November 16, 2016 — Stories

Part Two: A Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

It's Thanksgiving on the 24th November. Here's the low-down on WDC's traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.

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Christmas dinner without the Christmas

If you’re in America for Christmas, don’t expect to eat turkey. That particular ingredient is reserved for Thanksgiving (Americans are more likely to eat a ham or roast beef at Christmas). In fact, with only a few differences, a Thanksgiving dinner resembles a British Christmas dinner.

13 grains of corn
We always had 13 grains of corn placed beside our plates in recognition of the first thanksgiving. (See the story of Thanksgiving here). As part of the Thanksgiving story our mother would describe how fish was buried with the corn to fertilise the crops. WDC has adapted this story into a ‘fish ‘n’  corn’ starter. So we might have fish tacos or clam chowder with cornbread, crab cakes or even popcorn and caviar! (See above pic.)

The star of the show is the turkey

Years ago it seemed all American turkeys were supplied frozen. Nowadays, Americans can choose from frozen, previously frozen, hard chilled (not previously frozen), brined, self-basting, organic and heritage. America’s top-selling Turkey brand is called ‘Butterball’, but evidently this is not because they once injected butter into their turkeys. Butterball operates a Turkey ‘help-line’ in the run-up to Thanksgiving. Their experts will be able give advice on how to cook your turkey, including techniques such as BBQ, smoking, rotisserie or even deep-frying!

The turkey is always stuffed

Or dressed. (Stuffing cooked separately from the turkey is called dressing in the Southern States.) American stuffing is looser than British stuffing, often made with large cubes of bread. An American likes their stuffing to flop and tumble over their plate. Our mother often made her stuffing with crumbly cornbread. This type of stuffing is best made in the cavity of the bird and scooped out with a spoon. (Health warning!!! Please seek appropriate advice from an official food authority before trying this at home… NB: nobody who’s ever eaten our stuffing has died from the experience!)

Mashed potatoes

Mashed potatoes are preferred to roast potatoes. I’m in favour of this idea –roasting a turkey at the same time as roasting potatoes is an immense challenge.

Gallons of gravy

Not the thin meagre drizzle of a British jus – Americans like to pour vast puddles of thick gravy over their turkey dinner. Needless to say, it’s imperative that sufficient gravy is provided to build large brown lakes of gravy in scooped out craters of mashed potatoes. As children, we might spend the entire dinner creating dams, streams, tributaries and ox-bow lakes with our gravy…

Americans have been eating cranberries ever since Delia Smith brought them to their attention – No they haven’t! They’ve been eating them since the time of the Pilgrim Fathers (that’s 375 years before Delia started cooking with them). They grow natively in America – mainly on the North East coast. Native Indians collected cranberries and prepared in a variety of ways: as a nutritious food, a preservative, an efficacious medicine and as a dye. Historically, cranberries were used as a sharp and sweet fruit relish, sauce or jelly to go with game and fowl.

Sweet potato or yam?
American crop producers call their sweet potatoes either sweet potatoes or yams (or both!), depending on the specific variety. The soft and sweet orange-fleshed variety are called yams (which we know as sweet potato) while the firmer white-fleshed variety are called sweet potatoes (and what we call yams in the UK). Yams are grown in Africa and Asia and are not part of the same family as the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes have a strong and powerful sweet flavour – essential for the taste of Thanksgiving.

Corn always gets a look-in
Corn was always traditional for our family thanksgivings. But although the harvest may be later than in England it will certainly have been brought in by the end of November. However, corn in other forms, such as frozen kernels, creamed corn or cornbread is popular.

Pumpkins and pecans
Thanksgiving is not complete without pumpkin pie. The Americans prefer their pies thick and high. Pumpkin pudding is a custard made with pumpkin. It can be whipped smooth into a soft dessert or baked as a set custard. Recently my sister has been arriving at Thanksgiving with pumpkin whoopee pies – the latest foodie trend in America.

Pecan pies are like a treacle tart packed with pecans. Pecan is an underrated nut – subtle and sweet – they also evoke a taste of the season.

Thanksgiving canned, frozen and boxed!
Since the middle of the 20th Century, more and more Americans have turned to processed products to make their Thanksgiving dinner easier and quicker.  Here are some examples: Ambrosia ‘salad’, made with tinned mandarins, pineapple, coconut, dessert whip and marshmallows. Pistachio fluff, as for ambrosia, but made with pistachios rather than mandarins (also eaten as a side ‘salad’). Candied yams from a tin – baked with a topping of marshmallow. Green bean casserole, made with tinned or frozen beans casserole with a tin of condensed mushroom soup and topped with fried onions from a tin. There is a canned gravy to go with the stuffing. Stuffing is made from ‘Stove Top’ stuffing in a box (just add water). For the ultimate in boxed-up convenience it now possible to buy a complete turkey dinner in a box!

It’s become de rigueur in blogs and forums to scoff at these culinary abominations. Yet, I detect hidden affections for the dishes – an unwillingness to completely relinquish adolescent attachments to ingredients such as marshmallow, Cool Whip and Jell-O. And here’s an adolescent attachment of my own: I love tinned cranberry jelly – the kind that can be extruded from the tin as a solid cylinder. It’s the texture – I’ve never found another texture like it. Pass the jelly please…

Mrs WDC’s Thanksgiving
As mentioned above, our Thanksgiving dinner is very similar to a Christmas dinner. This is one of the reasons why Mrs WDC loves Thanksgiving– it’s all the joy of Christmas but without the pressure of presents. A celebratory meal for the family – with the family.

Part One: What is Thanksgiving?