Thanksgiving: 3 Ways (This Thanksgiving We're Going to Party Like It's 1621)
Thanksgiving is my very favorite holiday. I prefer it to the December holidays, New Years, and even my birthday. I prefer it because it is one of the only holidays that have not succumbed to commercialization and become a special day for candy and home decor companies to push their wares. Even though it's now a secular holiday, after three centuries, Thanksgiving is still a celebration that's centered on being a generous, grateful, and compassionate human being.
A lot of Thanksgivings are about family dysfunction and weird, terrible food involving aspic and marshmallow topping.
That is not how I roll.
I'm celebrating Thanksgiving three times this year. (Which really isn't that weird considering Florida, Texas and Virginia all had Thanksgiving celebrations before the Plymouth Colony made it a yearly holiday in 1621.) And really, wouldn't this country be better off if we focused more attention on harvest festivals that are about being thankful for what we already have and not holidays that center on deep discounts at the mall? In the spirit of the Plymouth colonists' and Wampanoag Confederacy's first dinner, I'm going to follow their example on what makes a good party.
In addition to wild turkey and a variety of winter vegetables, the guests at the first Plymouth Thanksgiving also enjoyed swan, venison and seal. Taking a cue from what is surely the ultimate pot luck dinner, I hosted a Thanksgiving pot luck for my Chowhounds foodies group, on November 15th, before everyone went home for the real deal. Last year's foodies party was so epic that I ended up with 40 pounds of leftovers, including four untouched pumpkin pies and two turkey carcasses that I turned into five gallons of turkey and rice soup. It was enough to cater three Thanksgiving Redux parties, which was tiresome, but delicious.
Although I managed to successfully entertain fifty guests in my 1000 square foot house, we almost immediately ran out of protein. I thought that two twenty-pound turkeys would be enough for all the carnivores to have a decent serving of white or dark meat. What I didn't count on was how much the birds would shrink during cooking.
Instead of spending hours basting and fretting over the oven, I delegated the turkey preparation to the neighborhood bodega that is famous for its Armenian-style rotisserie chicken. For $20 they agreed to rotisserie my two turkeys. The roasting was perfect. The birds were succulent and juicy with dark brown, crackly skin that melted in your mouth...but at half their original mass.
This year I'm planning a little better, first by asking all my guests to bring some Tupperware for leftovers, so I don't have so much surplus. In addition to turkeys (that will be rotisserie cooked again), I'm also serving a Honey Baked Ham purchased with an expired $50 ham gift certificate from 1997 that my mom found stuck to the back of her kitchen junk drawer. (Thanks to an awesome law in California, gift certificates have no expiration, a legal loophole that my mother can't exploit in Arizona.) Now if only I can get other people to bring some eel and lobster as alternate main courses...
My actual Thanksgiving dinner will be an all-day event I call the Strays Party. Up until two years ago, I hosted a Strays Party where I would start cooking at 10 in the morning and wouldn't stop until 10 at night. In the fabulous Wampanoag Indian tradition of snacking all day, people who were alone for the holiday could show up, eat and leave whenever they wanted. (Each year I also pick up a number of friends who eat at my house to subsidize what they know will be a disastrous meal cooked by mom. At least they know they'll eat well at least once that day.) The Strays Party is super fun, because I never know who is going to show up when, so every hour it's like a different party with different guests. Over the years my Strays menu got more and more elaborate and byzantine. I made elk meatloaf sandwiches on focaccia. I made Ovaltine gelato. I made Turducken.
Two years ago I wised up — I realized that the thing my friends were dying to eat every year wasn't my Thanksgiving dinner, it was my Thanksgiving breakfast which consists of baked curried fruit salad and Swedish pancakes topped with my homemade cranberry preserve and creme fraiche. So, for the past two years, I've still had a Strays Party but only served the pancakes with different toppings all day. Let me just say that my kitchen stays much cleaner with all-day Thanksgiving Breakfast and my friends are still excited to come over.
During the first week of December I am going to host Thanksgiving Redux. This is a potluck dinner where everyone brings his or her Thanksgiving leftovers to share. This a great way to squeeze in one more dinner with friends before everyone's year end schedule gets too crazy, without spending any money on food.
(Author's Note: Squanto and Samoset were the two Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims survive after the colony nearly perished from the harsh New England winter. They taught the newly minted Americans how to fish for eel, fertilize their crops and grow corn. The 1621 Thanksgiving was a celebration of the colony's first successful harvest. In honor of Squanto's and Somoset's generosity, I am going to raffle off local honey and homemade organic preserves at this year's Thanksgiving Redux as a fundraiser for Heifer International that will provide ten communities in Tanzania with honeybees and specialized education in resource management and beekeeping.)