Keeping it basic for the holidays

Adventurous cooks who like to try new foods are often stymied during the holidays. We would appreciate adding new or unusual items to the menu, but the diehard traditionalists want everything to be exactly the same – often leading to hard feelings or at least a classic sitcom situation. Instead of fighting the traditionalists, there is a case to be made for joining them. Eater’s Meghan McCarron provides an argument for keeping things bland for Thanksgiving dinner.

Simple roast turkey with simplest gravy from The Washington Post by Julia Turshen

McCarron notes that the typical American Thanksgiving dinner is, in a word, boring: “Roast turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and vegetable casseroles all strike the same note of soft, fatty, carby blandness, with cranberry sauce offering the meal’s only hope of zing.” Despite this, she looks forward to the feast every year. It wasn’t always that way, however, because as a budding young gourmand she dreamt of ways to improve upon her family’s recipes.

As she got older, McCarron realized that the main reason for her desire to shake things up at the holiday table had to do more with her “anxiety over what the meal said about me and my family” than about the actual food. She thought a bland and boring meal meant her family was lacking, but she now realizes that she could learn from her grandmother’s workmanlike cooking.

I can sympathize with McCarron’s embrace of her family’s food traditions. I once asked my grandmother why she used a shortcut of frozen bread dough to make her steamed dumplings instead of making it from scratch like she did when she was young. She replied with “why make it harder than it has to be?” She was born during the Depression, one of 13 children, and everyday life for her growing up was one of grueling physical labor: fetching water from a well, tending to the chickens, planting a garden, putting up canned goods, taking care of her younger siblings, feeding the cattle, and trekking miles to school in a horse-drawn sleigh during the winter. When she was able to trade some of that hard work for a viable shortcut, she eagerly embraced it. Cooking wasn’t something she did out of a love for the process; it was merely a necessary task, and one of many that needed to happen during the day. Making it easier was a bonus, even if it meant sacrificing some flavor. I often think of that when I’m exhausted at the end of a work day and don’t know what to make for dinner. When I was younger, I would often throw myself into an involved cooking project, but these days I heed my grandmother’s advice of “why make it harder” and opt for a simpler meal.

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  • tmjellicoe  on  November 12, 2022

    We’ve been trying to convince our mother to change some of our traditional fare. Not for anything wildly different, we just want less food offered. Mom wants all the food she used to have when we would be with all the relatives at Christmas. She goes by habit. The rest of us feel we only need the meat, white potatoes, gravy, one cooked green vegetable (broccoli or Brussels sprouts) and a leafy salad. We’d like to not also include yams, turnips, peas and carrots. Stuffing is finally on the chopping block because while all of us enjoy it, it gives us such gas that we’d rather avoid the after effects.

  • cookbookaddict2020  on  November 12, 2022

    The point of traditional family holiday meals is creating a sense of continuity. You don’t get there with exotica or novelty. You get there by returning to the taste and smell memories that are associated with those family gatherings. That said, it’s fun to make a few different cranberry sauces in additional to the basic one… it’s trivially easy to buy a couple extra bags of berries and flavor them differently. Last year the biggest hit was Lime Vanilla.

  • Rinshin  on  November 13, 2022

    I am with McCarron. I tried all different variations for all offerings when younger with big 3 family gatherings. But now since our families are smaller, some no longer with us or moved away, I keep it mostly traditional with one new addition every year. I like to keep my dinner table no more than 6 people max now. Has to do with lack of energy to go all out like in the past. The only thing I like is the stuffing. Reminds me of savory version of souffle bread dessert.

  • Clara52  on  November 13, 2022

    I struggle with the unhealthiness of the traditional favorites. If I make healthier options will they even like it? The year I switched to wild rice stuffing I was the only one that liked it. But I loved it so much I could eat all the leftovers! How healthy is that? I am trying to get a few things on a menu for a Thanksgiving get away. I will do smoked turkey, sweet potatoes (cooked and mashed with seasonings and minimal sugar), green salad and pecan pie truffles. They can fill in the rest if they feel a need. Your post helped me get my head on straight.

  • LeilaD  on  November 14, 2022

    No one in my family actually likes turkey, so we substitute in ham. Vegetables are only there because we feel like we ‘have’ to have something green, so I’m free to experiment there, but usually stick to a salad or a favorite like roasted brussels sprouts. My husband ‘has’ to have cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, and I like stuffing, so those are standard. With my attention on those things, the mashed potatoes are usually out of a box.

  • FuzzyChef  on  November 15, 2022

    We haven’t served the standards in 20 years. Don’t miss them. Every TY day I do a different multi course ethnic meal; this year we’re back to Mexico. There are so many recipes in my cookbooks, and the holiday is a chance to try them.

  • Rinshin  on  November 15, 2022

    Yes, I cook the turkey and Dad always brings Honey Baked Ham. I do like the leftover Turkey sandwiches. I wonder why turkey leftover always taste better next day? Less full?

  • GenieB  on  December 2, 2022

    This year, it was just the two of us. We had home-made pizza and salad. We are vegans, so no turkey. I only cooked turkey when the family was coming in the past since we never particularly liked it, even before we went vegan. Don’t like pumpkin pie unless smothered in whipped cream which is hard on the arteries even if it is coconut cream.

    I realize that I just don’t particularly like the traditional Thanksgiving foods: no to green bean casserole (a favorite of a nephew), no to mashed potatoes (boring), no to pumpkin anything, no to baked sweet potatoes, especially with marshmallows (my birth family flirted with marshmallows for a few years), no to turkey.

    The only traditional dish I like for the holidays is black eyed peas for New Years Day. I use a BBQ baked black eyed peas recipe from vegan chef Bryant Terry.

  • robinswood  on  December 2, 2022

    I tend to make Cornish hens for Thanksgiving though this year my mom asked for turkey so I made it for her. It’s hard to refuse the request when she is in her 80’s, but I honestly do not make a very good one and don’t like it very much either. Regardless of the bird, we have cut back to stuffing, brussels sprouts (this year with bacon and balsamic vinegar glaze), and cranberry sauce as sides. Pumpkin pie for dessert with whipped cream and that is it. Leftovers are usually gone in a day, thank goodness.

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