a will­ingness borne of our common humanity.

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