Every Thanksgiving, it is tradition for the President of the United States to officially pardon a turkey. Out of the millions of unfortunate birds in this country, one lucky slab of poultry is granted sanctuary from the late November massacre. It will not be the anticipated centerpiece of a family table, a glistening, golden mass to be admired. Rather, this bird will stand gizzard-to-gizzard with President Bush as he graciously allows it to stay alive on a day when its brethren are consumed by the pound. What tradition!
What people don’t think about, I’m sure, is that this is ridiculously inconsequential. Why, you ask? Because turkey is nothing terribly special. We all eat it dozens of times throughout the calendar year. I myself eat a turkey sandwich several times a week for lunch, and turkey with mashed potatoes is a Sustainable Thursday staple. So what if everyone eats turkey on Thanksgiving? I ate turkey less than eight hours ago. Pardoning one bird is paltry when you consider how many we actually eat.
In case you were wondering, I am not going to blather on about the importance of turkey in the American diet. Rather, I propose that this Thanksgiving, we direct our attention away from the overblown spectacle that is the holiday turkey and focus instead on what really matters: that which surrounds it.
Now, I’m not talking about family and friends, crucial though they are. What I mean to draw your attention to are the fabulous and too-oft overlooked side dishes that, at least in my family, are infinitely more popular than the bird. I’m talking about the things that one only gets on Thanksgiving: fresh cranberry sauce, stuffed mushrooms, sweet potato pie, homemade corn muffins and meaty stuffing. I’m thinking pumpkin pie with whipped cream, cream of mushroom soup prepared from scratch, artichokes packed with sausage, breadcrumbs, garlic and parsley. Seasonal and traditional, I cannot imagine Thanksgiving without these. Turkey is any day; my grandmother’s Italian sausage and breadcrumb stuffing is once a year.
Let’s face reality: The turkey is often a disappointment. There is a reason that 95 percent of cartoons that run Thanksgiving specials portray disaster in which the turkey goes up in flames in the oven, prompting the goofy but well-meaning protagonist to engage in hilarious antics to save the holiday for his family. My own relatives have a tendency to grossly overcook the bird, rendering it dry and tasteless. Worse still, a friend’s oven once stopped working in the middle of cooking her turkey. She had to drive the bird to a nearby relative’s house to finish cooking it. Festive!
Thanksgiving isn’t about the awesomeness of the bird. It’s about distracting people from how terrible the turkey is with much more awesome side dishes! For years, I watched my mother work as many as three stovetop burners at a time, frantically flipping through recipe books that lay untouched the rest of the year. Similarly, I watched my older cousins, all in college and starved for any sort of flavor, pile up their dishes with my mother’s specialties while practically ignoring the turkey. Now a college student myself, I understand. We all eat enough turkey, but we so rarely get the accoutrements.
Think about it. Is it really Thanksgiving if you just have a turkey and some mashed potatoes, or is it just another Thursday at a Yale dining hall? Consider your own family traditions. Maybe whip up a batch of stuffed artichokes to share with everyone, or make a pumpkin pie with home-made whipped cream. Focus on the little things, as so often those are what make life (and the holidays) that much sweeter.