11.27.2008

Give thanks for strange foods

Why do Americans love Thanksgiving? Because it's one holiday that's unequivocally centered on the thing we love best -- eating.

The very roots of Thanksgiving lie in food. The holiday began as a harvest festival for the Pilgrims, who were thankful they'd survived long enough to reap some food before another hard winter descended.

(Which raises the question: If you were a European settler arriving in the New World, would you choose chilly New England as your destination? Wouldn't it be better to stay on the boat one more week and land in, say, Miami Beach? But I digress.)

Today, we Americans mark the holiday by eating enough food, per capita, to keep the average Third World family alive for a month. Then we stagger to the nearest recliner and sleep it off to the sweet drone of televised football. We need to rest and digest, because soon we must tackle our next harvest -- leftovers.

Many Americans don't know that the Thanksgiving meal has its own colorful folklore. Why, for example, do we traditionally eat yams at Thanksgiving? Do you eat yams the rest of the year? Probably not. But Mom throws that orange glop on your plate at Thanksgiving, and you're a grateful American.

We've been conditioned, year in and year out, to eat certain Thanksgiving items, such as "giblets," that we normally wouldn't touch. We happily wolf them down, then trundle off to our recliners, blissfully unaware of the history and tradition behind what we've just consumed.

Here, then, is a primer on traditional Thanksgiving foods, their origins and their significance, and why, one Thursday in November, we gobble them up:

TURKEY

The Thanksgiving turkey has become an annual event, the Super Bowl of eating. Did the Pilgrims eat turkey at their first Thanksgiving? No one knows for sure. But if they did, you can bet the turkeys were wild, scrawny animals, not the pumped-up Schwarzenegger birds of today, which require a forklift to reach the table.

The turkey became the traditional harvest entrée because it's one of only two North American animals that looks better dead than it does alive. (The other is the lobster.)

A live turkey is one ugly mother. Fat and mean, a tom turkey resembles a kid's drawing of an evil alien, assembled from disparate parts. Wrinkly, clawed feet and red wattles and beating wings and a feather-duster up its behind. Yuck.

But strip the turkey of its outer wrappings, roast it slowly, and it becomes a golden-brown mountain of meat, aromatic and tasty.

DRESSING

First, we strip the turkey naked and hollow out its insides, then we "dress" it all over again in a more palatable manner. Interestingly, traditional dressing includes some of the same items that were removed from inside the turkey originally. See "giblets" above.

Some people resort to "oyster dressing," which involves replacing slimy little giblets with slimy little shellfish. Go figure.

FRUIT SALAD

You can bet the original Pilgrims didn't have seedless grapes and pineapples and Mandarin oranges to mix up for a cold side dish. You can double that bet when it comes to suspending the mixture in whipped cream. How then has this dish become a Thanksgiving staple in many homes? Motherly guilt. If the family must consume all those thousands of calories, there should be something healthy in there, like fruit.

CRANBERRIES

Not really berries. Not really food. They grow in "bogs," which should tell you something. Currently infiltrating every kind of juice in America.

YAMS

They come from tropical climates, but resemble astronaut food. Beware any dish that must be disguised with marshmallows.

PUMPKIN PIE

The Pilgrims had all these pumpkins left over from Halloween. They found that the guts of the pumpkin, when removed and cooked, resembled yams. How to persuade the family to eat this? By adding sugar and a crust and calling it dessert.

Such innovation is truly American. Using traditional "foods" in new and different ways has led to the evolution of the modern Thanksgiving meal.

Give us Americans a turkey, and we make turkey salad.

2 comments:

Life without Clots said...

I prefer the turkey's original slimy recycled back to the turkey rather than go to all the trouble of inserting new slimes. 'Course, I have no problems with the new slimes being mixed with soda crackers and butter in another dish. Mmmm....

Philbert said...

I looked all morning for a football game on TV. There wasn't one. So I watched the Detroit Lions.