Carcasses and Cranberries

Childhood memories are largely first impressions of a place and time, a new smell, taste, or sound. We have larger tolerances for new things in youth than we might later in life having not yet formed much in the way of opinions; the world is still mostly new.

It must surely be in these formative years that most Americans develop a taste for turkey and all its companion dishes for Thanksgiving. Stuffing, mashed potatoes (and the million variants of it), cranberry sauce (occasionally still in the shape of the can in which it was held), gravy, yams, and on the dark side, Jell-O molds, and the ultimate assault on what never to use as an ingredient - pumpkin pie.

At no other time of year (save for Christmas) do we subject ourselves to the surprisingly-incapable protein of this giant chicken. Yes, the flavor is slightly different, but when would you ever choose to cook and consume 26-pounds of chicken? Do we want that much chicken? Do we want to be stuck with extra chicken when it's over? Too much of just about anything is, well, too much. Makes a 48-ounce porterhouse seem tame by comparison; if not on "hoof", then on the plate.

Selective breeding has created a much different bird than was served at the first (or, for that matter, first 200) Thanksgivings. Turkeys we dine on today could hardly survive in the wild being ridiculously easy to catch and utterly defenseless. Early turkeys were surely more "gamey" with a richer flavor closer to duck or pheasant.

The rest of the year, turkey is relegated to a low-fat diet served most often in sandwiches or... umm... no, that's about it. Sandwiches. Rarely will you see it on a formal dinner menu in a restaurant. Apart from Thanksgiving dinner itself, I'd dare say you'll never find it.

And the supporting cast? Okay, mashed potatoes are perhaps the universal exception to the uniqueness of a Thanksgiving meal. While beloved by nearly everyone, they can vary wildly in their preparation. Flakes from a box don't count, nor potatoes lacking a fat (butter, bacon drippings, or - if you must - margarine).

Stuffing can also be a remarkably delicious element; so much so in some cases that it outshines the blandness of Turkey. Bread, seasonings, a protein (oysters or sausage), and moisture. Awesome.

And then we hit a wall.

Yams? Or it's easily-mistaken-for-it cousin, the sweet potato? The latter, sliced into fries and cooked as such, is pretty good. But yams? I've yet to hear someone use the phrase, "These yams are amazing!" outside obligatory compliments even about bad cooking. "You've out-done yourself this year, Marge!" Really? Even if most of this was thawed yesterday or scooped from a plastic store-bought container today, she somehow managed to do it better than last year? I just can't fake that voice, I cannot be convincing.

Cranberry sauce? At what other point (save from Cosmopolitan cocktails) do we seek out cranberries in such abundance? Cranberry juice maybe, but even that has seemingly invaded every other fruit juice known to man.

Ambrosia salad? Okay, this may be a largely "Southern thing", but we're beginning to hear the sound of scraping the bottom of the recipe barrel. Basically, if you're doing anything with mini marshmallows other than putting them in hot chocolate, stop. Ditto for Jell-O. Amazing things can be done with unflavored gelatin, but once you put "natural flavorings" in it, it's done. (Jell-O shots count too. Just drink alcohol like a grown-up.)

Green beans take a variety of abuses during this time. In fact, the whole notion of "salad" takes an awkward turn. About.com has an entire entry dedicated to "congealed salads"! Second only to "coagulated", "congealed" sends out a message of, not of dining, but of a crime scene.

Which leaves us with the crown jewel of Thanksgiving day; that one element which, even after having stuffed ourselves to resemble the turkey prior to baking, we somehow manage to find room for - pumpkin pie.

I think most of us have had the same previously-frozen pumpkin pie for the last several decades. They don't change much, but the switch from "Cool Whip" to actual whipped cream is a subtle, and welcome one. (The inventor of Cool Whip deserves an award for selling a container of mostly air. And for combining sugar, wax, and condom lube into a delicious dessert treat.) Kinda makes the ad parody of "Shimmer" on Saturday Night Live some 34 years ago seem like a prediction.

Food geeks, forced to consume canned, frozen foods can't help but think there's something better. A fresh pumpkin pie made from actual pumpkins must surely outshine the frozen variety. In every other imaginable instance, fresh is substantially better than frozen. This is probably the one exception to that rule. A fresh pumpkin pie tastes pretty much like a frozen one. The texture is a bit lighter, the flavors a tad brighter, but at their absolute peak, pumpkins taste like pumpkins. As a friend of a friend pointed out, "The difference between an average pumpkin pie and the best pumpkin pie isn't very big." (Thanks Zalman!)

I guess even with our stern allegiance to amazing food, even the most passionate foodie caves once a year. We may stray from turkey from time to time, but we (usually) return. At least a year has passed since we had turkey (in that quantity anyway), and "well, it is Thanksgiving, after all" is the refrain of surrender. We give in, at least a little, to tradition and set aside our obsessive food tendencies.

Now, pass me another glass of Beaujolais Nouveau.

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