- Honestly, Dara -

Why Thanksgiving Isn’t About the Food

Disaster has struck many a Thanksgiving dinner — but it doesn’t have to define the holiday experience.

Illustration of family at thanksgiving dinner

My absolute favorite Thanksgiving disaster story comes from my mom’s friend Faye, who was on the glorious road to creating the first really good stuffing of her life.

She started by making a rich chicken stock, cooking chicken backs, onions, carrots, and celery all day. Once the stock was golden and perfect, she prepared to strain out the solids. She put her biggest colander in the sink and dumped the stock in, carefully catching everything she needed to discard. That’s when she realized she needed a pot to catch the stock that was going down the drain.

I love this story! Who among us hasn’t started the day in good faith with grand ambition and ended it by ordering pizza?

My own Thanksgiving disaster stories are less charming. You see, except for the timing, I don’t really think a Thanksgiving dinner is that hard to prepare. The turkey, for instance, is a big thing that bakes. If you buy a bird that’s fresh, or get your frozen one thawed in advance, your basic task becomes, in the main, not opening the oven door. This can be hard, but still. . . .

I edited a recipe magazine for many years, and oh, how we strained to overcomplicate Thanksgiving. One year we did a French Norman Thanksgiving and soaked the bird in Calvados. The next year, it was a sumac surprise, basted with Tunisian olive oil! Anything for “news.”

I blithely ignored the fact that most people want anything but new news on Thanksgiving: They want Grandma’s green beans, Mom’s apple pie, and Aunt Gert’s whatever that was that resembled sweet potatoes.

Thanksgiving is a time for memories, family, and reconnection. But I, a recipe editor, could not fill six pages with the traditional dishes someone related to us used to make! So, in came the Calvados.

A Dive Bar and a Turkey Roll

My personal worst Thanksgiving was the one when I was living far from my parents and when my 11-year, all-but-marriage relationship with my college boyfriend blew up, fell apart, and left everyone involved stranded and weeping. Thanksgiving — ghoulishly, insensitively, hideously, like a skeleton driving an ice-cream truck — pulled into town nonetheless.

Sympathetic friends invited me into their own homes. But I felt strongly that if I went, I would start weeping and then grab the curtains and pull them down and sweep my arms over the tables, spilling everything onto the floor. I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t throw myself on top of the toppled turkey, screaming and weeping, while hungry dinner guests watched, agape. So, in deference to my friends’ curtains, I passed.

Quasi-strangers extended generous invitations as well, but I thought that the sight of any happy domestic arrangements would trigger emotional chaos. I imagined myself smoking unfiltered cigarettes, manifesting a Harley-Davidson out of thin air, and roaring furiously around a dining room in protest of everything I no longer possessed. Heartbreak doesn’t crave mere human food. Or at least mine didn’t.

So I found a friend who had dedicated her year to staying as high as a cloud whenever she wasn’t working (don’t worry, she’s better now), and the two of us made our way to a dive bar serving a $12 Thanksgiving plate: wet turkey roll, powdered mashed potatoes, gravy like glue, and a beer. It suited my mood.

After picking at my food, I looked around the barroom. Most of the other patrons were from a nearby group home for developmentally disabled adults. I went from feeling dismissive of my turkey roll to feeling profoundly touched that the employees in this bar were working on the holiday to give all of us fragile humans a shelter on that fraught and stormy day.

When I look back on this, the worst and most disastrous Thanksgiving of my life, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. This boyfriend and I had previously enjoyed some Thanksgivings of culinary glory: I perfected my pie crust; I made a turkey with porcini butter under the skin that turned the bird as brown as a chestnut and as tender as cake.

But these foodie triumphs were like big bedspreads I was throwing over couches to conceal the giant gashes in the cushions and the missing armrests. These are not functional couches, and that was a dysfunctional relationship that even a good gravy couldn’t fix.

A Foolproof Thanksgiving Feast

If I could go back in time, I’d tell that young me — the one cooking perfect turkeys against the storm, as it were — that an honest dive bar serving glue for gravy is a better place to spend Thanksgiving than a mansion full of lies with a table groaning under the weight of the world’s tastiest heritage bird.

I’d tell her that those pages devoted to a French Norman Thanksgiving would be better filled by getting chefs to call their grandmas and ask what they remember from their own childhoods. I’d tell her that people only think they want something new to eat on Thanksgiving; what they really want is connection and a sense of being in the human family.

Maybe I’d even share my foolproof Thanksgiving-feast plan:

  • Buy a good turkey. I like a free-ranging heritage-breed bird, because they have a gamier flavor, but you do you.
  • Make porcini butter. Start by rehydrating 2 ounces of pulverized porcini-mushroom powder in a cup of boiling water that you subsequently let cool. Pour into a blender, and add two sticks of melted butter, 2 teaspoons of salt, six garlic cloves, a good quantity of fresh-ground black pepper (like, a teaspoon at least), and whatever fresh green herbs you can get your hands on. A couple tablespoons of fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, and a big handful of parsley are nice. Blend.
  • Spread the butter under the skin of the turkey and on top of it, too.
  • Roast your turkey at a lower temperature, say 300 degrees F, for a longish time, until it reaches the temperature turkeys ought to reach: 165 degrees F. Try not to open the oven door too often. Don’t stuff the cavity with anything; it messes up your cooking time. If your turkey starts looking like it’s going to burn before it finishes cooking, cover it with a foil tent (one of the few justifiable reasons to open the oven). When it’s done, use the pan drip-pings to make gravy.

Ask those people who love you to take care of the rest of the meal. If those people who love you happen to be small dogs or babies, cook some frozen green peas and buy a loaf of good bread to serve with good butter. If those people who say they love you won’t pitch in, pay attention: They may not be telling you something you’re ready to hear, but they are telling you something. Feed yourself well; you’re going to need it.

Thanksgiving is about so many things, including being grateful for the bounty of the world and seeing who shows up at your table.

You deserve a good Thanksgiving. Sometimes you get it, and sometimes you get a disaster story that tells you more than a perfect pumpkin pie ever could. Over the years, you might even come to appreciate the unwanted gift of truly disastrous, horrible, dissipated, no-good, undelicious Thanksgivings.

And if this is that year for you, I’m here to tell you that even the foodiest foodies know that sometimes a dive-bar meal or a frozen pizza is that day’s good-enough blessing.

This originally appeared as “Hidden Bounty” in the November 2019 issue of Experience Life.

is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Claudi Kessels

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