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Start Carvin’, We’re Starvin’

Thanksgiving side dishes are in transition.

Norman Rockwell needs a bigger canvas. His iconic image of Grandma serving a ginormous roast turkey to a tableful of attractive people gathered around a pristine white table seems totally outdated. Who serves only a side dish of full sized celery stalks, a tiny cranberry mold and a bowl of fresh fruit?

Nobody. And, for the record, if that is your family’s idea of a robust feast, we’re not coming to dinner.

People claim that Thanksgiving traditions vary from family to family, but really, most families we know struggle with the concept of maintaining customs while expanding the recipe repertoire. Brined roast turkey? Yup. Defrosted Tofurkey? Let the fighting begin.

A quick survey of our friends turned up varying holiday traditions that, quite frankly, we don’t understand. One friend boasts of her recipe for “Jewish Spaghetti.” This involves some combination of Velveeta, Campbell’s Tomato Soup and pasta. Not on our table. Another, she-who-shall-not-be-named, raves about her family’s Baked Salami with brown sugar and mustard. Find us a barfatorium. Then there is our sister-in-law (from the Planet Georgia) who once brought a canned pea and pearled onion casserole. We still have plenty left-over in Mom’s freezer.

Okay, in a gesture of equal-opportunity-mistakes, two years ago we made a Cherpumple Cake, which consists of three layers of spice cake, each with a full pie filling. One layer is cherry pie, one is pumpkin pie, and one is apple pie. The whole thing gets iced with cream cheese frosting. Maybe we were a little quick to judge that Baked Salami. Alternately, everyone should plan on using airsickness bags at least once during this holiday.

A quick glance at the New York Times Dining section, and we already feel underdressed for whatever Thanksgiving host serves up those side dishes. Cauliflower with Curry Butter? Persimmon and Orange Salad? Cabbage with Apples, Onions and Caraway? We may be canned pea snobs, but is there really room at the Thanksgiving table for Lingonberry Relish? This is the Midwest, after all, where boiling your brat in beer is considered the connoisseur's version of football fare. And if you insist on serving Caramelized Turnips with Capers, Lemon and Parsley, then what will the kids eat?

That was a rhetorical question! Kids eat the marshmallows on top of the baked sweet potato casserole. Duh.

Which leads us to the traditional Thanksgiving fighting. We can’t speak for others, but in our family there is a long and storied history of bickering as we all make the stuffing. Yes, in our family somewhere between 12 and 17 people help make the stuffing the night before Thanksgiving. Our father presides over this annual production, serving as the benign dictator disseminating orders such as “peel the chestnuts” and “chop the oysters” and, our personal favorite, “we need more gizzards.”

Editorial note: Part of the recipe includes our mother chiding and tsk-tsking the list of ingredients and the innumerable health code infractions as each of us cuts and chops and stirs and tastes. 

For us, the holiday festivities really kick-off when Mom insists, “Really, Alan, no one will eat that much stuffing.”  

Everyone does.

Norman Rockwell had one thing right, the turkey. And even though one friend proudly reported that her family is featuring a beef filet in lieu of a turkey this year, she is still in the minority. Be it deep fried, roasted or stuffed with a duck and a chicken, Tom Turkey still takes center stage at most American tables. 

So why does Rockwell need a bigger canvas? To make room for the mac and cheese, of course.

Bob Levi November 20, 2011 at 04:06 PM
One of the benefits from marrying into my late wife's family some 22 years ago was that I'm the only one who likes dark turkey meat! That means every T-Day I get to take home the leftover drumstick and both thighs. Last year was the exception. The family invited some friends and a few of them like dark meat. So no leftovers for me. But that's okay. I don't think they'll be at the family dinner this Thursday.
Betsy Brint November 21, 2011 at 01:57 PM
I envy you Bob - I come from a family where the line forms behind the dark meat - and I married into one too! Now I know where I went wrong.
Bob Levi November 22, 2011 at 03:37 PM
If you want to meet in a dark alley on Friday. Besty, I can sneak you some of my leftover dark turkey meat in a plain (Sunset?) bag.. Having grown up in Chicago, I understand the concept of a bagman. Leg or thigh?
Betsy Brint November 22, 2011 at 08:17 PM
Gee Bob - I haven't had an offer that good in years. I've been assured there will be plenty of dark meat to go around at our table this year - but just for the record - I'm a thigh gal.
Bob Levi November 24, 2011 at 09:23 PM
Besty - Your comment reminds mfe of the the classic line from Hitchcock's 1995 film, "To Catch a Thief." Grace Kelly and Cary Grant go on a picnic. She opens the basket and asks, "You want a leg or a breast?" He replies, "You make the choice." Pretty racy stuff for the '50s.

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