Thanksgiving comes early this year, which means there was barely time to empty the Halloween candy bowl before the barrage of advice began about the fabulous new things you can do to liven up Thanksgiving.
Toss out boring potatoes in favor of mashed cauliflower! Substitute julienned bok choy for Aunt Irma’s green bean casserole! And as for the turkey — if you must have such a hackneyed entree, then at least spatchcock it, glaze the result with a sriracha-molasses reduction and festoon it with candied kumquats for some eye-catching color.
These sorts of helpful suggestions belong to a perennial food-writing genre we might call “Make Thanksgiving Great Again.” I have an alternative suggestion: Because Thanksgiving is already pretty great, why not keep it just as it is?
To be clear, I’m all in favor of culinary exploration, but Thanksgiving is simply the worst possible time to try something new.
There you are with 12 hungry relations in your living room, looking wistfully toward the kitchen as they scour the shrimp platter for stray scraps of lettuce. You, meanwhile, are trying seven new recipes, all of them with lightly fictionalized cooking times. Dinner will, we fancy, be on the table just in time to ring in the New Year.
If, that is, your newest experiments ever qualify for the table. Every few years, my mother suggests I try some new turkey-cooking method she just read about, since it obviously represents the most up-to-date culinary science. And hence, every few years, another turkey disaster . . . including the year my bird turned out to be, underneath its gorgeously browned skin, absolutely raw.
After that particular catastrophe, I put my foot down: From now on, my turkeys will be cooked in the most boring possible manner, and using no methods younger than I am. Experimental chemists probably wouldn’t test some new formula in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane; nor should you try to expand your repertoire during the most lavish and complicated meal you’ll ever prepare.
More to the point, why should we innovate? Thanksgiving is already America’s favorite holiday. Unlike many other holidays, it has no purpose but the food, its religious significance having faded to insignificance by the beginning of the 20th century. All we do on Thanksgiving is eat — the same old things, year after year.
And though you wouldn't know it to read many food sections, we love those things. Thanksgiving’s nostalgic pull is anchored to the very dishes that food writers keep trying to wean us off of: Trite turkey, corny casseroles, stereotypical stuffing, platitudinous pumpkin pies.
We don’t repeat this menu because we’re under some mass delusion. We eat them because they’re wonderful, the distilled essence of fall on a single plate. They’re so wonderful, in fact, that a Frenchman who was at my family’s table last year recently asked if he might fly over again for an encore. Which he will get, nearly exactly, down to the glasses, the silverware and, of course, the indigestion.
When you have a national holiday so appealing that it’s developing an export market, why fiddle with it?
Well, because Thanksgiving was invented for a different time, when cooking was an unavoidable, 30-hours-a-week chore for the feminine half of the country. When you have to put three meals on the table every single day, you prize a certain predictability in your menus, which saves time and ensures that the result will be edible. But thanks to modern food preservation and ubiquitous cheap restaurants, cooking from scratch is now an optional activity. Like most hobbies, we tend to look to it for novelty, a chance to show off. The same, again, feels less than impressive.
But Thanksgiving’s excess is impressive enough; novelty is gilding the lily. And saying that we can’t bear to eat the same meal once a year suggests a palate so jaded as to be positively debauched.
Thanksgiving’s lack of originality is in fact what’s so special about it. Emulating our ancestral menus connects us to those past generations who developed them. In following their lead, we also unite with our 325 million fellow Americans, almost all of whom are eating essentially the same meal at roughly the same time. We may vehemently disagree on politics or religion, but we can still all come together over mashed potatoes and green beans.
So this Thanksgiving, please join me in ignoring all the “new traditions” being pushed. Instead, let’s collectively embrace a fine old one, known as “leaving well enough alone.”