An Impassioned Defense of Thanksgiving Staples
Eat what you want Thursday, but the staples are good for a reason.
Let’s be real with each other for a second here. You can eat whatever the hell you want on Thanksgiving. Nothing is stopping you from slumming it and ordering a pizza or transferring your efforts into another high-maintenance spread. Okay, maybe the fact most pizza places may not be open on Thanksgiving might stop you, but that’s not my point. You don’t have to eat turkey and stuffing and the rest of the spread. There’s nothing in the Constitution saying so, nor should there be. Thanksgiving, by all accounts, wasn’t even really celebrated until the 1860s and not made a federal holiday until the 1920s. Conversely, it also doesn’t hurt you if someone relishes the traditional Thanksgiving fare unless you don’t like it and someone you’re visiting serves it. Even then, there’s always going to be something on the table you like. The odds say that if you’re reading this newsletter, you’re an adult. You don’t have to eat everything your parents put on your plate for threat of withholding dessert.
That’s what makes this rash of whining about the food we, as Americans, collectively eat on Thanksgiving so baffling. I hate to put a connotation like that on the seemingly growing collective of folks who think roast turkey is a war crime, but with the background of what I wrote in the opening paragraph, there’s nothing stopping you from not making turkey on Thanksgiving. For example, last year, Michael Schur (better known to some as Ken Tremendous from Fire Joe Morgan) had a normal time online yelling about why the traditional Thanksgiving spread last year. He wasn’t the first person to melt down over it, but his reaction was noteworthy because of how prominent he is within a certain sphere of Twitter, a sphere that has grown with his work on several acclaimed TV show, and how that intersected with how intense it was. Other people more prominent go in on it, but not as hard. Some people melt down even harder, but they’re not nearly as notable.
Still, I’m not here to take note of who’s filling what diapers because if you wanted a catalog of nerds being nerds over nerdy shit, there are entire Twitter accounts dedicated to it. You come here for substance, at least I hope. Unlike the folks who would rather eat gruel from a Victorian orphanage than the traditional Thanksgiving meal, I relish in the once-a-year dinner that most of us consume between the second half of the Lions game and the first half of the Cowboys game, at least if you’re in the Eastern Time Zone. I love turkey. Stuffing is an S-tier side dish. Cranberry sauce is a phenomenally refreshing in-meal palate cleanser. I’m going to defend the traditional slate and perhaps offer up some fresh ideas without totally shaking up the order.
Turkey – I might be a traditionalist, but to me, there’s no other protein that comes close to a turkey on Thanksgiving, or if you’re vegan, a tofurkey. I cannot speak to the latter because I have been an omnivore my whole life. If you want a good vegan turkey substitute, I’m sure you will find ways to prepare one on another site. My apologies, but you won’t find it here. Anyway, turkey has been a holiday staple for the sheer reason that it generally takes long to prepare. Most turkeys are big birds. There’s a reason your grandmother or mother or wife or whoever was doing the cooking had to get up at the asscrack of dawn to put it in the oven.
The main knock on turkey is that it’s dry. The long cook time does not help that one bit. However, cooking a juicy and flavorful bird is not impossible. The key is in the pre-cook. Brining a turkey might seem like highfalutin nonsense if you’re stuck in, like, the 1940s, but the thing about Thanksgiving is that just because your grandparents may not have moved out of their comfort zones doesn’t mean culinary arts haven’t. Brining a turkey is super easy and will pay dividends come Thanksgiving afternoon. Most brines combine a gallon (or so) of water and a cup (or so) of salt. Every brine has a different proportion, so pick out the recipe that looks best to you. Brines also generally contain other ingredients: herbs, aromatics, vinegars, fruit, whatever. Again, you know your palate, and you should know the general likes and dislikes of your dinner guests.
As for the actual cooking of the bird, I give the same advice I gave to you all when talking about smoking meats. You want to cook to temperature, not time. White meat is done at 165-170°F, while the dark meat is done at 180°F. It’s better to be a little drier than to be undercooked, but if you have a reliable instant read thermometer, or better yet, a constant read one with a probe you stick into the various parts of the bird, you’re in the best shape. Still, you don’t want to be eating when the Black Friday shoppers are getting in line for their doorbuster sales (although that time gets earlier and earlier every year, unfortunately). It’s good to have an estimate of time so you know when to put that sucker in the oven at a temperature of between 325° and 350°F. It all depends on weight. Smaller birds will go for three hours or so. Mutant turkeys that are big enough to feed entire Roman phalanxes may take up to five or six hours to do. Again, it’s on you to do research, even if that research is “asking your parents/grandparents.”
Alternatives – I don’t recommend alternative proteins here outside of turkey/tofurkey unless you’re going to be stacking them. John Madden’s infamous turducken is a popular item which gives you three different birds to munch upon, including the fatty and delectable duck. I have no experience with this, so I cannot speak on its quality. However, I do endorse gonzo food in all its forms, so if that’s your speed, have at you. There’s also the turkthulu…
…which may just be a Photoshop or an urban legend. However, the turkey with the octopus tentacles coming out the urban crevice may be tempting to you if, like me, you enjoy a nice grilled octopus now and again.
You will not see me endorsing any other staple protein that doesn’t involve turkey. I fancy myself as a progressive in most areas, but I have strong feelings about what proteins belong to which holidays. For example, you should reserve ham for Easter. Christmas is the most freeform of all holidays, but I’ve come around to thinking the king of feast days should get the king of meats, the beef crown roast or even the pernil roast (pork shoulder famous in Cuba and Puerto Rico) if you’re nasty. With that in mind, it’s turkey on Thanksgiving. Everything else is malarkey. You can have a ham on Thanksgiving if you want. Again, you’re an adult. However, when I’m in charge of the menu, you’re getting that big ol’ bird on the platter.
Instead, the alternatives I offer are modes of cooking. The first is the deep-fry method, wherein you submerge an entire bird into a vat of boiling hot, usually peanut, oil. It first gained prominence in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but it is just as notable for disastrous mishaps as it is for flavor and dryness prevention. I have had deep fried turkeys before, and they can be magical. Given that the “juice” in any meat is not juice at all but fat, there’s definitely something to the idea that a turkey done this way will be idiot-proof, that is, if you survive the cooking portion. I cannot stress this enough; make sure the bird you’re frying isn’t too big for the pot you’re cooking it in. If you’re planning on deep frying a turkey, and you even have an inkling that you might burn your house down, don’t fucking do it. It’s better to be safe than sorry. As long as you can swing it financially, you should buy the biggest goddamn steel pot you can find. If you’re worried about that big pot not getting any use, you can always repurpose in the summertime for a seafood boil.
The safer and similarly idiot proof way to cook a turkey is through, you guessed it, smoking it. In addition to brining or dry rubbing it, you could impart flavor to the bird through the smoke. A little bit of hickory mixed in with an otherwise neutral wood will impart some bacon-like tang to it, which will help with accusations of blandness. If you follow my tips on smoking something, you’ll have a bird, whether it be breast only or the whole shebang, that is moist and flavorful throughout.
Final Word – Regardless of how you make it, it’s clear that you can make a flavorful, moist bird that can change even the most stubborn of minds. I’m convinced people don’t like turkey because they’ve never had a good turkey made for them. That’s just a shame, because turkey is one of the most inoffensive, universally palatable meats out there, one with a subtle but distinct flavor that pairs well with almost any mode of seasoning, no matter how traditional or eccentric. The big bird has a bum rap, and I for one think that’s a shame. Such a versatile protein should be celebrated on this day, not derided.
Sides – While I am a turkey absolutist, one would be foolish to think Thanksgiving was about anything else but the side dishes. The bit players are the stars of the show, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. There is a cavalcade of sides that take center stage from the wings, and I will break them down, dividing into two different categories, starch-based and vegetable-based.
Starch-Based – Three starch-based sides dominate the Thanksgiving table, and all three of them provide their own satisfaction. The first is the most ubiquitous starchy supporting player in America, the mashed potato. It’s perhaps the only side that you will see on a widespread basis outside of this holiday because people just love potatoes, butter, and things they can slather gravy on. Everyone knows about mashed potatoes. What about the other two? Sweet potatoes are mashed potatoes’ cousins and are generally served two ways. One is candied, where the tuber is served whole and covered in brown sugar and butter and baked. The other is a mashed presentation which usually comes with cinnamon and marshmallow on top. Both are good, but they’re also polarizing. It seems the noble sweet potato has the same polarization level as cilantro without the built-in genetic excuse of it tasting like something inedible for a significant portion of the population. Still others, health freaks mostly, lament that Thanksgiving bastardizes the sweet potato with all that sugar when it’s the perfect carb for the bodybuilder on the run. I say Thanksgiving is not a day to count calories, bub.
The main attraction, however, is the stuffing, or the filling if you’re from parts of Pennsylvania west of the Delaware Valley, or dressing if you’re from the Midwest or are pedantic about any variant of this dish that isn’t cooked inside the crevice of a bird. Stuffing is king on Thanksgiving because it’s so versatile. Even Stove Top or other ready-to-make store packaged kinds of stuffing are at the bare minimum edible. Basically, all you need is bread, seasoning, and some kind of binder, like an egg. You can get as crazy as you want to. The Pennsylvania Dutch have perfected stacking starches on top of starches with potato filling. The Cajuns put their own spin with oyster dressing. My mother-in-law uses gizzards in hers. The Southerners have maybe outclassed everyone and used cornbread in their stuffing, which is idea so genius that it should be illegal. My personal favorite touch is the sausage stuffing, because what goes better with a starch than pork? I have formulated over the years a handy-dandy sausage and leek stuffing recipe that I make because I don’t like my mother-in-law’s stuffing (one of the only things she makes that I don’t like, don’t get it twisted). I am posting it here because I can:
TH’s Sausage and Leek Stuffing
- 1 lb. Italian sausage
- 1 loaf challah or brioche bread
- 1 large leek
- 1 egg
- Chicken stock
- Seasoning (salt, pepper, garlic powder)
Roughly cube the bread and set it aside. If the sausage you purchased is cased, decase it and brown it in a large pan, then remove, leaving the rendered fat behind. Rinse and chop the leek finely and sauté in the rendered sausage fat with salt, pepper, and garlic powder until soft and fragrant. Combine the sausage, leeks, and bread cubes in a bowl. Crack and beat the egg and add it with enough chicken stock to dampen (but not saturate) the bread. Grease an oven-safe dish with butter, evenly add the mixture, cover the dish with foil, place the dish on a baking sheet, and bake at 400°F for 45-60 minutes (checking periodically with a toothpick). Cook for the last 15 minutes or so uncovered.
This stuff is dynamite. I urge you to try it yourself and report back to me on how it turns out. Perhaps you could also experiment yourself. Again, the best times in the kitchen happen when you go off the rails and strike gold. My only advice is if you are experimenting, do so with a smaller batch ahead of time so you’re not serving something that might not be edible to your family and friends.
Dinner rolls and croissants are also starches, but it’s hard to include them with the main three because they’re both peripheral items but sometimes, they’re the only thing picky children will eat. Therefore, they become ingrained as the king of sides in some people’s heads. Do not discount the power of a good dinner roll, biscuit, cornbread, or croissant, even if they’re the easy Pillsbury brand thing you pop out of a tube. You should have them at your dinner, preferably with several sticks of butter that you’ve left out of your fridge for an hour or so for easy spreading at the ready.
Alternatives – Macaroni and cheese often is bandied about as an essential Thanksgiving side, but it’s not one I’ve indulged in a lot because us Northerners don’t associate it with holidays the way we do stuffing. Still, I feel mac ‘n cheese would feel better standing out at a summer cookout, where it doesn’t have as many competitors surrounding it. I’ve heard baked potatoes as a side, and they can be good for smaller parties, especially with how you can individualize them. Getting crazy with mashed potatoes is a great idea but you can be limited by your party size. Not everyone eats pork or sour cream or scallions. A baked potato can help alleviate that, although if you have a lot of people at your dinner, they can become burdensome to make when you have to conserve oven space for turkey and alternative stuffing and other stuff. That’s why bulk potato dishes are king.
Of course, I didn’t cover all the bulk dishes above. Potatoes au gratin certainly are an option. They combine the starchy wonder of the potato with the cheesy goodness of macaroni and cheese. They can be so decadent and show off your cooking refinement. Any dish that allows you to show off French technique is good. However, the drawback is the cook time is often double what you’d have for even something like an out-of-the-bird stuffing. You need to have them in the oven for an hour and a half, and that’s independent of the prep time. I love potatoes au gratin, but if you’re having them on your spread, delegate to someone else visiting your house.
Many Italian families, like my own, serve pasta with dinner, although many do it the traditional Italian way, where pasta is the first course. We sit down and have stuffed shells and Italian wedding soup at around 2 PM whereas main dinner happens at around 4PM or so. As always, Italians do it a little better than everyone who isn’t French, because Italians are too busy copying the French to get ahead of them.
Vegetable-Based – I know what you’re thinking. Thanksgiving is not a day to be healthy, but friends, I am not here to shove a salad down your throat. A salad in theory is nice, but there’s just way too much on the table to have something maybe two people tops will eat. You can give vegetables in many different ways, and none of them have to be healthy, as God himself intends on that Thursday before the last Friday in November.
The ultimate vegetable-based dish is the green bean casserole. It’s not my thing personally, mainly because as a child, my parents or grandparents never served it. That doesn’t mean it’s not the undisputed king of green stuff on Turkey Day. Its ubiquity is probably due to the fact that it’s something you can whip together completely from three canned goods and three canned goods only. A vestige of a turbulent time in American culinary history when eldritch cookbook texts summoned Lovecraftian horrors in the form of casseroles no one focus tested before printing, the green bean casserole is one of the few good things to come from that abyss of terror that Europeans still use today to make fun of Americans. You only need canned green beans (I wouldn’t use fresh for this, trust me), canned cream of mushroom soup, and those French’s frizzled onions that come in, you guessed it, a can. That’s it. It’s the perfect complement to everything else, and it literally takes minutes to slap together. Sometimes, utility can produce quality.
However, the green bean casserole isn’t the only thing growing on a plant that is a Thanksgiving staple. Corn obviously is found on many tables on this blessed day, although I hesitate to call it a vegetable because of the starch content. I’m not here to get pedantic. The only thing I lament is that whole ears of corn are never in season for this holiday. That is the superior method of eating corn, whether it be naked as God intended or dressed up, either simply with butter, salt, and pepper, or in exotic ways like our friends in Mexico do with elotes. You’re either going to find corn on the table from a can, simply dressed with butter, or in creamed fashion. Either way, it’s not going on my plate, but I understand if it goes on yours.
The unanimous other staple among the flock is the humble brussels sprout, which gets a bad rap because your mother probably didn’t know how to cook it. I wrote about how it can be tasty before on here. Wow, I reference myself a lot in this newsletter issue. Maybe that’s your wake-up call to subscribe? But I digress. The best way to go is either in a fricassee with bacon, like shown in this video featuring the indomitable Jacques Pepin…
…or roasted whole in the oven with olive oil and finished with balsamic vinaigrette. If that still doesn’t sell you on them, it’s scientifically proven that sprouts taste better now than when you were a kid because of selective breeding. If someone tells you that GMOs are bad, tell them to shove it up their asses and that GMOs are good but Monsanto and corporate farming and “proprietary seeds” are bad. Selective breeding is how we have edible bananas. Monsanto is why the state of food sucks. Learn the facts, nerd.
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving side? Drop a comment below and let me know!
Alternatives – I don’t see asparagus bandied about a whole lot, but it’s easy to prepare and goes well with almost any dish. Plus, you get the air of eating something fancy, and generally, you can get a bunch of it for fairly cheap if you hit the produce stand at the right time. Maybe right now isn’t the best time because of *extremely serious politics knower voice* THE SUPPLY CHAIN, but then again, everything’s more expensive. All you have to do is snap the woody stems off, season liberally with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, douse with a few glugs of olive oil, put it in a microwave safe dish, cover it with plastic wrap, cook on high for five minutes, and BOOM, a tasty vegetable for your table that takes more words to describe than effort to prepare.
Another thing my wife made a few times when we hosted Thanksgiving both counts as a vegetable and is totally not healthy in the least. One of our favorite restaurants, Miller’s Smorgasbord in Ronks, PA, offers a cheesy cabbage dish on their buffet line. The wilted cabbage is smothered in a thick, creamy sauce that contains both American and Swiss cheeses. The velvety texture is something you have to experience. It’s not traditional on most Thanksgiving tables, but it totally fits in with the spirit, and my wife made a faithful replication. You just need to make a simple bechamel sauce, fold in the cheese until it melts, pour over some cabbage, and bake until you have a nice brown crust on top.
Of course, there are plenty of vegetable options you could go with that make a Thanksgiving table pop with life outside of the heavy starches. Even if it’s just dumping some cans of Del Monte or Green Giant into a microwave-safe dish to heat up, it’s fine. No one said every dish at Thanksgiving has to have maximum effort, especially if only one person is doing the cooking. You can get as fancy as you like too! Roast an entire cauliflower head! Glaze some carrots! Make some English-style mushy peas! The world is your oyster.
Cranberry Sauce – No debate is more furious among older diners than whether to serve the canned cranberry sauce or something homemade. The jellied canned shit has advantages in that it rarely ever is truly bad, and all you have to do is plop it out of a can. Still, some people hate the tinny flavor from said can, and making your own opens up the dish to a world of deep flavors that show the dedication and heart to the holiday that deserves it. Personally speaking, the debate is generally superfluous because either one does the trick. Samin Nosrat, in her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, derides most Thanksgiving dinners because they are sorely lacking in acidic options. She’s not wrong, but she severely underestimates the average American palate’s tolerance for carbs and fat with no cut. Still, everyone loves a little brightness on their plates. Whether it be homemade or canned, the cranberry sauce is what’s going to keep that tongue dancing and awake. Cranberry is one of those flavors that is an acquired taste anyway. If you have a lot of kids at your dinner, odds are you only need to dump one can out on the dish anyway.
Alternatives – There’s not a whole lot you can do to sidestep the homemade vs. canned sauce debate except for somehow combine both worlds into a monument of domestic American culinary engineering. My wife takes the canned stuff and combines it with crushed pineapple, diced Granny Smith apples, walnuts, and cranberry Jell-O and produces a singularly refreshing take on the side relish. Let me tell you; this shit kicks the shit out of any canned or homemade cranberry sauce I’ve ever had. I’m not saying there’s a lot of wiggle room, but where you can find it, you can do a lot of damage.
Final Word – Thanksgiving belongs to the sides, and I can’t make a general, sweeping statement that Thanksgiving food is butt when there are so many delicious, cheesy, satisfying options that you can shove in your maw. Seriously, stuffing is seasoned bread baked until it’s crispy. That’s everything you could ever want out of food! Even if you are a hardline turkey hater, there’s no universe where a majority of Thanksgiving sides are dire enough to elicit such a strong response from haters like Schur.
Desserts – Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday in that we give into our basest desires to cram our maws full of food and have the audacity to waddle back into the dining room to stuff even more stuff that’s decidedly less healthy because you gotta have dessert. It is an ode to gluttony, and while any other circumstance may be cause for derision, you throw all pretenses out on Thanksgiving, especially when you have the kinds of desserts that are generally served on that day.
Normally, you have a vicious and contentious debate on social media over whether cake or pie is better. Granted, there is no true correct answer to this question unless you go strictly on grounds of social consciousness (in which proletarian pie wins over bourgeoisie cake in a landslide), but on Thanksgiving, pie almost wins by default. There are just so many goddamn options in pie form: seasonal pumpkin, apple, French apple, pecan, sweet potato, cherry. Of course, you can have cake. Generally, a popular seasonal favorite is the pumpkin cheesecake, which combines two things folks just love – cheesecake and pumpkin seasoning. Still, as long as it’s sweet, it’s good.
Alternatives – Really, there are no “alternatives” to Thanksgiving dessert fare, but I will offer some regional love to one of the many oddball favorites of my home state, the shoo-fly pie. It is similar to a pecan pie, only there’s no pretense that it’s anything but a sugar delivery system. Some people think it’s too sweet. Other people, like me, are Pennsylvanian as fuck. You have a regular pie crust that gets filled up with a thick mixture based on blackstrap molasses that’s then baked and topped with a coffee cake-style crumble. Are you curious to try it? You can order it online, although a simple Google search shows that it’s not the cheapest thing to have shipped to you. Still, everyone loves Amish country. Come out to Lancaster County if you want to get your ass kicked… I mean if you want a good time full of eating and topped off with the best pie known to man.
Final Word – How can anyone hate pie? Seriously, even if you don’t like pumpkin pie, there’s apple pie. There’s cherry and pecan. Hell, if you wanna get fancy, get a goddamn lemon meringue pie. But I can’t see how there’s something inherently bad about a Thanksgiving dessert.
The Final, Final Word – Food is subjective. There are scant few things that are as deeply personal as someone’s palate. No food is truly universal, but the inverse is that no matter how much you scream into the void that Thanksgiving food is actually bad instead of being an adult and having your own traditions, it doesn’t make the stuff that’s popular actually bad. As it turns out, turkey and stuffing and the like are all popular for a reason. I will defend your right to eat whatever the hell you want, but I’m gonna yell just as passionately about the things I like too. It just so happens that one of my favorite meals of the whole year always falls on that fourth Thursday in November. If you can’t see that, I feel sorry for you.