A Most American Holiday
by David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, November 18, 2015
There is really no more American holiday than Thanksgiving.
It embodies everything we think of as good about America. Celebrating a bountiful harvest. Giving thanks. Sharing with family, friends and neighbors. The promise of good things to come.
Some of you might be thinking, “What about the Fourth of July? What about celebrating the birth of our great nation? Independence Day? Isn’t that the most American holiday?”
No. It’s not. Allow me to explain.
Lots of countries have an Independence Day. It’s really not that special. Plus, it’s really just a long weekend here in America. There is barely any more significance to most people than there is to any other long weekend. The only real traditions are barbecuing meat, drinking beer and setting off fireworks. For some people that’s any good Saturday night, so just how special could it be?
Our other big holidays have all been borrowed or brought over from the old world. Christmas. Easter. New Year’s Day.
We do have a few that are homegrown but hardly unique, such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and President’s Day. With the exception of Veterans Day, which is on November 11 to commemorate the end of World War I, the rest are all on Mondays, ensuring that they result in a long weekend. People have parties sometimes, but again, it’s more or less grilled meat, beer and a day off. With the exception of schools, banks and government offices, I’m not even sure how many people even get off for President’s Day. They apparently sell a lot of mattresses though.
There is Martin Luther King Day, which is a national holiday, but only in name. The government closes, as does schools, libraries, banks etc… But not many businesses. Most people have to work on MLK Day. If Dr. King had been white, I’d wager we’d all have the day off.
We do have Columbus Day, and he was sort of white, but no one likes him anymore and again with exception of school children and bankers, almost no one gets the day off.
But Thanksgiving is different. Thanksgiving is the defining American holiday.
There are other countries that have harvest festivals, or even a day of Thanksgiving. Canada has a similar tradition but most of the customs were borrowed from the United States when American’s Loyal to the Crown resettled in Canada during the American Revolution. So there’s that.
Thanksgiving is definitely an American Holiday. Maybe the most American of Holidays.
Our origin story is one of immigrants in a new world, thankful for a plentiful harvest. The Mayflower had landed in Plymouth in 1620 and the following year, they had had a good harvest and celebrated with a feast.
What about the Indians? Tell us about the Indians!
Well, that’s where our origin story sort of goes off the rails.
The story we were taught, and oddly, continue to teach, is that the Indians took the pilgrims under their wings, taught them how to plant corn, and when they had a good harvest the following year, they all sat down and had a nice meal together. There’s even a painting.
The problem is, none of that is true. We made it up.
There is some truth to Indians being at the first Thanksgiving, as the feast in 1621 is known. Upon landing on the shores when they first arrived, the pilgrims signed a treaty with the Wampanoag tribe that basically said, “You watch our backs and we’ll watch yours.”
So, when the pilgrims decided to celebrate their first good harvest, they began shooting off their guns and cannons, which alerted the local Indian tribe. They assumed there was a fight, so Yellow Feather Oasmeequin gathered 90 warriors and went to find out what was happening.
They soon learned that it was a celebration but they decided to camp nearby and watch.
So now you’ve got 23 sickly white Europeans being watched by 90 native warriors. That had to be a nice touch to the festivities.
Did they share some food? Apparently yes, but not in the way we were taught.
The Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a nice meal to give thanks was a nice story made up to calm fears during the Civil War and later was used to teach children about used to teach children about American freedom and how to be good citizens.
Abraham Lincoln used the story to sooth tensions in America. Sitting down together as families and giving thanks. Everyone needed a moment of calm.
In the years following, students participated in Thanksgiving pageants, sang songs about Thanksgiving, and built log cabins to represent the homes of the Pilgrims. Immigrant children also learned that all Americans ate turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The last lesson was especially effective with the recollections of most immigrant children in the 20th century including stories of rushing home after school in November to beg their parents to buy and roast a turkey for a holiday dinner.
And so, like most of our historical narrative, the fiction became our reality.
Today, we celebrate Thanksgiving by overeating, watching football, and drinking. It’s a four day weekend of gluttony and excesses. It’s fabulous. I can hardly wait.
This is the real reason why it’s so beloved, so anticipated, and so American. We love casual excess.
Thanksgiving dinner traditions vary by region in America, with cornbread dressing being more prevalent in the South, to Oysters making their way into the stuffing in New England, corn in the midwest and chiles in the Southwest. Sides take on a regional flavor as well from candied sweet potatoes to biscuits. But Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving unless you have a turkey, regardless of what Food&Wine tries to tell you. Thanksgiving is all about the turkey.
Thanksgiving dinner is all about tradition. So it doesn’t so much matter what you have for Thanksgiving dinner, as long as it’s more or less the same as what you had last Thanksgiving dinner. We’re not looking for anything new. We want a taste of our childhoods and that’s that.
I don’t really care what you do for Thanksgiving, and chances are, I’d probably turn up my nose and say, “That’s not a proper Thanksgiving.” I want MY Thanksgiving dinner.
So here’s my idea of a perfect Thanksgiving meal. I come from midwestern roots, so even though I have lived in the Northeast for most of my life, my meal is pretty simple. I’ll list each dish in order of importance.
Turkey. Roasted. Nothing fancy. A little butter on the skin to brown it. Don’t over cook it. The only real consideration when it comes to the turkey is how big of a turkey you can fit in your oven and how long it’s going to take. Because when it comes to Thanksgiving, you really can’t have too many leftovers. The bigger the better. Slice and serve. Give people the option of dark or light meat. Dark meat is best of course, but don’t try and convince the white meat people. More for the rest of us.
Stuffing. Stovetop Stuffing is perfectly fine with me, but if you want to make homemade stuffing, that’s fine too. Just make it taste as much like Stovetop as possible. No strange ingredients. No seafood. No nuts. No berries. I want moist, seasoned bread. That’s it. Keep it simple. It’s really just something to put gravy on anyway. Don’t overthink it. The edges should be a little crunchy.
Mashed Potatoes. I’m a little more free-thinking when it comes to mashed potatoes but that is more about my own personal taste. If I was serving a small group, or people I knew were more adventurous, I’d add either jalapeños or horseradish to the mashed potatoes to give them a little kick. But I restrain myself for Thanksgiving. I prefer Yukon Golds for my mashed potatoes. Cut them into pieces and boil until soft, usually with a glove of garlic. Drain water. Add milk, sour cream, and a little blue cheese dressing. Whip until creamy. Add salt and pepper and serve piping hot.
Gravy. I don’t think too much about gravy and I don’t really know how to make it other than in theory. No lumps is all I ask. It’s salty, edible fat you can drink. Don’t think about it too much. Serve hot in a proper gravy boat.
Green Beans. I’m more than happy to have canned green beans, but if you insist on using fresh green beans, they need to be cooked for a few days in a crock pop with bacon, until they’re infused with flavor, but devoid of all nutrition. They shouldn’t really need chewing. It’s a soft salt delivery device.
Sweet Potatoes. These also come from a can. Add some butter and brown sugar and bake them in the oven until caramelized. Serve.
Cranberry Sauce. Truth be told, I’m starting to worry about the amount of canned foods in this meal, but this also comes from a can. You open the can, shake it out onto a plate and cut the jellied cylinder in to slices. Serve.
Dinner Rolls. I don’t know where they keep these the rest of the year, but they appear in the grocery store a few weeks before Thanksgiving. They’re like partially cooked rolls that come in a sheet of 12. You put them on a sheet and bake them until golden brown. You have to buy 2-3 times the amount you think you need for dinner, because for one thing, everyone loves these, and also because they will become a main staple of the leftovers later. We’ll get to that. Serve with a stick of butter that’s been left out all day and is soft.
Pumpkin Pie. I’m a fan of lots of different kinds of pies, and I really like apple and cherry, but it’s Thanksgiving and that means Pumpkin Pie. It should be served warm with whipped cream on top, or Real Vanilla Bean Breyers Ice Cream. In all honesty, I prefer whipped cream on my pumpkin pie and ice cream on my apple pie. But to each his own. As long as it’s all there.
These are the must haves. The starring players. The elements that make it Thanksgiving. But there are a few additions I’ll allow. These can not be substitutes mind you, just alternatives if you so desire and you have the appetite.
Ham. This is not really a Thanksgiving thing for me. It’s an Easter thing. But some people like it. I’m not so much interested it with my meal, but it makes for a great addition to sliders during leftovers. But you can’t, like my kids, put it on a plate and pour mustard on perfectly good ham. It’s wrong. It’s like putting steak sauce on steak.
Sweet Corn. This goes great mixed in with your mashed potatoes and gravy. There’s something about the sweet crunch with the salty creaminess of the potatoes that is life altering.
Brussel Spouts. Clearly an adult only dish, these have only become acceptible to me in the last few years. My wife found this recipe a few years ago and they were transcendent. Roasted. Balsamic. Blue cheese. Prosciutto. I’m sure a bunch of other stuff as well, but they were ridiculous. Worth the trouble in my mind.
Wine. I prefer a full-bodied chardonnay for pre-dinner festivities, then maybe a light red such as a red zinfandel or a pinot noir for dinner. Then a little more of each for after dinner. Eventually I switch to rum around the time we put on the evening movie.
Movie. There is really only one movie to watch at Thanksgiving and that’s “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” It’s the ultimate Thanksgiving movie. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s the only movie I can think of that includes Thanksgiving in the plot line, but just also happens to be one of the best comedies ever made. It’s a McCarty family tradition.
Leftovers. This is very important. What you eat has a lot to do with what time you ate dinner in the first place. I like to plan a late lunch for the sole purpose of having the need for a second meal later in the day. Some people prefer to just make a second plate that pretty much mimics the meal they had earlier. I can totally appreciate this and can get behind it, but I have other plans. Thanksgiving Sliders. This is where those extra rolls come in. You take a roll and spread a liberal amount of mayo on one side. Add turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, a few green beans, salt and pepper. You’ll need at least three of these, at least for your first plate. Assuming there is enough food, you’ll need another go at these in about ten minutes.
In no particular order, there should also be cold beer in your hand and football on the television. Hopefully no one you particularly care about as that adds too much stress to the situation and has the potential to ruin your day. A large sofa and maybe a lazy dog or small napping child are nice. Some of my family thinks it’s a good idea to go outside and run around. I do this only as a last resort when they won’t leave me alone otherwise. I don’t recommend it.
If you’re day is not too full, a nap between meals is a must and might be up there with one of the greatest things in life.
This is exactly what I’m going to be doing this year, and I’m already thankful.