Thanksgiving is the dullest of holidays. Excruciatingly dull. We all know that. The centerpiece bird is, without the most tortuous contrivances, invariably dull, dry and bland; its side dishes bland even by the standards of 19th century Yankee dining (which is to say, pretty damn bland); and the venerable ancestors to whom the feast is dedicated as alien to us as the denizens of Rigel IV. I can’t think of a single emotional response to Thanksgiving that isn’t connected to family or friendship. And it’s not like you need Thanksgiving, as currently constituted, to have family and friends. So instead of gathering loved ones together and boring their palates, we should all reboot Thanksgiving. Recreate it from scratch.
I’m not talking about changing the sentiment. We all have a lot to be thankful for, and it’s a good idea to formalize our consciousness of that. Just in the last year I have avoided penury and disease, solitude and celibacy and a thousand other ills, from bleu cheese to Lars von Trier movies. Nor am I advocating the overthrow of the turkey, however much I might wish it. Calvin Trillin had one of the all-time great foodie applause lines in his oft-repeated desire to replace turkey with spaghetti carbonara as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving, but there’s no getting away from the turkey. Even Alexander Hamilton, the most urbane of the Founding Fathers, knew that much: “No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” he proscribed. Not to mention the more than 736 million pounds of the stuff eaten each “turkey day,” according to the National Turkey Federation. Were we to dispense with it on Thanksgiving, a whole industry would go under, and the club sandwich industry would surely follow.
On the other hand, there’s nothing that says that an entire, Volkswagen-sized bird needs to show up, with its uncarveable thighs, revolting carcass and bizarre, gaping maw. It’s already a ceremonial appearance at best, like a beloved elderly comedian that shows up once a year to accept a tribute award. It’s not that it can’t be made well; the way Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone make their supremely moist and sapid breast (disclosure: they’ve become my friends) can point the way for a smaller, better turkey in Thanksgiving future. They brine it and wrap it and slow cook it endlessly, so that its preparation is closer to spa treatment than cooking.
So you do your part for cultural continuity. You have turkey on Thanksgiving. You are now free to jettison all the awful side dishes that are, justly, banished from your table for the rest of the year. No cranberry sauce. No “stuffing.” (When would you ever eat a giant bread casserole otherwise?) No sweet potatoes, unless you like them and/or they grow nearby. Instead, make the side dishes that actually express who you are. For me, this would mean potato latkes (too laborious and fattening for everyday use), a potato gratin, Ossabaw collard greens, Coolio’s garlic bread and some medley of roasted vegetable for color. Start the meal with oysters, end it with Kozy Shack pudding, and that’s the Ozersky Thanksgiving.
You could stop there; there is a school of thought that says that, in a coming era of scarcity and overcrowding, we will all eat less meat and more vegetables. That may be true, but it shouldn’t be the case on Thanksgiving; that would be like buying into the argument of that Texas professor who used to go around saying that we should change Thanksgiving into a national Day of Atonement for our crimes against the Native Americans. No thanks. Let gluttony continue to rule the day. Have a second main dish or even a third. And it can and should be something intensely traditional for you. That may be something your parents or grandparents loved (such as my grandmother’s Chinese roast pork) or an ethnic dish that is actually authentic, rather than some freakish hybrid — the turk au vins, the curry-glazed turkeys and all the other food-mag fodder that is forced onto our tables each year, as we seek vainly for escape from the crushing monotony and conformism of the turkey menu. We should make what we want, uniting around a single dish — which we can then forget about and pursue our happiness our own way. It is, after all, our inalienable right and too important to drown in a cranberry bog.