The New Yorker's Nov. 23 issue is all about food, and I especially enjoyed Jane Kramer's article, "Pilgrim's Progress", which describes forty years of her strategy for making friends in foreign lands by cooking Thanksgiving dinner (at various times of the year) for guests like Sufi musicians in Morocco, Serbians, Ugandans, and– toughest crowd of all– the French. (Article not available online except by digital subscription.)
She assigns their difficulty with turkey-and-trimmings to their "finicky palates" and sees that sitting down to a groaning board of dishes that we eat gleefully "smushed together into one glorious taste" on a plate swimming in gravy is abhorrent to them. The French guests pick at her food, which they carefully segment so as not to touch other dishes on the plate. One of her friends, a French woman married to an American, describes a similar dinner at which Parisian diners picked at tiny portions of the food, but inhaled her truffle, chestnut and fois gras-studded dressing.
"They know what the good parts are", Le Duc said darkly.
Kramer's difficult guest endures, right under my roof. Le Duc, a French Canadian, has asserted for a quarter-century that people of French heritage do not 'do' Thanksgiving dinners. He is unmoved by turkey and thinks that two or three side dishes should be enough to accompany any main course. And salad is not served with the turkey, and marshmallows belong at a campfire.
As a newlywed, I saw that the memories of my American Thanksgiving dinners were going to remain just that, because despite Kramer's insistence, you can lead people to a turkey dinner but you can't make them like it. My sons reached adolescence before they witnessed a US-style Thanksgiving dinner table. They said that it looked just like a buffet.
For several Thanksgivings in the last decade, we were visited by The Siren, an American girlfriend who lived for a time in Chicago. We created full-on turkstravaganzas. He ate with appetite, but when she moved back to California, there was no wistful recollection, no longing for the pearl onions with apples or the trio of squash, fennel and parsnip pureés.
For the last dozen Thanksgivings (which in Canada happen six weeks earlier than in the US, and sensibly on the Monday, while Americans are celebrating Columbus Day), the family visits a cheerful, bustling restaurant that serves turkey dinner with enough familiar sides that you would look at the plate and say, " Oh, it's Thanksgiving".
But the joint doesn't serve squash, apple cider sweet potatoes, the pearl onions, or anything but the most pedestrian mash and veg. Buoyed by Kramer's account of the lavish, warm Thanksgiving dinner served to friends in Spoleto last July, I am determined to take back Thanksgiving and reassert my homeland's tradition.
First, I have to regain my feast-fixin' mojo.
Mark Bittman has developed a minimalist Thanksgiving menu, a good starting point (and stopping point for some). I'm thinking I'll surprise some friends in early spring, taking a page from Kramer's book. I'll add a few of my own favourites, including the tomato pudding and maybe leek gratin for Le Duc.
To those celebrating today, Happy Thanksgiving! I'll catch up with you in April!
(A signature dish of the old Dilworth Hotel, Boyne City Michigan)
1 (10 oz.) can tomato puree (or you can make your own puree with fresh tomatoes)
3/4 c. boiling water
1 c. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
4 slices bread, white, diced
1/2 c. melted butter
Add sugar, water and salt to tomato puree. Boil 5 minutes. Place bread squares in buttered casserole dish and pour melted butter over them. Add hot tomato mixture and place cover on casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.