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Thanksgiving Traditions

Every November, the food industry collectively scrambles to reinvent the wheel on Thanksgiving dinner. We’re told to eschew the recipes handed down by generations of relatives, and instead, spatchcock our turkey. Or steam it. Or let it hang for days, Pekin-duck style. Or tie it to the exhaust manifold. That stuffing we’ve been making all these years? Nah. It’d be better if it had chestnuts. Or oysters. Or sausage. Or, if we swapped out the cornbread and sourdough for couscous, and added some dried fruit: a Thanksgiving tagine. Apparently we should also be stuffing our turkey with eel. Get it? Got it? Good.

I’m not cooking for Thanksgiving this year. In fact, for the first time ever, I’m not even having Thanksgiving dinner. I’ll still be surrounded by D’s family, but instead of putting on the elastic-waistband pants for turkey and pumpkin pie, I’ll be lacing up my dance shoes and celebrating D’s sister’s wedding, just outside Tel Aviv.

You can imagine that my feelings about this trip are complex. It’s been too long since our last trip. I miss my bus route, my favorite vendors at the market, my friends and family. But I also know that this trip is more fraught than we’d anticipated it would be. Friends spent last Friday night in a bomb shelter. Folks on both sides are sad and scared. We’re walking into the middle of something. Then again, I guess when you go the Middle East, you’re always walking into the middle of somehting.

When I lived in Jerusalem, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for some 20 friends and acquaintances. This was no easy feat: turkeys in Israel are hard to come by. I managed to find one on my third butcher visit, and I felt so triumphant that I bought two. (We had turkey pho for weeks afterward.) I bought challah for stuffing – that, there’s plenty of – but baked my own sourdough and cornbread to supplement. I searched high and low for enough pumpkin to make my own puree. I found cranberries at a specialty grocery store. And after much, much ado, I made a Thanksgiving dinner that would have been as much at home in Silver Spring, MD as it was at my post-college apartment in Jerusalem.

On most other days of the year, I’m the one who seeks out the kaffir limes, the rare Moroccan spice blend, the exotic new chile pepper, all to give my cooking that extra oomph. I love trying new things; I love experiencing a different part of the world through whatever I can get onto a dinner plate. But Thanksgiving, that’s a holiday to be grounded in things close to home — wherever home may be. When I lived in Jerusalem, I wanted Thanksgiving to transport me back to the US. Now that I’ll be back in Israel for the holiday without a chance to celebrate it, I find myself thinking of all the friends and folks who will, in strange, wonderful unison, remove those browned, burnished turkeys from the oven to rounds of “ooh!” and “ahh,” and then “mmmm” as guests take their first bites. Stuffing will have sausage, or oysters, or challah, sourdough, cornbread, and maybe more, depending on its origin. Or maybe it won’t be stuffing at all, but dressing. Each family has its own tradition.

On business travel this week, I met a woman whose most popular contribution to Thanksgiving dinner is a big casserole of macaroni and cheese. True, it’s not traditional–for me. For her family, though, nothing could hew more to tradition.

So this Thanksgiving, close the newspaper. Ignore that magazine article on 50 new ways to add flare to your pumpkin pie. Just open up that notebook of tried-and-true family recipes. Make mom’s turkey. Serve up that ourtrageously good cranberry relish. If you’re a certain Texan, make that pink salad. I’d never touch it; it’s a good thing it isn’t my Thanksgiving tradiiton. But it is yours, and you should enjoy it.

If you’re really without recipe ideas, here are some from the year before last. And the year before that. And here’s a good list of vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes.

For soup-to-nuts Thanksgiving sanity, look no further than Sam Sifton’s new book. He is the mayor of the holiday, and you will do just fine if you follow his very sane, non-trendy advice: no appetizers, no salads, no chocolate, no fads. Just straight-up tradition.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. After the holiday, stay tuned: I’ve got some deliciousness up my sleeve.

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  • Arielle November 21, 2012,

    Great post! I am living in the Philippines and I, too, would like my Thanksgiving meal to transport me back home. Somehow, the ingredient hunt makes it feel that much more special. I just finished pushing roasted squash through a fine-mesh sieve for my pumpkin pie. Couldn’t find sugar pumpkins, but no matter– it will be delicious. (I am not, however, looking forward to the mad dash that will be dough-making, in my kitchen where butter begins melting after 2 minutes outside of the fridge.)

  • Abigail November 21, 2012,

    I spent my 2005 Jerusalem Thanksgiving celebrating at my favorite restaurant, Adom, just off of Kikar Tzion. I celebrated with a table full of Americans, Europeans, and Middle Easterners of various backgrounds, all happy to celebrate a holiday that encourages good food and drink. I most (un-)clearly remember bottles of red being passed around the table that evening.

    Wishing you and your loved ones, and all of those that are sad and scared in the region, safety and happiness. Your post, after all, made me feel happy and reminded me of good times.