Listener Essay - A Thanksgiving Paradox
Kate Cohen is a writer and editor in Albany, New York.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving, and I am in heaven. More specifically I am in the Food Lion in Harrisonburg, Virginia, examining a truly pathetic produce aisle. Seriously, you call these Brussels sprouts? I shake my head at my mother and tell her—sorry, Mom—we have to go to Kroger after all.
But I am so, so happy. Not only am I in my mother’s easy company, but my whole job this week, as the chief cook for Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, is to talk and think about food. Even better: this week everyone else in this grocery, this town, this whole country is talking and thinking about food too.
This is why I love Thanksgiving. No religion and no presents is a good start, and gratitude is an excellent theme. But I really love Thanksgiving because for once the whole country is focused on what I focus on every other moment of every single day: food.
Leading up to the holiday, there are supplemental recipe inserts in the newspapers. Grocery stores extend their hours. And the baking aisle—usually peaceful and lonely—jostles with people buying the only bag of flour they will use all year. Everyone spends an inordinate amount of time planning a single meal—cocktails through leftovers—just the way I do at least once a week.
It must be how football fans feel on Superbowl Sunday: finally the world is set right.
So I was a surprised to read what Thomas Keller said in this month’s Bon Appetit. In case your brain is composed of something other than cultured butter and dried porcini mushrooms, I will explain: Thomas Keller is one of the most revered chefs in America. And Bon Appetit is a food magazine, which, like every other food magazine in the country, devotes an annual issue to our one genuine food holiday. About which holiday, Chef Keller is quoted as saying,
“Sometimes the white meat is a little overcooked. But that’s Thanksgiving! It’s not necessarily about the food, is it?”
What?!? Of course it is!
My mom and I and assorted contributors spend days planning, shopping, and cooking. We feed one or two dozen people a main course with at least five side dishes, two kinds of bread, and two sauces; we follow it with three to five desserts. We maintain a carefully curated file of Thanksgiving recipes.
Truth be told, though, some of those recipes are less inspired than . . . dutiful. Familiar foods demanded by tradition. When I plan a dinner party, I think about the balance of textures and flavors; I make sure there is something crunchy and sharp near something creamy and rich; there is sweet to go with spicy. At Thanksgiving you balance mashed potatoes with sweet potatoes, creamed spinach with green bean casserole. Meaty gravy with meaty stuffing.
And if, god forbid, you should try to spike the mashed potatoes with horseradish or the sweet potatoes with chipotle peppers, someone is bound to complain.
Don’t even get me started on turkey, which practically no one can cook properly (as Keller points out) because no one cooks it the rest of the year because . . . no . . . one . . . actually . . . likes . . . it.
This must be how football fans feel on Superbowl Sunday: the glitz! The ads! The halftime show! The people in your living room pretending to watch a game but not really caring about anything but chicken wings! Where the hell is the football?
For a foodie or a chef, Thanksgiving can be a culinary letdown. For an experienced home cook, it’s not even a challenge. Dishes I’ve cooked a dozen times? Mom chopping onions? My sister setting the table? What’s there even left to do?
I am forced to sit back and take it all in. Hang out for hours with my lovely mother. Enjoy my father’s annual effort to reinvent apple pie, as well as his sublime ability to mix a martini. Start a totally unfair potato peeling contest pitting wives against husbands. Watch cousins and uncles play touch football in the back yard, and, when they invite me to join in, claim that I am tied to the kitchen.
Which isn’t actually true until our one genuine food holiday arrives: Superbowl Sunday.