The great holiday meal debates

Sweet potato casserole

In a recent Epicurious article, the writer opines that it doesn't matter what you put in your stuffing. Rather, she instructs that whatever flavoring agents you choose, you should put in more than you think you need to avoid a bland dish. That being said, the author notes that friendships are formed and "families torn asunder by painful debates over what ingredients belong in Thanksgiving stuffing."

The post reminded me of discussions I've had with friends on the obstacles they faced changing recipes for holiday meals. On one side you have the staunch traditionalists: they believe that Aunt Mabel's sweet potato casserole must be made in exactly the same way at every holiday meal, with the slightest alteration amounting to sacrilege. On the other side, you have more free-spirited family members who wonder what harm can come from trying Martha Stewart's sweet potato casserole.

The traditionalists make the point that the holiday meal is a celebration not only of food, but more importantly, of family and friendship. Coming together with loved ones and sharing time-honored customs make the holidays special, not stuffing yourself full of, well, stuffing. Changing recipes that have been handed down for generations diminishes the sense of togetherness or, worse yet, slights an elderly family member.

Generally speaking, foodies inhabit the other side of the debate. While they recognize that the sweet potato casserole has graced the holiday table for decades, they would remind us that while everyone takes a scoop, no one actually eats it because it's bland and too sweet. Besides, creating new traditions should be welcomed even as we honor old ones. A compromise is sometimes reached where competing dishes are made, but when Aunt Mabel notices that no one is even taking her casserole, her feathers can still get ruffled.

Food safety is yet another aspect that comes into play. A family member will tell the cook that putting cool stuffing into the turkey and letting it sit on the counter for hours before being put into the oven is not a safe practice. Often the reply comes back that "we've been doing it this way for years and no one has ever gotten sick."

What's the story at your family gatherings? Do you cringe at lax food safety practices? Are there foods that are sacrosanct and must be served regardless of whether anyone enjoys them? (Jellied cranberry sauce in a can, I'm looking at you.) Or do your relatives and friends enjoy creating new traditions during the holidays?

Photo of Sweet potato and sage-butter casserole from MarthaStewart.com by Martha Stewart Living Magazine

7 Comments

  • Nancith  on  11/12/2014 at 9:33 PM

    My immediate family enjoys trying new dishes for the holidays; nothing is really sacrosanct. However, when we get together with extended family, the participants get much pickier and prefer the same old dishes. If I bring something new & interesting to the feast, most of those who eat it are my own family!

  • adrienneyoung  on  11/12/2014 at 10:29 PM

    All food must be brown and heaven help us if the gravy, dressing and Turkey recipes are not the ones we grew up with! Also, the aspic must have celery in it and must go in the green bowl. This is the way. Alternate ways... Well... They are for the days that come AFTER our holiday dinner. :-)

  • BethNH  on  11/13/2014 at 9:01 AM

    A few years ago we started having family friends for dinner on Thanksgiving whose daughter has Celiac Disease. While our entire dinner is not gluten free, all of the main components now are. The only exceptions are the apple pie and dinner rolls (which are baked on a separate day so as not to contaminate the gluten free food). My family has been perfectly welcoming of these changes.

  • kidzcook  on  11/13/2014 at 10:51 AM

    One year I made the mistake of making a bourbon pumpkin cheesecake, everyone complained! They wanted pumpkin pie, pecan pie and cheesecake, separate - not just one dessert. Anything else I am free to change around.

  • Jane  on  11/13/2014 at 2:35 PM

    Since I don't have any family in the USA, apart from my two grown children, my choices for what to cook should be simpler. But my daughter is a creature of habit so I have to make the same mashed potatoes, stuffing (Bruce Aidell's sausage, artichoke & sourdough), and tart (chocolate, mascarpone, cranberry) each year. The rest is my choice.

  • Christine  on  11/13/2014 at 3:05 PM

    My family isn't opposed to change, though I don't think they'd be up for changing the entire menu in one go. A lot of what we make are fairly basic dishes, so switching out a couple any given year hasn't been a problem. Last year my aunt tried a new butternut squash side dish that everyone really enjoyed. And while we will probably always have an apple pie, we've rarely met a dessert we don't like, so any additional options are always welcome. One year I made a sweet potato bundt cake we all enjoyed. A few years ago, I started making a Parmesan-breadcrumb broccoli side dish instead of the usual plain, so that has become part of the "regular" menu. Though this year we are celebrating with my husband's family, so who knows what my relatives will end up with this year!

  • Talulah  on  11/16/2014 at 2:53 PM

    We generally are traditional, but no one minds if one or two new or modified dishes appear on the menu. That being said, last year my cousin insisted on hosting Thanksgiving and not one single dish was even close to traditional. Even I was irritated as heck, and I love to experiment and play when I cook. The kicker? Everything else was crazily experimental, but the mashed potatoes were INSTANT. Ugh.

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