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November, 2011:

Thanksgiving, Tradition, and Inertia

SeitanLoavesCloseup

Thanksgiving must be the most tradition-bound American holiday. The focus of the celebration is narrow: a harvest feast, and usually a very circumscribed menu. The template is rigid: gather with your family, cook a turkey and some starchy sides, and watch some football before the Christmas season drops upon us like an anvil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Our vegetarian gathering is an act of rebellion in this context, almost a dangerous outlier. There’s no meat on the table, and quite a number of dishes with no egg or dairy either. Those who gather are friends, not family, and we don’t travel from any further than an adjacent borough. (Though visitors from out of town would be welcome if they were to come.) We watch no football, cut out no paper Pilgrim hats, and top no sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and not just because marshmallows aren’t actually vegetarian. If turkey and stuffing are classic Americana, we are subversive.

VegsToRoast
But in other ways we have a very tradition-bound celebration. We’ve been holding it since 2005 with only one interruption, so it’s been a tradition since 2006. We have our favorite dishes: seitan pot roast, macaroni and cheese (for those who wonder, it’s apparently a Southern thing), cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes. We always watch episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or its descendants Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. Even the root beer and the chocolate pudding cake are traditional mainstays now.

We love our traditional dishes, but it’s different for the food writers: starting in early November the anguished cries start breaking out in newspapers and magazines. Thanksgiving, the food writers say, is hard; there are no new things to say about roasting the oversized bird (for the love of God, don’t bake it with stuffing inside), preparing the usual array of sides, using up the leftovers. Kate Julian on Slate points out that the menu is full of annual classics for a reason: “Any lineup that is full of things we only eat only once year seems suspect. If we really liked turkey and candied yams so much, would we not pull them out again on some other day?” She pleads for us to consider new and non-traditional dishes, in a tone that sounds resigned to falling on deaf ears.

I’m more optimistic that there’s hope for heterodoxy here. Maybe it’s just because I’ve co-hosted a bird-free feast for some years now without being visited by the Department of Homeland Security. Or maybe it’s because, since I’m not participating in a family feast that’s fraught with inherited emotional baggage, I feel freer to make the holiday all about the things that make me and my guests happy, and sometimes to let myself put it in that order. In some cases that means the cherished standbys; in some cases that means new variations like olive rolls, an adaptation of the Martha Stewart recipe I made for Christmas a few years ago, which hadn’t had a chance before now to join the November table. In years past it’s been roasted brussels sprouts, kale with cranberries, pumpkin-ice-cream pie. There’s room for the new and the old on my table. (Despite what the photo below suggests.)

ThanksgivingTable
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the 107 Cookbooks project means to me as I figure out how to get back on a cooking and publishing schedule. The reason I have more than 100 cookbooks — more than 107, if I’m going to be honest about it — is that I am constantly open to new ideas and ready to get excited about different tastes and ingredients. The reason that up until a few years ago I hadn’t done anything at all with the lion’s share of those books is that on a day-to-day basis, it’s very easy for me to opt for the familiar, the traditional, the easy. The safety of tradition can provide comfort, a stable place to brace yourself and take a breath before striding confidently back into the world. Carried too far, it can become laziness and ossification, until you find yourself trying to remember the last time you had something for dinner that didn’t come with french fries.

I learned a lot from the first couple of years of this blog: how to make paneer, how to make Thai curry paste, why I don’t usually make Jell-O. I want to get back into the habit of trying new things even as I accept that the good stuff will make its way into a growing traditional repertoire. I’m not throwing up my hands in defeat. So you’re going to see me here more often.
OliveRolls

Thanksgiving is just around the corner

It would be tedious to apologize for long silences, but I will anyway: I’m sorry to have neglected the blog so long. Things have been…busy, though in a good way, and I look forward to elaborating on some of that over the coming weeks.

But for now I’m off to another task. As I’m sure many of you are, with Thanksgiving only a few days away. We’re hosting the vegetarian feast again this year, a welcome return after last year’s quiet time during Scott’s recuperation. What are you doing for the holiday? I promise photos and musings in the days following.