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"Re-imagining" Thanksgiving

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Hi there,

I'm not sure if this is the best place to post this query but, what the heck, "adventures in eating" implies a certain hearty sort hanging out here...so let me give this a try...

I'm working on a Thanksgiving story for the Tribune tentatively titled "Shifting Courses." (ick...I much prefer a Cubist analogy.) Anyway, we're talking about leaving the turkey exactly where it is at the center of the table but taking the traditional trimmings and moving them to different points in the meal. Like pumpkin in the soup, sweet potatoes in the stuffing, cranberries in the dessert. (Actually, I'd like to turn the stuffing into rustic croutons for a wild green salad but I think it would be too much work. Ditto for cooking the turkey, chopping it up into pieces and threading the meat on skewers with cranberries, slathering with a sweet teriyaki glaze, and giving the whole thing a quick whirl on the grill.)

I'm wondering who has tried this sort of thing out there; what succeeded, what didn't. Would you share your war stories and recipes with me?

What sort of mood where you in when you decided to depart from the norm? did the family notice? did the family care? Did Thanksgiving still feel "right" for you?

Let me know.

Thanks.

Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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What a great story! My family is very strictly traditional so this wouldn't fly in terms of twisting the entire meal, unfortunately. Last year I did take the sweet potatoes out of the main meal and made a Sweet Potatoe Pie. I frankensteined a few recipes together and threw in a couple of my own ideas to it. The crust was made from ginger snap cookies and it was topped with maple syrup pecans. The family did like this, so I got away with one there!

I'll be checking in on this thread for sure since we are hosting Thanksgiving again this year. I love new ideas!

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Thanks, Genny,

did you tell the family you were doing this in advance or did you surprise them? Was there any sense of discomfort at first or did they accept it right away?

Bill

What a great story!  My family is very strictly traditional so this wouldn't fly in terms of twisting the entire meal, unfortunately.  Last year I did take the sweet potatoes out of the main meal and made a Sweet Potatoe Pie.  I frankensteined a few recipes together and threw in a couple of my own ideas to it.  The crust was made from ginger snap cookies and it was topped with maple syrup pecans.  The family did like this, so I got away with one there!

I'll be checking in on this thread for sure since we are hosting Thanksgiving again this year.  I love new ideas!


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Not sure if this is exactly what you're talking about, but a couple of years ago we had a Thanksgiving picnic on the beach. (One of the families we usually get together with for holiday dinners couldn't do/handle the emotional ramifications of a traditional T-day that year.) The turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce turned into overstuffed turkey sandwiches. Veggie courses were served cold. Other picnic dishes turned up. I don't remember exactly what we had for dessert -- someone else brought that.

The upshot? We all had a great time, but agreed that it didn't feel like Thanksgiving. We won't try to substitute a picnic for a major holiday dinner again.


SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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Any time I have tried something new, people (my dear family) get upset.

One year pumpkin soup - "No soup on Thanksgiving"

One year served sweet potatoes like baked potatoes - "what are we supposed to do with these and where are the sweet potatoes with marshmallows"

One year garlic roasted string beans - "How come they are not topped with crunchy onion rings"

I've given up - my family wants the traditional foods, maybe it connects them, maybe it brings comfort to having the same thing every year.

There are some things I can play around with, like the cranberry sauce (one year had it with oranges, wow :) ) and the desserts, pumpkin & apple pie are a must, but the others I can choose.

I remember speaking to lady in the doctors office, she was reading the Gourmet's Thanksgiving issue and said to me "wow, this looks great I think I've found my Thanksgiving meal" I asked her, "how does she get her family to go along with that?" she replied, "every year we pick a meal (or some side dishes) out of a magazine (like gourmet, bon appetite, MS living...) and make it together, it's become a tradition." I envy her.

My husband says I can make those dinners just not on Thanksgiving.

Good Luck with your story.

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My family also goes a bit haywire if we deviate from the formula. Some recipes (such as a sourdough/leek/bacon stuffing) have been introduced over a three-year period, during which time traditional stuffing also had to be served (from the bag, dammit!).

Actually, now that I think of it, all new recipes have been introduced that way. There is this odd menu "limbo" period that occurs as we wean the family from the old and embrace the new -- with baby steps.

Perhaps it is the mental associations we make with Thanksgiving dinner (i.e. the fragrance, taste, texture of pumpkin pie) that makes it one of those meals we can "count on." People seem to get a bit panicky when the day they wait for once a year does not fulfill those expectations.

I've given up, and have taken to carving baby pumpkins into tealight holders instead -- my creativity has to come out somewhere or I get a bit antsy. Though at times there are frightening towers of hay/fire combinations that are one step away from disaster. :unsure:

I look forward to learning about your results, Bill. This should be interesting!


Jennifer L. Iannolo

Founder, Editor-in-Chief

The Gilded Fork

Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

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Maybe it's just my experience talking, but it seems to me that you're most likely to find what you're looking for among familes that have been rearranged by divorce, separation and remarriage -- in other words, families that have been forced by circumstances into a two-dinner holiday.

Last year, since my dinner was second (and luckily, a day later), I had to come up with something that featured the familiar foods in different (but not too different) ways, since the day-of dinner was pretty straightforward traditional. And yet, it was Thanksgiving. Prime rib wasn't going to cut it. I didn't depart quite as far as you've suggested, but I did have to do some displacement and reconfiguration.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Bill, I think I'm going to answer your question in a different way. My immediate family (parents, brother and I) have decided that we prefer chicken to turkey, so we usually have chicken for Thanksgiving. Actually, my brother usually doesn't make it in from the West Coast for Thanksgiving, so it's often just me and my parents. Or sometimes, I go to my godmother's, where she also tends to cook chicken. I think my father once or twice cooked Chettinad Chicken with urad dal (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's recipe) for Thanksgiving, because all of us love the dish so much. I also believe I remember two cornish hens one time, and I think he also got poussins or some other kind of small birds (pheasants?) another time.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Qualifier first. I'm not American, so I don't have any traditional feelings to overcome when re-arranging Thanksgiving menus.

I spent 5 years in the US. The first year there we were invited to a Thansgiving meal with an American family (we had thought this was a gesture of pure friendliness, but once there we found that they were actually missonaries intent on converting us heathens - made for a slightly uncomfortable meal :unsure: ).

All subsequent years we ate Thansgiving dinner with another foreign couple we were close friends with - alternately at their place and at ours. None of these meals were traditional (for example, one year was lobster rather than turkey).

One of those years, I decided just for fun to take all the usual Thanksgiving ingredients, to combine them differently, and cook them as (mostly) Indian dishes. I don't remember everything I did. What I do remember was: ground turkey koftas, with corn, pumpkin and green beans each as separate savory dishes, together with Lebanese bread salad (fattoush). I think I cut the corn off the cob and made it into small patties to mimic the shape of the turkey koftas (??) There was more, but I have no idea what it was. Dessert was sweetened poached cranberries, cooled, flavored with a dash of Angostura Bitters, then mixed with cream (I think, I forget whether I added it or not) and gelatine. Whirl the whole lot in the food processor to give a light foamy texture, then chilled till set.

Thinking up the menu and making that dinner really was fun. :smile:


Edited by anzu (log)

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There have only been a few changes tolerated by my family. Yes to smoked turkey. Yes to green beans without mushroom soup and the onion rings. And, yes to a wonderful pumpkin souffle. Otherwise, they want it as they have known.


Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

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I would agree with Dave the Cook that the most likely place to find success in this sort of reimaging of the traditional holiday foods is where the traditional family structure has been itself reimaged.

Tradition seems to really mean tradition to most people. Even if the food is bad. :biggrin: Still you will find people wanting that same terrible thing that appeared on the table in years past. It is scary and offensive to them if it is not there. For the world is then not As It Has Been.

I always do a re-image of all holidays, since my children (who live with me) visit their father and new stepmother with the new large family that is attached to that, for all the traditional holidays.

It is always on a different day with the foods reconfigured. And each time, my kids are ravenous and excited about it. Indeed, they like it better than the traditional table laid on the actual holiday that they already experienced.

I am not sure if this is a segment of the population that you are addressing in your story, so will not post all the reconfigurations that we've done. . .for it just plain might not work for the more traditional gatherings in my opinion.

If you can, please post a link anyway when the story is done? :smile: It would be fun to read.

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We have a rather large extended family so there are usually 20 more or less depending on where the military members are stationed.

It just has to be the traditional: turkey, mashed potatoes, sage stuffing, and lots of gravy.

I leave sweet potatoes to my sister who does them OK, without marshmallows. We don't do Green Bean Casserole with onions (gag) so I can play around with the vegetable dishes. Cranberries can be flexible but there also has to be a shiny roll of canned jelly.

Desserts are changeable, too, so long as there is some pumpkin pie.

I would love to give it a Southwest slant but would probably be stoned if I tried even though Southwest flavors are popular with the family at any other time.

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I'm Canadian, and it seems to me that while Canadians do celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends, Thanksgiving seems to be a much bigger deal in the US. For Americans, the focus on Thanksgiving is a major holiday, while Canadians seem to focus more on the Christmas holiday. Or maybe that's just my perception.

In any event, for several years now, I've been doing Prime Rib instead of a full Turkey and usally a bone in Turkey breast for those who seem to need the traditional Turkey fix. I'll make a cranberry-bread dressing to accompany the Turkey and Yorkshire pudding to accompany the beef. We'll have two kinds of potatoes often. Roasted potatoes with the beef, and garlic mashed with the turkey. Carrots done in the slow cooker are standard at large family gatherings in my house because it's easier. I'll make gravy for each type of meat. The turkey breast gets brined before roasting.

No one is a big fan of pumpkin pie, so we might have an apple tart, or even, creme brulee.

I also have one of those re-imaged families, so there's plenty of opportunity for my son to get the traditional fare if he wants it.


Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, because it's all about the food as far as I am concerned.

I come from a very small extended family. Both my parents are only children, I had only onre surviving granparent on each side for most of my childhood, and we lived very far away (Boston) from any relatives of the second cousin variety (Texas). So, when I was growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was always a group affair organized with other small families at our Episcopal church. Perhaps this is why I don't feel like Thanksgiving dinner "has" to include anything other than turkey and dressing -- and even with that, I have been known to play fast and loose with the format. I think it all started when I decided to make a turducken for Thanksgiving one year. After a while, it had turned into something else entirely. This is what we did last year:

Marinated Crudités

Cranberry Champagne Cocktail

– – –

Kumamoto Oyster On The Half-Shell With Cucumber Granita

Mantanía Moschofilero, Tselepos, 2003

– – –

Cauliflower Soup With Puréed Spinach and Curry Oil

Montlouis Sur Loire "Dionys," Domaine Alex-Mathur, 2002

– – –

Tuna Carpaccio With Mixed Herb Salad

Rheingau Riesling Trocken, Weingut Robert Weil, 2003

– – –

"Brussels Sprouts Four Ways"

crème brûlée - gratin - sautéed with guanciale - shredded "slaw"

Vin de Table Gamay "Le P'tit Tannique Coule Bien," Domaine Thierry Puzelat, 2003

– – –

Lemon-Thyme Sorbet

Moscato d'Asti "Bricco Quaglia," Azienda Agricola La Spinetta di Giorgio Rivetti, Piemonte, 2003

– – –

"Turkey Two Ways" [recipe and description here]

Cornbread Dressing, Foie Gras, Black Truffle Carpaccio

Vino De La Tierra El Terrerazo "Mestizaje," Bodega Mustiguillo, 2003

Syrah, H. Coturri & Sons, Crane Vinyards, Sonoma Valley, 2001

– – –

Bourbon Bread Pudding

Cranberry Cheese Cake

Pecan Tart

Sugarless Apple Pie

Coffee

– – –

Chocolate Truffles and Palmiers

Selection of Bourbon, Scotch, Grappa

A detailed recounting and discussion of the design, planning and execution of this dinner may be found here.


--

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My family is a combination of innovation and tradition. Much of the innovation happens in the appetizers, which are pretty much wide open for whatever anyone wants to do. For the main meal, mom always roasts a conventional turkey, but over the years variations have appeared to provide options (fried turkeys, turducken). We usually have 2 stuffings, one my Grandmother's traditional dressing balls and the other maybe a little more exotic. I've served oyster, pancetta and wild mushroom stuffing to good reviews. There's leeway in the sides, too. Szechuan green beans are a favorite since we usually serve Alsace wine with the meal. Two cranberry sauces, one home made and jellied canned for my wife and my niece. Wife usually makes a pumpkin cheesecake because my Dad loves it so much

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Good for you trying to breathe a little life into the Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, I reimagined Chrismas dinner and instead of doing a large meat (ham, turkey, etc.) with side dishes, I did a 3 course plated meal plus dessert (including a lobster risotto and cote de boeuf). This was manageable because we only had about 8 or 9 people. The approach was very popular and I will probably do it again this year.

Thanksgiving is harder because of the expectations that a lot of the posters here have recognized, that everyone expects turkey and stuffing and side dishes. Over the last 6 or 7 years that I have been making Thanksgiving dinner (generally 8-12 people), I have been able to change stuffings a number of times, tried different approaches to side dishes and desserts, but still haven't gotten the guts to scrap the big turkey approach and go to a plated meal. However, it is only a matter of time. If I don't do it this year, it will definitely be next year.

slkinsey - I like your turkey two-ways approach. I was thinking about doing a deconstructed turkey to allow different cooking methods (and textures) which you've captured perfectly.

BTW - My family is pretty traditional in form, but they have taken well to change. I am not sure you need a non-traditional family to break tradition (but they should be people who love good food).


"If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony."

~ Fernand Point

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slkinsey - I like your turkey two-ways approach.  I was thinking about doing a deconstructed turkey to allow different cooking methods (and textures) which you've captured perfectly.

Thanks. I really do think deconstruction/different treatment is the best way to get the most out of a turkey. It's just too much meat with too widely-divergent properties to cook in one piece with good success on both dark and white meats.

This year I'm going to refine it a step further by stripping out the turkey tenderloins, making a mousse out of the tenderloins that I will use to "glue" the two breasts together, and doing the resulting more-or-less cylindrical result sous vide with black truffles. Should make dinner execution even more simple, as timing will be les critical on the turkey breasts and I'll free up oven time/space by not cooking any turkey in the oven.


--

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I find it amusing that so many "traditions" involve mid-twentieth-century industrial food products. :laugh: Did the Pilgrims bring canned onion rings and mushroom soup concentrate over on the Mayflower? Maybe they used jellied cranberry sauce as ballast.

I did some Googling to try to pin down the origin of turkey as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. I found this site which talks about the food traditions. This paragraph caught my eye:

Today there is such a large variety of food to choose from that a Thanksgiving Dinner can feature almost any main course. True, the traditional turkey is still the meat of choice, yet goose, duck, ham, even some of the sea's harvests can be used. In place of sweet potatoes, peas, rice dishes, greens, and even more exotic vegetables all make their way to this celebration of Thanksgiving and harvest.

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I have been thinking of reimaging myself, because after volunteering to host this year's thanksgiving dinner, I found out that more in-laws are coming than I anticipated, and now I am having dinner for 20. I will be deviating from a lot of the traditional feast . . . but:

My house is pretty small (1000 sq ft) and by borrowing folding tables and chairs I could probably seat everyone, though not together. The buffet idea has been bandied about, but a Thanksgiving buffet seems wrong, for some reason. As does balancing a plate on your knees and trying to cut turkey with a fork.

My husband says to hope for good weather so we can seat some outside (NC), but depending on the weather would make me crazy.

Ideas?

Julie

p.s. I did a 30 pound turkey last year, thanks to my 6-burner stove, so at least THAT is not problem

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Thanks, Genny,

did you tell the family you were doing this in advance or did you surprise them? Was there any sense of discomfort at first or did they accept it right away?

Bill

[

They did take this surprisingly well, actually. No one complained about the shift.

This is my third year in a row (and third year in total) for hosting the holiday. I know I'm a bit nuts but the rest of the year there is just 2 of us to cook for. This year I think we've grown to almost 20 people! I've been talking to my husband about alternative menu choices. His feedback is much like what is discussed on this thread: you can introduce fresh cranberry sauce, but we need to have canned sauce too. Its safer that way :biggrin: He was the one that complained last year that my turkey had too much flavor because I rubbed sage, thyme, salt and pepper butter compound under the skin. Apparently, turkey should be bland, just for Thanksgiving!

Additionally, the core family has the traditional needs, but I've also worked to include family traditions/favorites from those that have married into the family. For example, my brother-in-law can't have the holiday without his father's brandy gravy. Everyone finds this gravy superior anyway, so it has become the gravy accepted by all. (He makes it). And since I don't really mind having others in the kitchen with me -as long as they are working and not poaching- if someone has something special that they want, they are free to come in and make it.

I absolutely love Sam's Thanksgiving menu from last year as well. I don't think I could handle that, especially for 20! I'd forgotten about the Turkey 2 Ways, I'll have to take another look at that and see if it will work for my purposes this year. Honestly though, Alton Brown's way of brining and then baking- no basting- way is delicious and no-fuss. I will likely do that again this year simply because it is easy and passes muster.

Bill, for your kabobs, I like the idea of par cooking sweet potatoes and then skewering them with marshmallows :biggrin: or doing red bliss potatoes and carrots with the turkey. You could kabob the whole meal! I too look forward to reading your completed article!


Edited by Genny (log)

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In our house, our tradition has been to cook whatever the hell we want, with the exception that turkey is disallowed as we all hate it. Not everyone at the dinner, which can hit 25 or so people, but we in the family that has the biggest living room and likes cooking the most, and thus gets to set the rules. :laugh:

Indian and Provencal dishes tend to creep in, as they seem to have a lot of recipes that lend themselves to large servings and preparation in advance. Ham, standing rib, tuna, leg of lamb, we've had them all at one time or another as the entree and, since it tends to be a communal effort with a variety of friends, we see Salvadoran food, old-school stuff and cutting edge trend-cusine.

I guess it's not the same as turning the cranberries into a foam, or Kinsey's turkey things, but it's a pretty re-imagined process all-in-all.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I'm Canadian, and it seems to me that while Canadians do celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends, Thanksgiving seems to be a much bigger deal in the US.  For Americans, the focus on Thanksgiving is a major holiday, while Canadians seem to focus more on the Christmas holiday.  Or maybe that's just my perception.

It's not just you Marlene. I've been perplexed by the whole "issue" Americans have with Thanksgiving ever since Chandler Bing made grilled cheese sandwiches on Friends. My guess is it has something to do with it being a non-denominational holiday, unlike Christmas, Hannuka, Kwanza, etc ... It's all inclusive, and that includes all your psycho-baggage too. :blink:

Thanksgiving for our family is almost always at our family cabin. I hate the food, I hate the crowded cabin, and I'm not too keen on a few of the guests at dinner (family & non-family). When I re-married, I stopped going to the cabin and my wife & I hosted a few "orphans" Thanksgiving dinners. Food ranged from the traditional (roast turkey) to ethnic (Indian) to cheep & cheerful (burgers & fries).

So to answer the question ... within my immediate family, change is accepted reluctantly, mostly to indulge my forceful personality :biggrin: . Within our group of friends it's "anything goes" which seems to support the "blended families" theory.

A.

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Thanksgiving is a seasonal holiday, evoking flavors of the season more than anything else, so that being said, you can use traditional Thanksgiving flavors in non-traditional preparations. Stuffed pastas like ravioli with pumpkin/ricotta filling is an interesting way to get your squash quotient into the meal. Turkey of course can be dressed up in any number of ways -- but one of the best ways I've enjoyed it is Mexican style, with a rich mole sauce, in enchiladas. That would make a pretty interesting appetizer, especially if the turkey is not to be the main focus of the meal.

Grilled brined turkey, as Bill brought up, is also one of the best ways to cook the bird. We've been doing our turkey grilled for at least two thanksgivings now, and its always been a big hit -- it also frees up your oven for all the sides you need to cook.


Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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Thanksgiving for our family is almost always at our family cabin.  I hate the food, I hate the crowded cabin, and I'm not too keen on a few of the guests at dinner (family & non-family).  When I re-married, I stopped going to the cabin and my wife & I hosted a few "orphans" Thanksgiving dinners.  Food ranged from the traditional (roast turkey) to ethnic (Indian) to cheep & cheerful (burgers & fries). 

A.

Dude, be careful. My wife (then girlfriend) and I started with what we, too called "orphan" Thanksgiving dinners. Now the damn things are borderline out of control. :laugh: No extended family, though, so we don't have that drama to deal with.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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