You don't have to roast a turkey, you know
Thanksgiving food is bad. It doesn't have to be this way.
I love Thanksgiving. Seriously, it is among the highlights of my year. I love the adapted Biblical narrative of exile and redemption. I love the aesthetic associations with autumn and New England, my favorite season in my favorite region. I love the connection Thanksgiving represents between ourselves, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, both of whom embraced the holiday. This year in particular, I cherish the pretext for gathering in one place a far-flung family.
But there's one thing I don't like. To my taste, the conventional Thanksgiving menu is at best boring and sometimes downright bad. I understand the emotional associations many people have with foods their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents cooked. But be honest: Do you really enjoy this stuff?
Perhaps some people do, in which case their moment is here. If not, however, you've got options. In 1981, New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin proposed to replace turkey as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner with a nice dish of spaghetti carbonara. The logic seems impeccable: Serve something many people genuinely like instead of something most people don't (at least outside of sandwich form).
Trilling's modest proposal never sat right with me, though. Like Chandler on Friends, who prefers to dine on grilled cheese, Trilling seemed like he was trying to escape Thanksgiving rather than embracing it. Over the years, I think I've found a better way. Pasta's great on other nights, but I want to keep the dramatic main dish. So I give each year a theme, honoring one of the cultures or cuisines that's influenced the simmering stewpot of American cooking.
There are rules to this game, at least the way I play. A big one is that the meal has to include a bird or birds. There are plenty of other impressive festive meats, sure. But a rib roast, leg of lamb, or whole salmon just doesn't seem right on Thanksgiving. Thus, one year, I made Chinese-style roast ducks. I nearly the flooded my mother's house with smoke and rendered fat, but it was worth it to get that crispy skin.
Turkey can be great, too — just not in the Norman Rockwell whole-roasted form. Once I bought a separated breast and braised it in rich molé poblano. That was not only delicious but historically fascinating, since it relied on pre-Columbian ingredients and techniques. The inhabitants of North America were feasting well before Pilgrims got here.
I don't abandon the old standards entirely, though. I just try to use them in unexpected ways. With jerk turkey cooked on the grill — jerkey? — I served a Caribbean-style pumpkin curry. To me, some scotch bonnet heat is essential to make hard squash taste like anything but dessert.
Getting in the mood also requires appropriate drinks. Even if not everyone imbibes, Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to release your inner sommelier. In my family, that requires some wrangling with my step-father, who loves strong, dense California reds that give me a headache. But I've successfully managed to include Belgian-style ales, off-dry Rieslings, funky hard ciders (what early New Englanders actually drank), and other options that can better complement the meal.
These days, some might accuse me of cultural appropriation. But I think the opposite is true. For me, quasi-international themes are a sincere celebration of the generous patriotism, "soft" multiculturalism, and material abundance that are among the best things about America. You want to cook with chilies, stuff your bird with sticky rice, or add a tray of baked ziti? All of these options sound equally wonderful and American.
This year, though, we're going French-ish. Inspired by the tradition of réveillon, a Christmas Eve feast that's also celebrated in Louisiana and Quebec, we'll start with some salmon cured with mustard seeds and herbs. That will be followed by a couple of fat capons, for the bird element, slowly roasted with black truffles. To accompany, a pommes puree, roasted carrots, and maybe some haricots verts with plenty of lemon and shallots to balance the richness. Then a cheese course, naturellement.
Sweets are many people's favorite part of Thanksgiving, although not mine, so I relinquish the job to others who enjoy baking. Still, we try to remain on-theme. This time, I'm told to expect the pumpkin brulée tart from Melissa Clark's Dinner in French.
I have high hopes that this will be one of the best, especially when washed down with Champagne and a lightly chilled Loire red (although I might go with an Oregon pinot to maintain the patriotic vibe). But soon it will be time to start thinking about next year. Who knows? I've always wanted to cook a goose.