Norman Rockwell put the turkey squarely in the middle of the Thanksgiving table and at the center of our Thanksgiving tradition in his painting, Freedom From Want. The holiday focus is on the dinner and the dinner is about turkey with all the fixin’s. But a closer look at the American Thanksgiving table shows a surprising diversity reflecting regional tastes and international influences.
Thanksgiving, like so many holiday traditions, is rooted in colonial New England. You don’t necessarily go over the river and through the woods in your sleigh if you live in Alabama, Kansas, Oregon, or in Southern California, but the turkey is still there on the table.
Wild turkeys, long absent from our neck of the woods, are once again seen in backyards, parks, and along the Merritt Parkway. It is said that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey for the national bird. In a letter from France to his daughter Sally, Franklin found the eagle to be, “a Bird of bad moral Character…lazy…and a coward.” He found the turkey, on the other hand, to be, “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on”.
Turkey was popular for holiday celebrations when Dickens memorialized it on the Cratchit table in A Christmas Carol. Turkeys were readily available in America as a wild bird or domesticated in the barnyard. A large bird that easily fed a crowd, turkeys were more festive than hams and relatively inexpensive.
Cranberries, potatoes, carrots, winter squash, pumpkin, and apples are Thanksgiving menu basics hailing from New England. There used to be a lot more seafood on the Thanksgiving table. Oysters were popular – in stuffing, stewed, or on the half shell – a custom that I think should be observed along the oyster-rich Connecticut shore. Cod and lobster, staples of coastal cuisine, were common in seafaring New England. Lobster still figures in many Maine Thanksgiving menus.
Around the country, local ingredients find their way into the cornucopia of the Thanksgiving table. Cornbread, collards, and sweet potato pie are common across the south as is Pecan Pie, made from the native nut. Turducken originated in the midwest and has spread across the country. This hybrid bird is usually a turkey stuffed with a duck which is, in turn, stuffed with a chicken. Local game and seafood like venison, quail or Dungeness crab are often on the Thanksgiving menu, too.
Waves of immigration have brought worldwide flavors to the Thanksgiving table. German, Scandinavian, and Italian include the tastes of Europe. Mexico, the Americas and the Caribbean all add spice to the table. Other cultures from around the world with communities in the US bring their favorite foods along with them.
An Italian Thanksgiving might add antipasto, a traditional soup, and pasta, usually lasagna. Tony Aitoro e-mailed me to say, “Most Italian thanksgiving dinners start with a nice antipasto then move on to ravioli or lasagna. After the traditional Turkey dinner we finish with cheese cake.”
Sauerkraut, red cabbage, spaetzle, potato pancakes, and dumplings could be on the table in German families as Oktoberfest slides into November.
At the Scandinavian table lingonberries substitute for cranberries, swedish meatballs are a favorite, and pickled herring is likely. Our friends Beth and Paul were raised on the Northern plains where a number of cultures blend. The Norwegian branch of the family serves lefse, a thin tortilla shaped potato pancake eaten rolled up like a cigar with butter and sugar. The Czechs in the family make kolaches from a sweet bread dough with apricot or prune filling.
Mexican cuisine, so popular across America, easily blends with Thanksgiving just by adding some chilies or cumin to the corn bread or stuffing. Turkey, which is native to Mexico, too, can be braised in mole instead of roasting or served with mole sauce as an alternative to gravy. Tamales and chile con queso also appear on Mexican-American Thanksgiving tables.
Roast pork or suckling pig is a caribbean tradition that is served alongside the turkey. It might be accompanied by rice and beans or rice and peas, plantain, and Besitos de Coco (Coconut kisses) for dessert. South and Central American Thanksgiving flavors blend well with the holiday tried and true. Arepas, empanadas, and black bean soup bring the flavors and spices home. Potatoes were discovered in Peru, brought to Europe and then to North America, so this South American ingredient is on almost every Thanksgiving table.
My friend Renal at the Wells Fargo Bank has a family that mixes Haitian and Indian. There’s no turkey in either culture, so chicken is the celebration bird. Rice and beans, squash and samosa pastries are on the table, too. After dinner, there’s indian music and dancing. Sounds like fun!
Thanksgiving dinner is a mixed bag of foods, which bridge regional, ethnic, and traditional cultures to make it the most American meal of the year. We all bring our backgrounds, histories, styles and preferences to the table to celebrate our unity and diversity. What does your Thanksgiving menu say about you?