Even before you start picking at the turkey or swilling the early afternoon Beaujolais, you might be feeling a bit full of Thanksgiving. It's the run up, which we are now in the midst of. As the calendar ticks down to turkey day, we're being stuffed with advice, product promos and tips to "master" the feast and host the "ultimate" holiday meal.
How will yours compare?
Of course everyone can up their game. But the Thanksgiving table feels like the wrong place to chase perfection.
What makes a holiday memorable is what makes it ours. If yours lines up with the shopping catalog images of ease and plenty and harmony, well, you have a different family than mine, but I bet mine is more common.
It's a tapestry of traditions — some beloved, some simply tolerated and some gleefully deconstructed, all in the same kitchen. It's different tastes and temperaments within the same family. Here's some food for thought on your way to seconds.
First, bad dishes aren't always failed dishes. The side dish cooked to mush, the packaged staple unceremoniously plopped down — these don't always show poor cooking or lack of effort.
That frumpy dish may be someone's guilty pleasure, a once-a-year reminisce with a relic. Or maybe it's the one thing they know they can control at the holiday. No matter what else is happening in family life, they still always bring the canned green beans with waterlogged almonds. Make some room on the plate and play along.
Next, consider that resistance to tradition is a tradition. Maybe it's the "healthy dish" someone slips into the Thanksgiving spread. You know the type — the barley pilaf with cashew cheese, the mixed mushroom soy product salad dressed with diet tonic water.
Whether it comes from best intentions or an activist agenda, the annual healthy dish experiment belongs to its own essential Thanksgiving tradition. This is the loyal oppositon. It may never be the meal's centerpiece, but at least it can be a conversation piece.
We also need to remember that it takes more than cooks to make Thanksgiving. There's the project manager for the groceries, the harbormaster overseeing the ebb and flow of the buffet, the head of sanitation at the sink, the umpire adjudicating family disputes, the therapist who's just there to listen.
Some people are born into their specific roles, others were recruited, and they can change over time. Those once content at the kids' table eventually start taking the reins of family tradition, and transforming them as they grow. To watch it all mesh is to witness competing tastes, compromises and allegiances, the rise of one generation and the steadfast grip of another. It's not exactly Game of Thrones, but it does end with some serious blade work around that bird.
Thanksgiving does not just come from cookbooks and pro tips. It comes from families — the ones we're born into, brought into or that we convene ourselves. So whether your holiday turns out like the Norman Rockwell version or something closer to the Charlie Brown edition, the recipe that makes it real is sitting right there around the table with you.
Ian McNulty is a regular contributor to WWNO and covers food culture and dining for the daily New Orleans Advocate.