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But, but, but…That’s Sacrilegious!

turkeyfootballIt is three weeks until Thanksgiving in the United States.  That time when we gather around the television set to watch football and sort through the advertisements to determine which line to wait in for the 4:00 a.m. opening of Black Friday.  And, in between those events, we stuff ourselves until we have to unbutton the top button of our pants (unless we had the foresight to wear something with an elastic waistband).

I’m not sure when Thanksgiving became a day to celebrate excess. Even our planning of the menu has gotten so far out of control that we become overwhelmed and feel that the only option is to order the  deluxe “Thanksgiving in a Box” and then we feel guilty and end up spending days in the kitchen adding more food to the enormous portions that will come in the store-catered box.

I say “enough.”  I’m drawing a line in the mashed potatoes.  If we truly want to live like our grandmothers, we have to stop giving in to the urge to be excessive (and obsessive).  It’s not like we can’t get this kind of food any time of the year, any time we want it.  Thanksgiving is not “the last supper.”

In reviewing two vintage cookbooks and one book on entertaining, the one thing that jumps out at me is that the menus really aren’t all that big.  The menus are special but not excessive.  This tells me that we don’t have to have 14 different side dishes and 5 different kinds of desserts.  Believe it or not, the meals seemed to be about celebrating blessings…about giving thanksgiving for the good things in our lives.

Will you join me in saying “no” to the excess and the stress and the obsession?  I know what I’m asking is sacrilegious in our modern culture, but just because everyone else is being excessive, doesn’t mean we have to be wacko, too.  I mean, we wouldn’t jump off of a bridge, would we, just because they are?  But, in essence, we are symbolically jumping off of that bridge just because we think we ought to do so in  order to “make everything special.”

Here are what Thanksgiving menus looked like prior to 1963:

Better Homes & Gardens Holiday Cookbook, 1959

Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner
Hot Tomato Starter
Roast Turkey
Herb Stuffing
Cranberry Sauce
Orange-glazed Sweet Potatoes
Buttered Green Beans
Apple-Pineapple Slaw
Hot Biscuits
Pumpkin Pie
Feast for Thanksgiving
Harvest Fruit Cup
Roast Rock Cornish Game Hen
Mushroom Wild Rice
Asparagus Spears with Lemon Wedges
Baked Butternut Squash
Waldorf Salad
Pumpkin Chiffon Tarts
Hot Coffee

McCall’s Cookbook, 1963

Traditional Thanksgiving
Golden-brown Turkey
Peas and Little Onions
Buttery Grated Carrots
Cranberry-Brazil-Nut Relish
Brandied Pumpkin Pie
Roast Loin of Pork, Polynesian
Yams Flambes’
Green Beans with Mushrooms
Wine Fruit Salad
Cranberries Jubilee

Successful Entertaining at Home, 1952

Family Thanksgiving
Raymie’s Clam Juice Cocktail
Minted Cream of Pea Soup with Croutons
Roast Turkey
Brazil Nut Stuffing
Giblit Gravy
Creamed Corn
Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
Molded Cranberry Pineapple Salad
Ginger Pumpkin Chiffon Refrigerator Cake

When we stop “shoulding all over ourselves” about what we think we have to do for Thanksgiving–and the Holidays, for that matter–then we can liberate ourselves from the messages that the media puts forth that are truly just designed to get us to spend our hard earned money.  We have a choice and a say in the matter.  Let’s make those choices instead of being in default mode.

Try this out this year: Only make what people truly love and don’t have every day.  See how many people notice that the ________ casserole that nobody likes but still gets made every year out of a sense of tradition is not on the table.

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  2. I suggest that one key to the size of the menu is how many of you will gather. If the meal is a potluck, there’s bound to be a variety of food. But if it’s just a few, decisions should be made as to what the menu will include. My sister is hosting our family’s Thanksgiving, and she has served notice that there will not be mashed potatoes and gravy this year.

    I was thinking of family letters written from the farm in the 1930s. Holiday meals were rather lavish — lots of food. I think they thought of it as an opportunity to splurge — to have food they wouldn’t ordinarily serve.

    Years ago I resolved to eat moderately at holiday meals — just a dab of this and that — and I’ve stuck by that ever since.

  3. I agree that the size of the gathering will impact the menu but I’m still astonished when I read these old cookbooks and their “feasts” for 100 would be considered a “famine” by today’s standards.

    I think with potlucks, though, we still go overboard. I know that there have several family potlucks I’ve attended where I was asked to bring pies for dessert. So, I’ve made several different pies so that there will be options and enough for everyone to have a slice. But then I’ve arrived and find out that two other family members have also been asked to bring dessert and they, too, have made enough for everyone. If I had known this information, I would have only brought one or two pies so that I wouldn’t have bring “extra” pies home because no one else wanted to take them. Three people bringing enough dessert for everyone is an example of what I mean about being “excessive.”

  4. I see what you mean. So — perhaps communication needs to be improved? But I don’t know — I think some of this is just going to happen when folks get together. It might be a thoughtless kind of thing where I say to myself, “I’m going to need some pie over the weekend so I’ll just share my efforts at the reunion and bring leftovers home,” without realizing that by doing so I’m actually overstepping my bounds, in a way.

    I remember my sister (your mother’s age) explaining to me years ago that the philosophy of a potluck is that you bring enough of your dish for your own family. So, if I have a family of four, I need a casserole that would serve four. And I do think we’ve lost sight of that simple rule. And we eat too much.

    Many of my family are older now and on restricted diets, so last year I took a Bisquick “Impossible Pumpkin Pie.” No one — NO ONE — touched it. Everyone went for the rich desserts, restrictions and all. I won’t try that again.

  5. I’m also wondering if the “super size me” mentality also plays into this belief that we have to have a bazillion different foods? And, I’m also wondering about the impact Martha Stewart and other “lifestyle” experts have on our sensibility of what a holiday meal is supposed to be like.

    I don’t know…. It just seems like since I’ve disengaged from the television that everything seems over the top and out of control…

  6. It is intimidating to have people over when you feel everything has to be perfect. In our family so many of us have special dietary requests, it can sometimes feel like you are a restaurant, catering to individuals. I think it is nice as the hostess to make a few personal decisions about what dishes to serve that are savory, but limited and personal. I think this idea really will take off – because it is more enjoyable for the hostess and the guests. It is like getting a gift you would never buy for yourself so you have the freedom to really enjoy it!

  7. Your site was recommended by a blogging buddy so I popped over to say hi.

    This was an interesting post. I’ll add my 2 cents. We – our family – have been having the same Thanksgiving dinner menu since I can remember – over 50 years. This was the one day a year that we really splurged. The amounts of food cooked only partly depended on how many people were present. My grandmothers, aunts, mom, all wanted enough food left over so that every one could take home leftovers and not have to cook the next day. I still go on that theory. Everyone gets to take food home. Also, we never knew (or for that matter know) how many people will show up. Thanksgiving is an “everyone is come to come eat” day.

  8. You make some good, well-defined points, Packrat. In reviewing my memory, I concluded that the menu served in my family has remained much the same for over 50 years and we plan the menu along traditional lines. I grew up in the remote inland northwest while my husband grew up in the south, and he says his family Thanksgiving menu was much the same as my family’s. He added that Thanksgiving is a “feast.” And — sharing the food at the end of the meal so that participants take leftovers home is part of it.

    I think we like tradition because we like the solid feel that some things never change. But even our most cherished traditions have to change. Grandpa and Grandma left us, the little ones grew up and mostly moved away, and now those of us who used to meet at Mother’s house somehow manage to pull off the feast to the best of our ability.

    Thanks for the timely, thought-provoking post, Dr. J. It proved to be a launching point for my own musings.

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