What Lies Beneath The Thanksgiving Feast? 11/27/2002
What lies beneath the Thanksgiving feast?
Thursday, November 28, 2002
Every year around this time the same debates rage around the big, sad bird in the middle of the table. Everyone weighs in on the merits of grilling vs. deep frying, brine vs. salt rub, covering with aluminum (and for how long) vs. naked as it was the hour it came out of the wrapper. Turkey packagers field thousands of calls on their hotlines. Magazine sections run scientific-seeming tests, each year proving the same thing they proved the year before. Yea, deep and suspicious schisms erupt from the very earth itself, dividing father from son, mother-in-law from daughter-in-law, Food and Wine from Cook''s Illustrated.
Here''s my opinion: Forget the bird. Turkey on Thanksgiving has occupied the throne for years, but it isn''t the point. That poor little pimply plucked bird performs much the same function as a gurgling baby lying on the middle of the floor in a living room full of tense relatives: It''s a decoy, a lightning rod, an agreed-upon focal point that distracts us all from the fact that the whole damn table is a minefield.
Everything on the Thanksgiving table has multiple versions, and every warm-blooded American has his or her preference, with a history, however visceral and inarticulate, to match. The cranberry sauce alone has more interpretations than a bog has berries. On one end are versions with gourmet aspirations, combining cranberries with orange rind or walnuts or apple or onions, each ingredient leading us away from the essential tart nature of the berry until you are left with only the principle of the thing, which apparently is enough. On the other end is the can, whose fans not only have no problem with the grainy, gelatinous canned sauce, but insist on removing the cranberry-flavored cylinder intact from its metal mold (all the better to be sliced, my dear). In spite of my disdain for either extreme of that argument, I can appreciate that there are undoubtedly compelling psycho-gastronomical reasons for one''s choice of cranberry sauce, usually something like "That''s the way it''s always been done."
Or mashed potatoes. Hardly a food we consider fraught with danger or significance or anything other than a certain tendency to collapse just when the gravy lake has reached capacity and is ready for the peas to jump in and start swimming. No, mashed potatoes aren''t exciting or edgy in the slightest. But if you were to ask around among friends and family who were raised to eat mashed potates, or at least to include them on the holiday table, I bet you would find a surprising firmness of opinion on how to prepare them.
In my own family the line has been drawn clearly between the generations, with my father hewing to a rather lumpier standard than his offspring. (We sigh and roll our eyes. He can''t help it. The mashed potato dish of his homeland involves not only leaving a few lumps in the potatoes, but also introducing non-potato vegetable matter such as carrots and onions into the mix, which are guaranteed to increase the lumps.)
My older brother adheres to the subdue-your-food school of cookery. His mashed potatoes are a labor-intensive dish involving a certain amount of teeth-baring violence. He beats the hell out of them, in other words. You can hear the rattle of the masher against the pan all the way on the other side of the house. Me, I go for the quick and dirty solution. I like smooth, but I just don''t want to work that hard at it. So I drown my spuds with milk and butter, enough to choke a horse but not four to six people. The liquid smoothes over an amazing lot of involvement and effort. My ideal mashed potatoes would be a rather surreal dish, involving the slow, unctuous dissolution of the potatoes in a vat of warm milk and butter. I have no idea how long such a process would take, or even if it would work, but at the end, I imagine, I wouldn''t even have to mash: I''d just stir a few times.
These seemingly insurmountable differences in approach mask what are really just two motivations: either improving upon how our ancestors made their food (because it was so ghastly), or cooking as closely as possible to the maternal ideal. This holds true for most Thanksgiving food icons, but is even more true for mashed potatoes. They''re the ultimate comfort food, just one step beyond baby food spooned into their mouths by mommy. Their deceptively amorphous shape fills an emotional need that is sharp and very definite. Anyone who''s ever tweaked a recipe that a loved one insists is the "right way," knows that altering the potatoes too much away from the Edenic original is a treacherous step to take.
If we agree that food has symbolic or psychological meanings, then the Thanksgiving table with its hyperabundance means much more than stuffing oneself silly and eating turkey sandwiches for the next three days. Such a feast is laden with intangible courses-resentment, love, annoyance, longing. And the more complicated life gets as families and countries grow up, the more it seems like a good idea to focus on symbols and the small things.
This is why we have centerpieces for the feast. This is why carving the turkey is a big deal. This is why the discussions at my family''s gathering about who makes the best potatoes can occasionally take on a certain absurd intensity. Some food needs to remain the same over the years, to help us deal with everything else.