Our American Thanksgiving, which was originally a modified form of older harvest festivals, has gradually evolved into a different kind of harvest festival — one that celebrates processed foods. Family farms have been replaced by agri-business, and the supermarket is the true focus of pre-holiday activity. As a result, entirely new “traditional recipes” have become “family favorites” — traditions that have little or nothing to do with seasonal or regional foods.
It’s nearly impossible to escape a holiday table groaning under the weight of casseroles of frozen green-beans, sauced with canned soup, and topped with fried onions (also canned). Nearby, the obligatory pan of sweet potatoes, their presence obscured by a mantle of marshmallow, glows menacingly.
In a sense, the holiday has become more, rather than less, of a uniquely American institution. Interestingly enough, while most of us whole-heartedly embrace the changes, all the marketing is designed to foster the impression that we are still celebrating the old Thanksgiving.
One can almost picture Squanto and friends, marching out of the forest primeval, bearing cans of mandarin oranges and baskets of freshly harvested marshmallows.
Aside from the turkey, one item on the table might actually have been a part of the Pilgrim’s original feast (albeit in somewhat altered form): cranberry sauce.
A friend used to be one of the line cooks at The Trellis in Williamsburg, VA. Every year, the staff held their own Thanksgiving dinner — and one year he brought his homemade cranberry relish.
Most of the staff complained bitterly about not having canned cranberry jelly.
The following year, he made the exact same relish — but added raspberry Jell-O, and molded it in a used, but well-scrubbed tin can. The result slid out of the can most satisfyingly — and exhibited the requisite crowd-pleasing ridges.
And it did please the crowd.
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Unlike most of the food articles Gary submits to Roll, this one does not include a recipe. He explains: “Every year, as Thanksgiving approaches, magazines, newspapers, websites, and TV shows feature recipes for holiday dishes. Dishes that no one will ever make. The reason is simple. Every family has its own traditional Thanksgiving dinner, no single detail of which may be changed without incurring a bitter wrath that will last through endless subsequent family gatherings. While we may laugh — someday — over a dry turkey, or a pie accidentally made with salt instead of sugar, no one forgives an intentionally altered family ritual.”
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us