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Philosophy on Thanksgiving

I am trying to decide what to prepare for thanksgiving dinner this year and I'm having a philosophical quandry. Is thanksgiving more about celebrating the first thanksgiving...the pilgrims giving thanks for their new land, feasting with the indians, etc. or is it more about what we are thankful for now, spending time with our families and our family traditions? I'm trying to decide whether to include dishes that were possibly at the first thanksgiving, but that may mean that some of the family traditional favorites may go by the wayside. We are a family of hunters so it would be easy for us to incorporate a wild turkey, venison and possibly some wild fowl, like in the first thanksgiving, but there were no sweet potatoes, no green bean casserole and no pie at the origional thanksgiving. Would it take away from the experience to not have these staples? Is it about the origional thanksgiving or about our own thanksgiving?

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  1. You should be okay if you stay from Slim Jims.

    1. Since you asked, if there is anything "official" about its intent, it is what each President since Lincoln has issued in the annual proclamation of a day of national thanksgiving. The NY Times (maybe no more?) faithfully printed these for years in its former roles as national paper of record. The current Adminstration seems to release its proclamations much closer to the day than was previously the case, when proclamations where issued well in advance. I don't see the 2006 proclamation up at the White House site.


      Which is a long way of saying that Thanksgiving is not about historical recreation but about the present.

      1. For me, Thanksgiving is about tradition - the traditions my family has developed over the years. All the components of the Thanksgiving meal (turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc) are integral to my enjoyment of the day and I would be quite unhappy if anything was left out of the meal or swapped for something new. Every year I read all the Thanksgiving issues of my favorite food magazines and ooh and aah over the latest way to cook turkey or new and fun side dishes, but in the end, our meal is always the same.

        That being said, I know a lot of people for whom variety is the spice of life and they love making new dishes every year. I think your idea of making Thanksgiving dinner the way the pilgrims did could be fun, but only if you have the kind of family who doesn't mind changing things up every year.

        1. Hmmm, personally I think you are taking too much of an "all or nothing" approach. For me it's a combination of celebrating both past and present. In fact I don't see how it could be strictly one or the other. It's a traditional holiday that each person makes their own in one way or another every year. So I give thanks for our forefathers but also for what we have today.

          I also don't see anything wrong with including dishes that were not at the original party even if you want to lean toward the first celebration. So go ahead, have venison AND greenbean casserole if you want. The fact that you are even aware that the pilgrims did things a little differently puts you light years ahead of many people. Regardless, this topic will make great conversation at the table. If your guests are supportive, maybe next year you can go all out and recreate a pilgirm meal.

          1. I strongly suggest that you watch the movie "What's Cooking", (directed by Garunda Chadha, who also directed Bend it Like Bekham). It shows four ethnic families preparing a Thanksgiving meal, each in their own way, each with all of the requisite family mishagas. The film does a great job of celebrating family traditions, and should help you with your quandry.

            1. Despite the origins of Thanksgiving (the picture isn't quite so rosy as usually made out in history books), I strongly agree that celebrating Thanksgiving is an intensely personal thing. I would never want to have a meal that recreated (as closely as possible) the original Thanksgiving meal, but that's just my personal food preferences talking. I wouldn't like to have the exact same meal every year, either. Again, that's because in my family, we have a tradition of having somewhat non-traditional Thanksgivings, that are different every year. One year we went to Koi Palace in Daly City to have dim sum for Thanksgiving. Another year we had an all Filipino food celebration. Yet another time we did the traditional roast turkey, mashed potatoes, etc. This year we're going to deep fry a turkey for the first time. Even though we celebrate it non-traditionally, we definitely capture the spirit of Thanksgiving: which for me, is being thankful for my friends and family, and everything else, and celebrating that... no matter which way the food is cooked.

              1. What I always think is that I can do all the experimenting I want 364 days a year. Thanksgiving is about tradition, as Sarah says above. There is something very, very special about eating the same things, the same way every year. Stories get passed down about how an aunt who always brought something odd. Kids make turkey-shaped place cards out of silhouettes of their hands. Three generations taste the stuffing and adjust seasonings before it goes in the turkey. These things matter - it is surprising how much they matter; especially to kids who you think don't notice anything. Families bonds are built from these traditions. I don't like to mess with them. Just one opinion. Whatever you do – have a wonderful holiday! Kim

                1. I definitely respect people's right to tradition, and the benefits of keeping traditions alive. What I do object to is the idea that Thanksgiving "should" be about certain foods, that there is some kind of hard & fast rule. My grandparents, parents, and I myself were all born in the Philippines. We have no tradition of one recipe for family stuffing, or other Thanksgiving related foods. We do have many other traditions about food that are not mainstream (for Christmas, always ensaimadas, hamon...)For the sake of honoring the traditions of our adopted homeland, should we prepare & eat food that doesn't suit our tastebuds? What about onefineleo's example above, of 4 ethnic families celebrating Thanksgiving in their own way? Are our Thanksgiving celebrations less valid, because we don't have the same traditions?

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: SanJoseHound

                    No, of course your traditions are no less valid!

                    The context in which some might feel that "Thanksgiving should be about certain foods" is within their own families - some people are pretty adamant that it's not Thanksgiving without [fill in the blank], but as far as I've ever encountered, even they recognize that other families might have different rules.

                    To me, it seems that the menu is beside the point - we have a pretty fixed spread, others like to change it up every year, others still go out to dinner - whatever! The biggest point of Thanksgiving is to take a day to enjoy and be thankful for family, friends, and whatver other good we may have in our lives.

                    1. re: Allstonian

                      Exactly - tradition, by definition, is something that is passed down between the generations. For some people that means eating the same meal every year. For others, that means doing something completely different every year.

                  2. One Thanksgiving we broke from many of our combined family traditions because we were entertaining an English friend who, when he found he was going to be in Nashville over Thanksgiving, asked if we could prepare a rigorously AMERICAN meal, and he'd pay for the groceries. We stuck with the turkey, cornbread and sausage stuffing, scalloped oysters and mashed potatoes and gravy. Instead of yams I baked some squash, which we served coarsely mashed with lots of butter, and I made Southern-style green beans (simmered with ham, onion and some pods of red pepper). The dessert was an apple pandowdy, made as an apple upside-down cake with a somewhat biscuit-like cake, served with cream. The only thing that was not truly old-fashioned was the wine! Norman was delighted with everything, and told us that as much as he'd dreamed about one day experiencing a real American Thanksgiving, we'd exceeded his expectations.

                    1. We spend Thanksgiving with our family but this year we are volunteering at a soup kitchen before heading over to Grandma's.

                      I know many families that volunteer year after year. We thought it time to roll up our sleeves. It's about adding a new element to our "giving day" by giving back.

                      1. I'll go with Thanksgiving being about tradition. That said, define tradition. I mean that literally and figuratively, or to put it another way, define what tradition means to you.

                        My family comes from the Pacific side of the world and while we have had the traditional, ritualized Thanksgiving turkey dinner it's not a lock every year. We've also had fresh caught salmon, crab and roast pig at different times.

                        Some traditionalists would be shocked yet if you look at the "spirit" of the tradition - giving thanks, being happy you're alive, enjoying the bounty available and making the best of things - this works for me.

                        I guess it really comes down to what works for you. A wild turkey and your family tradition sounds great and seems like a natural.

                        1. When my daughter was young we celebrated Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, and ate like the Pilgrams did. While it was fun and entertaining, I couldn't wait to get back to our family traditional Thanksgiving, and it isn't anything I would want to repeat. For those from Massachusetts, New England, or any who have experienced this, you know what I mean. I'm glad I did it though.


                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Infomaniac

                            I took my kids one year to Plimoth Plantation too......whew, glad that's done. There's no place like home.

                          2. I say "Give the people what they want."
                            In other words, going old school is fine, so long as the rest of the family is on board with it. Sometimes when you get an idea like that in your head and no one is into it, it can be kinda weird.


                            1. I think Thanksgiving is about YOUR tradition, whatever that is. There's a place for authenticity and all, but Thanksgiving should be about whatever makes you and your family happiest. Martha Stewart is not going to go to someone's house and give them a medal for having the "Most Authentic Thanksgiving," so you're not missing out on anything.

                              Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday by a long shot, because it has no agenda besides that's in the name itself: it's a day to be thankful for the things you're thankful for, whatever those things are. But I also really love it when family traditions change: when I first started coming to Allstonian's family Thanksgiving before we were married, my contribution to the meal was a Texas specialty from my own family tradition that they had never heard of, buttermilk pie. Now, buttermilk pie (and my other official contribution, roasted brussels sprouts) are so much part of the household tradition, there would be howls of protest if they were left out!

                              1. Instead of an "either - or" answer, I'd like to come down strongly on the fence and respond that Thanksgiving is both remembering the first Thanksgiving and celebrating family traditions. Or it is this way in our family.

                                Our nuclear family is scattered and when we come together for family celebrations involving food, we are thankful to be a part of this far-flung group. We remember Grandma So-and-So for her walnut bread and a grandfather on another side of the family for his raw cranberry-orange relish. One southern relative is celebrated for her biscuits & ham while others have a different regional speciality. We also remember those who are no longer living and share a poignant story about them.

                                One year, when my late husband was a student at the Navy's Test Pilot School, we had a glorious celebration with "waifs and strays" who had no close family and included the foreign students for whom Thanksgiving was an unholiday. Italians shared the table with British, the Germans sat across from Israelis, Scandanavians and Dutch were all contributors to our feast. It was a wonderful meal of Thanksgiving for all of us and one we'll treasure.

                                Two memorable flops: the year I decided to closely replicate the pilgrim's meal, and making a sauerkraut-duck dish for a struggling, homesick foreign student. Neither were "do agains" in our family -- we missed our turkey dinner.

                                Will tradition ebb and flow? Certainly, if it isn't to become hidebound. Will we have sweet potatoes this year? Youbetcha, but no one knows under what guise they will appear. We'll have votes for "Catherine's Jack Daniels Sweet Potatoes" while others will request some fruit with theirs.

                                When I was teaching Food History, I had students list their family tree and write an indicative menu of their Thanksgiving meal. Some very interesting meals evolved -- a Swedish auntie married to a Chinese uncle who'd lived in central Mexico and Egypt. One student recalled an almost fistfight between the southern contingent and some others from Vermont over "the proper dessert" for Thanksgiving. I believe they compromised, serving both pecan pie and apple pie.

                                That, to me, sums up the tradition of Thanksgiving - incorporating everyone at the welcoming table and giving thanks for our blessings. If we choose to celebrate our ancestors - fine. If the meal is held in a slick fusion restaurant, that's fine too. The foods will be different but the thankful spirit remains true.

                                1. For many Rhode Island Italian-Americans, Thanksgiving starts with snail salad and a nice dish of ziti and red gravy with meatballs, followed by turkey with all the fixings... there are thousands of traditional meals, all valid. Of all days, this one is about the sharing of food, and so should be all Chowhounds' favorite holiday.

                                  1. My husband goes about this time of year, asking people how many (and what) dishes are necessary for it to be "real" TG. The average seems to be about 5...turkey, mashed potatoes, a side (often that nasty sweet-potato-with-marshmellow-glue), some particular dessert. Himself needs about 10, including radishes, cranberry jelly with the ridges from the can still on, and creamed onions. The champion is a friend from Massachusetts, a woman so New England that her daughter is the 7th generation of the family to live in their house, a house that backs onto the family cranberry bog. She needs something like 15 things, including three cranberry relishes and three pies: mince, pumpkin, and squash. And the squash pie has to be square. Our friend was thirty before she figured out that the squash pie was square because her grandmother made it last and had run out of round baking pans by that time.

                                    1. North American Thanksgiving is, for me, a celebration of the Autumn Harvest similiar to traditions around the world (Zhong Qui, Sukkot, Onam, etc.). While I don't feel inclined to stick to the original Thanksgiving menu or even my family's traditional Thanksgiving menu, my darling husband does request that we keep American traditions on American Thanksgiving (I believe this is because we do not currently live in the US). The menu will include turkey (although this year I might be able to talk him into turkey plus wild game) and all the usual suspects in some form (mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, vegetables, pumpkin pie). We also invite as many people as can comfortably fit into the house including American exchange students that weren't able to get home for the holiday. At the end of the day, its about celebrating our blessings.

                                      1. Hey, it IS a free country, no? Life is for whatever you want it to be. In a hundred years, who's going to know or care? There are my cliches for today. Really, please yourself and your family. Do it one way this year and another way next year. See what feels better, more fun, more fulfilling. And, out of curiosity, how does the flavor of wild turkey compare with supermarket turkey?