I love Thanksgiving. There is a coziness to it, a distinctly autumnal serenity, a hush that falls over conversations even when the house is full of friends and family, a warm note that colors all my memories of Thanksgivings past. Thanksgiving fits in the rhythm of the year; it matches its season well and provides a perfect vista to the remainder of the holiday season, portending all the good that is still to come. Thanksgiving makes perfect sense. The only problem is the collective decision we’ve made to devote our only feasting holiday to eating bad food.
Which isn’t to say that Thanksgiving food—and I mean here the classics, not the exotic or updated versions that, let’s face it, improve upon the originals—is utterly disgusting or inedible. It’s just not as good as the food I normally ate growing up in the South, and certainly not as good as the food other food-eating holidays offered. It’s hard to really identify exactly what’s wrong with it, other than the baby food-like texture of many of the dishes (you wouldn’t really need a blender to make a smoothie of, say, yams, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole; you could just mash it all with a spoon) and the inevitable dryness of at least particular cuts of turkey. If you’re into sage and not chewing all that much, Thanksgiving food is perfectly fine, maybe even decent. But it’s not good.
Still, even though there are a million things I would rather be eating than sugar-soaked yams melted in butter under a super saccharine cloud of singed marshmallows, I’ll still eat the damn yams, and, on some bizarre level, enjoy it. I caught up with Matthew Gavin Frank, a prolific author of several nonfiction books and three collections of poetry, who most recently published The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, to help untangle the mystery of why we all look forward, all year long, to eating Thanksgiving food, and whether it’s worthwhile to update the old stand-bys.
EB: Tell me about Thanksgiving foods. Turkey. Stuffing. Cranberry Sauce. Specifically: In your opinion both as a food writer and person who eats, is Thanksgiving food ... good? I mean, let’s talk straight here. Is Thanksgiving food actually bad?
MGF: No, Thanksgiving food, for the most part, is not good. I suppose there’s good reason one sees stacks of whole turkeys in the supermarket only in November, as compared to the variety of whole chickens all year round. Thanksgiving is the driest of the holidays, as evidenced by its attendant foods. Cooked turkey breast meat possesses the least relative moisture content of all of the popularly eaten birds, at (according to the USDA) 58 percent, compared to the 69 percent in chicken breasts. Of the bird world, the turkey possesses the least appetizing ratio of breast to leg, meat to fat. In fact, even our bodies—in spite of our pat anecdotes on family, tradition, and gratitude—crave the turkey less than other birds. We just don’t like it as much and, as a species, we chemically produce less saliva in the face of turkey—its appearance, smell—more than just about any other meat. It’s like trying to feed carrots to a cat, which would necessitate (as it did with us) generations’ worth of conditioning. It’s programmed into our DNA—the turkey is simply an unattractive food source, and an animal that should be ingested only in lean, desperate times, has now evolved into an edible tradition. It’s a classic case of narrative trumping biology. And the standard accouterments offer little help.
The cranberry of our default dipping sauce is one of the more astringent fruits, possessing chart-topping levels of those bitter plant polyphenolic compounds responsible for that dry, puckering sensation in the mouth, usurped only by the chokecherry—which we’ve named after strangulation—and underripe persimmons, which can, according to a 1989 article in Radiology Journal, be toxic, as the fruit contains “the soluble tannin shibuol, which, upon contact with a weak acid, polymerizes in the stomach and forms a gluey coagulum, a ‘foodball’ or phytobezoar, that can affix with other stomach matter.” With the cranberry, we can risk the puckering sensation without risking the foodball.
We can walk the line, tell ourselves that we’re chancy from the safe distance of the gravy boat, which itself has been heaped with obese cups of flour—just another thickener—and we know: to make something thicker, we have to first make it drier. At Thanksgiving, we are compelled by heritable practice to temper the astringency of the cranberry with ridiculous amounts of sugar—105 grams per serving, in fact, a figure so whopping that the production companies, under the “% Daily Value” heading on the label, leave this column blank—and still nobody really likes it, as it jiggles on the plate retaining the cylindrical parameters and bull’s eye imprint of the can. The requisite pumpkin pie dessert is larded with our most tannic spices—clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice—as if one weren’t enough, as if we resisted the less astringent options, because clearly this is no time for balance. This is about dryness, a singular, but multi-course, dryness. And, as if all this weren’t enough, we even stuff the bird with bread mixture to dry it out a little more.
EB: Are Thanksgiving foods uniquely American, in keeping with the sense of the holiday? Is that why we come back to them over and over?
MGF: One of my more memorable Thanksgivings was spent interrogating the “traditional” “American” Thanksgiving myth/narrative (and our mass desire to eradicate other conflicting narratives and make it ubiquitous) alongside my friends Henry (an Apache medicine man) and Diana (a Korean-American woman), wherein we ate no turkey, but instead dimmed the lights, and cranked the Pink Floyd, and engaged in a peyote ceremony before heaping our plates with a very spicy bibimbap. I’d love to see an embracing of these diverse narratives and ways of commemorating become our common denominator rather than the mandated ingestion of some big bird.
EB: Okay, you can make one massive change to the way we eat on Thanksgiving. What would it be?
MGF: Simply, I would swap out the turkey for any other bird really. A gaggle of quails or something. Firstly, quail is so much better than turkey. Secondly, if we limited ourselves to a diminutive quail or two per person, we can eat a far more moderate amount while still engaging our late-November penchant for gluttony via the ingestion of an entire animal.
EB: Last one: how do you feel about efforts to “update” Thanksgiving foods—y’know, give the old classics modern makeovers?
MGF: I fully embrace the idea of dusting off the standards and filtering them through a fresh imaginative alchemy in the kitchen. A few years back, my wife and I played around with a soppressata-apple-sage stuffing that I found more appealing than the oatmeal-y amalgam with which I grew up. I can easily (and excitedly) imagine all Thanksgiving foods redone as a single-course flight of savory and sweet ice creams. In the late 1990s, when I was laboring in restaurant kitchens, I came up with a savory first course as a way to revise—via manipulating texture and temperature—the standard liver and onions. It involved a quenelle of chicken liver ice cream atop maple-caramelized onions, a supreme of blood orange, crispy pancetta, toasted hazelnuts, and tiny champagne and Gewürztraminer jellies, accompanied with some crostini.