I feel sorry for food magazine editors. For Thanksgiving they need to publish an entire issue on the most important food holiday of the year. The only possible approach to this annual task is to present something new. There are innovative ways to roast a turkey, novel side dishes incorporating the latest culinary trends, and ingenious presentations. All fronted by the cover picture of the most beautiful roast turkey anyone has ever seen – the same bird in a different pose year after year. They start early too. My first Thanksgiving issue hit the mailbox on October 7.
I feel sorry for them, because I don’t think anyone is really interested. Thanksgiving is the most traditional meal of the year. What people want is what they had before, what their mother made, what was served at Grandma’s house – the family recipes that say this is our Thanksgiving, our tradition, the continuity of our family and our way of celebrating. The tried and true carries the day.
As much as they might like read about Sautéed Brussels Sprout Slaw with Sweet Pepper, Fennel; Chile & Maple Dry-Brined Turkey; or Pomegranate-Mint Relish and marvel at the pictures of impossibly beautiful turkeys, roasted root vegetables and wild rice salad most people don’t really want that. The old favorites rule the day and satisfy the gathering of family and friends.
Not all Thanksgiving menus are the same. There are differences from family to family and region to region as well as allowances for evolving eating trends. You wouldn’t be eating Lobster in Georgia or Okra in Maine. Ethnic heritage undoubtedly influences the Thanksgiving menu. Delicious dishes from the family heritage like a pasta course, pierogi, or grits work their way onto the Thanksgiving table. Vegetarian dishes are moving to the center of the stage as more people are skipping the turkey. The gluten free trend is also a possible menu shaper. But, there is little desire for innovation and even less acceptance of change.
Traditions do evolve, though, I suspect by the slow and deliberate introduction of a new dish or revised recipe. As families merge menus blend and recipes are shared. Some will be adopted by consensus over time. A recipe exchange at the end of the meal is a hopeful sign that a new dish has earned favor and may be seen again. Exclamations of pleasure can encourage the hosts to repeat a first-timer the following year, but it’s an evolutionary process.
The current trend toward organic, local and farm to table ingredients can be a boon to the Thanksgiving table and introduce some change without actually changing the menu. Ramping up the quality of the raw materials can have a big impact. Organic supplies are widely available. Farm to table is a little tough for us in November, but root vegetables and local Turkeys can be sourced.
If innovation is your goal, it must be gradual – a process of addition, not elimination. Keep the tried and true, but add one or two new items to gauge the response. They may be included by acclamation in future gatherings. If you really want to remake the look and taste of your Thanksgiving, start when your kids are young. There is a window when they are little and have no Thanksgiving history. The changes you make or a custom of annual menu innovation will become their tradition.
The bottom line is, Don’t mess with Thanksgiving. Pay attention Editors.