Last night some of Ben’s fellow teachers came for supper and I got to ask my favorite question. This is the time of year I get to ask people this question and no one but my children groan. Actually Ben knew the question was coming, so he asked his friends first, putting on a big fake display of interest. None the less, I was satisfied, because the question got asked and I got to hear the answer.
” What do you have for Thanksgiving dinner?”
I am completely fascinated by the answer to this question. People always say, “Why, we have what everyone else has.” AND THEN they tell you a menu that always has its own telling quirks.
Take for example my conversation last night with Ben’s fellow teacher Renee Levesque. She said that her family had turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed squash with maple syrup, cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts, squash rolls, and then she mentioned their desserts of tarte au sucre or maple sugar tart, squash pie, and apple pie.
This was a great example of why I LOVE this conversation. There are almost always dishes in the meal that tell you where the family is from. In this case, while Renee was born and raised in Massachusetts, her lovely french canadian roots show in the tarte au sucre that her family prepares. The general emphasis on squash with the inclusion of maple syrup several times also suggests that her family has stayed firmly put in the northeast. There were no non-regional dishes like sweet potatoes or cornbread stuffing. When people have moved around or married outside their region there is almost always something that indicates this crossing of the mason dixon line or if somebody has recently arrived from another culture or region of the country. Renee corroborated that her family had stayed put in New England.
The reason I started asking this question was because of an article I read many years ago about a cultural anthropologist who analyzed people’s Thanksgiving dinner to assess how long people’s families had been in America and what geographical region they grew up in. According to this anthropologist, Thanksgiving dinner is rife with cultural, geographical, and socioeconomic indicators. I don’t have enough of a grasp on regional foods to pick up the nuances in people’s menus like this guy did, but I have learned some things from asking the question over and over. And no matter what, I always love hearing what’s for dinner.
I have noticed that at Thanksgiving time the mason dixon line could be called the white bread stuffing-cornbread stuffing line or maybe the pecan pie line. My maternal grandmother grew up in St Louis and married into a New England family. My paternal grandparents were from Philadelphia. Our Thanksgiving had nary a southern twist except my maternal grandmother’s import of the blessed pecan pie, a very untraditional pie at a New England Thanksgiving dinner. My paternal grandmother’s Pennsylvania import of sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping did not prevail because the women from the women’s side of the family seem to drive the menu here and in other families as well. This is probably only fair since it’s mostly the women putting on this annual thousand dish show.
Oysters are another big geographical marker, some sort of west of the Erie canal marker because if someone mentions oysters they usually seem to have roots in Ohio or somewhere in the midwest. This beats me because you would think coastal New England folks who actually live near the oysters would have that part of their tradition, but they don’t.
Sweet potatoes, as mentioned earlier, are another geographical marker. Not big in New England but sliding into regions as far north as the mid atlantic and New York state. No one seems to serves them unless someone in the family has ties outside New England or watches the food network a lot.
My family of origin had an odd Thanksgiving dinner of Turkey without gravy, rice pilaf, green beans, curried cooked fruit instead of cranberry sauce, and atypical desserts like rum cake mixed in with the saving grace of pecan pie. One year we actually had steak, but this was only because the oven broke and we had to cook the meal on the grill.
I don’t know why the culture of my family was so resistant to the traditional menu, a meal I considered much more delicious than this fussy alternative food. Maybe too many Gourmet magazines. One of the reasons I was thrilled to marry Jim was because his family had my idea of a real Thanksgiving dinner; turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, creamed pearl onions, mashed squash, pumpkin chiffon pie, and mincemeat pie. Before the meal they had cut glass dishes full of black olives from a can with celery. This hors d’oeuvre served in this kind of dish crops up in a lot of people’s description of their family’s meal, but I do not know its cultural origins.
On my first Thanksgiving after I got married, my mother in law taught me how to make gravy. We have never had a Thanksgiving without it since.
When I think of Thanksgiving now, I think of this conversation with various people. This year, former staff goddess Catherine Boorady and her husband Michael Dutcher are coming from Brooklyn to spend the holiday with us. One year when Catherine was working here, she and Michael came for Thanksgiving dinner and I asked them my favorite question.
Catherine’s meal was traditional except for the last thing she mentioned, “Oh and of course we always have pita bread with hummus.” Both sides of Catherine’s family are from Lebanon. Her years here were one big celebration of fattoush, kibbeh, and dishes seasoned with za’atar. When I turned to ask Michael what his family had eaten for Thanksgiving dinner when he was a boy, the answer was even more surprising than Catherine’s answer. Without missing a beat Michael said. “Whatever I shot.” I had thought Michael was a suburban boy from New Jersey, but in fact, Michael is Mohawk and grew up on a cattle farm in the Catskills where his Mohawk grandfather would send him out to get the main course for Thanksgiving dinner as a sort of rite of passage.
Whatever the menu, it is a great thing that most all of us sit down to this meal of gratitude no matter where we came from. What a testament to all that is going well here in this country that we share this holiday without religious squabbles or a sense that one culture owns it more than another. Thanksgiving is a shining moment of our melting pot nation and I am grateful for it.
PS Our menu this year looks like it is going to be:
Turkey WITH GRAVY (turkey not shot by Michael, but hopefully enjoyed by Michael)
Stuffing with ingredients to be decided upon or described later (somebody made a face when I mentioned chestnuts)
Mashed Potatoes from the garden
Mashed Squash from the garden
Creamed Leeks from the garden (We usually have pearl onions but we have a zillion leeks in the garden still)
Cranberry sauce (maybe from scratch, maybe from a can)
Green Bean Casserole brought by my sister in law Katy and made from a family recipe from Katy’s mother’s family the Ryans of Springfield, Vermont
Cranberry Orange Bread another family recipe from Katy and brought by Katy (she who is saving my butt)
Chocolate Espresso Tart made by Deb Cardew (who is free of all dogma about Thanksgiving because she’s from England)
Tray of Lebanese Pastries brought from Brooklyn by Catherine Boorady ( an enormous tray of these delights sent by Catherine in October was wolfed down in five minutes by a hoard of young people. Ironically a note from Catherine suggesting the leftovers be refrigerated was all that was left in the tray after the Lebanese pastry love-in. This tray will be hidden when it arrives so the grown ups get some too)
Pumpkin Pie from the garden
Cranberry Orange Trifle ( Katy found the recipe in a kid’s magazine and wants to try it. With seventeen and counting coming to dinner I said YES PLEASE!)
Pecan Pies from my mother in law Mary Anne who makes the best pies ever as well as awesome gravy
PS#2 What do you have for Thanksgiving? Write me at email@example.com