Thanksgiving Mush: Gobble, gobble, toil – and lots of turkey trouble
Every year, without fail, turkey trumps millions of Americans. Thanksgiving happens on the last Thursday of November and, during the weeks leading up to it, America has a national nervous breakdown caused mainly by that humble big bird.
Thanksgiving commemorates a huge dinner party the Pilgrims threw to celebrate their first successful harvest. They invited their Native American neighbours over and things were beautiful. Thanksgiving is a big deal – the most important American holiday after Christmas – and it has become sort of obligatory for families to get together. Thanksgiving Thursday and the following Black Friday are also the biggest retail shopping days of the year, and often involve long overnight queues in malls and angry shoppers assaulting each other with camping chairs.
Thanksgiving centres around the dinner feast, with a huge roast turkey at the head of the table accompanied by all the traditional side dishes. And cinnamon spice candles. Everything at this time of year smells of cinnamon spice (a blend of mostly cinnamon, with a touch of cloves and nutmeg). They even pump it into shopping malls. The poor shoppers probably end up going bonkers because they’re sniffing the stuff for hours on end.
Apparently most Americans don’t know how to roast a whole chicken, so about two weeks before Thanksgiving millions of people freak out at the prospect of roasting a huge turkey. National nervous breakdown time. And it happens, year after year.
To be honest, I find both turkey and Thanksgiving overrated. I experienced my first Thanksgiving nearly 40 years ago in Cape Town. A friend married a guy from New York, who decided to celebrate Thanksgiving with a bunch of us barbarians in the faraway southern hemisphere. He worked in advertising, so he made a big deal out of selling the whole concept of gracious American exceptionalism to us. The event ended up being kind of awkward because it turned out he didn’t seem to know quite what Thanksgiving was. It was also not very authentic because a lot of the ingredients for the side dishes weren’t available in SA.
Many years later, just before moving to the US, I attended another Thanksgiving, this time hosted by the US Embassy’s cultural attache in Joburg. Now, just a few weeks earlier, the cultural attache had taken the US ambassador (a deeply religious Southern Baptist Republican) and his wife to see my play at the Market Theatre. The play was called Weird Sex in Maputo. You’d think the title would have clanged the alarm bells of the ambassador’s conservative sensibilities. But no. They sat right in the front row, CIA security detail and all. At one point during the play, about two metres from their noses, a stark-naked Guy Delancy did a 10-minute monologue about the meaninglessness of it all. It ended with a mostly unclad Guy and Megan Kruskal stumbling drunkenly around the stage and having sex with a wine bottle. Watching from the lighting box, I thought the ambassador and his wife were going to have strokes. To make a long story short, my second Thanksgiving turned out to be pretty awkward as well. The Americans had invited me to dinner before seeing the play, and I sat through the whole meal freaking out, convinced they were going to withdraw my US visa on the grounds of moral corruption.
Well, I did make it to Chicago, and after 30 Thanksgivings, I still find it an awkward holiday. In the early Nineties we were usually invited out to celebrate with friends. The one thing I couldn’t cook on the old two-plate stove I had at the time was a 10kg turkey. Thanksgiving at friends was always a potluck affair. Maybe it’s the old Afrikaanse boere tannie in me, but potluck dinners are one of my pet hates. I believe that if I invite you to my house for a meal, I feed you. It’s a matter of pride.
And seeing as most people here don’t cook on a regular basis, making something fancy to bring as a side dish can be a little dodgy. So you end up sitting around the table with a bunch of forlorn friends of friends of your friends and sometimes a lonely family member who’s in town (usually a painfully shy reclusive deadhead stoner older brother now doing carpentry and growing organic pot somewhere in the Northwest) shovelling down dodgy potluck food and dry turkey and making awkward conversation. Most people leave big cities like Chicago or New York over Thanksgiving weekend, or try to at least. It’s usually the busiest travel day of the year, so they actually spend most of their long weekend hanging around airports dealing with flight delays and queues.
The first Thanksgiving with the in-laws was spent in Madison, Wisconsin, about three hours north of Chicago, where we celebrated with my father-in-law, stepmother-in-law and a slew of her family. As Midwest as it gets. One of my main problems with Thanksgiving dinner is the timing. It’s usually at 3pm or 4pm, which is too late for lunch and too early for dinner. All the gals, as they say here, gather in the kitchen and the men watch football on the huge TV. I don’t watch football, and usually I’m the one in the kitchen, so there I was, with nothing to do, drifting around getting plastered. Not easy, because the only wine was the wine we had brought. Outside of the big metropolitan centres, people don’t drink wine. And for some reason, just when you don’t need it, a wine cork can pop really loudly.
At some point I ended up on the back porch with a few of the men, and it really is true: American men don’t converse. I decided to make a joke about rugby versus football, but my dry, off-colour South African humour clearly did not hit the spot. The men just stood there staring at me. By the time we sat down to dinner, I was truly strung out – only to be confronted by dry, over-cooked, tasteless turkey, out-of-the-box mash potato, green-bean and mushroom-soup casserole with Corn Flakes and out-of-a-box fried onions on top, sweet-potato and marshmallow casserole, weird “stuffing” from a bag that never saw the inside of a turkey, jello salad, instant mac and cheese, and cranberry sauce from a can. I never thought I would miss potluck Thanksgiving dinners back in Chicago. Anyway, what on earth were they doing in the kitchen for five hours? One thing I learnt is that if anyone protests too much and makes excuses about a dish they have cooked, take their word for it and don’t eat it. One of the cousins did that about the green-bean casserole, saying it was the first time she’d tried the recipe and she hoped it was good. Being polite, I said I was sure it would be wonderful and ended up with a double helping. And a detailed description of the “recipe”. The secret ingredient? Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. Awkward.
The strange thing is, to this day, most Americans are not quite sure what Thanksgiving is all about. The original Pilgrims, or Puritans actually, broke away from the Church of England and were given refuge in the Netherlands, where they remained for about 12 years. Finding the Dutch way too liberal, not religiously pure enough and thus a threat to their strict society, they decided to move to the new world of America. They certainly were not fleeing religious persecution by the time they arrived in America. On the contrary, they were pretty radical separatists from the get go and wanted to preserve their closed society and religious way of life far away from any interference. They also wanted land to farm, a scarce commodity in Holland. They had plans. And those plans almost certainly did not include peaceful integration with the local Native Americans. There are records of early meals together, but those were probably more about diplomacy than feasting and giving thanks. Both the Pilgrims and the Native Americans had long traditions of celebrating the harvest anyway, so a feast around harvest time was not a novel occurrence. There was also no turkey involved. More likely geese or duck and venison and a mushy grain-and-pumpkin stew similar to succotash, still a traditional Native American dish today. The Pilgrims were not all dressed in black with funny hats and big silver buckles on their shoes either. Also no cream of mushroom soup. That came later.
In 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as a day of thanks to God. But it was only in the early 20th century that Thanksgiving as we know it started kicking in. And as far as Native Americans are concerned, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning. The beginning of the end. Many Americans will gather together to sing the unofficial Thanksgiving hymn, We Gather Together, unaware of the song’s dark history. Originally written by a Dutchman after the defeat of the Spanish by the Dutch Prince of Orange and set to an old Dutch folk melody, it’s not at all about celebrating all races and religions. It’s about giving thanks to the protestant God for violently defeating the Catholic heathens. Not that the Catholics were blameless, but still. It is a song celebrating exclusion and violence. and very popular in the heavily segregated deep south.
I’ve found many images of American troops celebrating Thanksgiving in Vietnam, munching their dry turkey and giving thanks amid all the destruction and mayhem. Kind of ironic, to say the least. And now the far right, never missing a chance to stir prejudice and animosity, are branding anybody questioning the Thanksgiving myth as godless and unpatriotic. People like me, I suppose. Add to all the above the whole family get-together fetish and you are really stacking the deck against a relaxed, peaceful celebration around a dinner table. The expectations are set so high that a let-down is inevitable – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even advises people with anxiety disorders to steer clear of Thanksgiving gatherings.
And now, the turkey. You may have gathered by now that I’m not a big fan. Turkey reminds me of cooked salmon: no matter what you do with it, it always tastes the same. I love raw or cured salmon, but no matter how much you marinate or brine it, once you cook it, it tastes like salmon. Or turkey. And then there’s the sheer size of a turkey. An ordinary kitchen with an ordinary stove is just not set up to handle a 10kg to 12kg bird. You need a small bathtub just to brine it. And trying to handle the beast and baste it in the oven (if it fits) is only for those with a strong constitution. In case you’re planning a bit of turkey manhandling yourself, know that brining is now officially out (the New York Times says so). Dry-rubbing is in. Just so you know. As a matter of fact, I agree. Brining doesn’t make for juicier meat. Instead, it breaks it down and you end up with a weird, unpleasant texture. And really salty drippings. For a 10kg bird, you’re looking at five hours in the oven, quite a bit more if you stuff it. Inevitably, you are going to end up with mostly dry meat, no matter how much you baste. And then there is the new fad of deep-frying the whole bird. People build entire structures in their backyards, with gas burners to heat many litres of oil in a huge container. And they still end up with a turkey that tastes just like a turkey. Bland. The only sensible way to prepare a turkey is to do the white and dark meat separately, otherwise you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. But then you don’t have the whole bird as a centrepiece, so uncle or grandpa can’t get to show off their carving skills.
Like brining, stuffing the bird itself is also a new no-no. It increases the cooking time too much. This might be true, but when I used to cook turkeys I always thought the stuffing was the best part, especially when it’s picked out of the carcass the next day. Truth is, most Americans don’t stuff their turkeys in the first place. Stuffing is something you buy in a bag and cook in a casserole dish separately. Why bother to call it stuffing? And to go with that, there are the traditional side dishes, which I’ve always found perplexing – a bit like bland baby food. Soggy stuffing. Green-bean casserole. Instant mash potatoes. Mac and cheese out of a packet. Sweet-potato and marshmallow casserole. Everything casserole style. And last, but not least, there’s also jello salad and jellied cranberry sauce out of a can. Jello salad is jello made in a mould with added canned pineapple and grated carrots. You can basically add anything to it, even pretzels. Some people even add mayonnaise or salad dressing. Not kidding. As I said, mush after mush. After mush. How about roasting the potatoes with the turkey and sautéeing the green beans on the stove top and calling it a day?
And, to crown it all, there’s pumpkin pie, made with out-of-a-can pumpkin, pumpkin spice and topped with a nice aerosol squirt of Reddi Whip. On a recent shopping trip to buy some of the ingredients mentioned above for a photograph, I noticed Starbucks advertising pumpkin-spice lattes. In the grocery story I found pumpkin-spice-latte popcorn. I didn’t buy any. There were even pumpkin-spice tortilla chips. I swear.
I have spent quite a bit of time looking through old South African cookbooks but can’t find anything remotely similar to traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. Overcooked vegetables? Sure. But not with marshmallow toppings. Traditional South African food, as described in those old books, just seems a lot more real. What I find interesting about the “traditional” Thanksgiving side dishes is how many of them have commercial origins. Back in 1917, the Angelus Marshmallow company hired the founder of a cooking magazine to develop recipes to encourage home cooks to use their candy products as everyday ingredients. One of the recipes she came up with was sweet-potato and marshmallow casserole, and it became an instant classic. Back in 1904 a Mrs Cook from Pennsylvania won a prize in a sponsored recipe contest for her jello salad, or as she called it “perfection salad”. In 1955, the home economics department of the Campbell Soup Company created the recipe for green-bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup. Campbell’s estimates that more than 40% of the cream of mushroom soup sold in the US ends up in green-bean casseroles. And then, of course, there is the fictional Betty Crocker, created by the Washburn-Crosby Company in 1921 and a huge influence on Thanksgiving cooking.
Probably the most American aspect of Thanksgiving is the willingness of most Americans to blur the lines between the traditional and the commercial. And through it all wafts that ever-present smell of synthetic pumpkin spice. It’s going to be around until after Christmas, so better get used to it. The official smell of the American shopping mall Holiday Season. Ja nee, mense. Happy Thanksgiving! DM