Thanksgiving’s Transforming Traditions

Fresh out of the smoker, a turkey from Thanksgiving past

It’s a dilemma facing families who hold the holiday precious: how do you make each Thanksgiving better than the last without violating what people know and love? And what can take the place of a treasured recipe or practice that, owing to the passage of time, is no longer available?

About three years ago, my family–my immediate family–accidentally started a new Thanksgiving tradition, a mini-celebration of Thanksgiving in advance of the true holiday. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November; our new tradition, which is called “Practice Turkey Day,” is somewhat more amorphous in its celebration date; the only requirement is that it take place about a week before Thanksgiving. Truth be told, Practice Turkey Day is one of my favorite days of the year.

It was my wife’s insistence on preparing a Thanksgiving turkey in a smoker that first prompted us to purchase a smoker: the Weber Bullet, which is touted within the meat-smoking community as being good for beginners. It was our gun-shyness at preparing a turkey in the Bullet for a large family celebration that prompted us to make a “practice turkey” the week before.p

It was the best goddamned turkey I ever had. For some insight into our methodology, I’d point you to this piece on brining. But a delicious turkey was not the greatest reward of the inaugural turkey day. The other, equally important rewards were the establishment of a new tradition within my little branch of the family tree, and the contribution, about a week later, of a truly special turkey that put something of an imprint on my greater family’s long-standing traditions. The familiar and wonderful, if a bit static, family get-together now exhibited some evolution that reflected me and mine.

This is important. Most of the friends and family that attend have a role, whether designated pumpkin pie maker, vegetable roaster, etc. It’s an acknowledgement that it’s okay to love what’s come before, even as it’s wonderful to try to make it a bit better every time.

But then there’s the flip side: when a cherished dish threatens to disappear due to changing circumstances of those who prepare it. The favored dish amongst my cousins and I growing up was our grandmother’s stuffing. For this reason or that, she’s not making it anymore–and why the hell should she; 60+ years of hosting family events and making most of the spread was more than enough. What’s maybe shocking is that I was the one who jockeyed to be her replacement.

The “official” name of the stuffing, according to the recipe card we inherited, was “Bubee’s Stuffing,” Bubee being my own mother’s grandmother. When I first looked at the ridiculously simple recipe, it didn’t occur to me that it’s also a ridiculously non-specific one as well. There are ingredients mentioned in the instruction steps that aren’t mentioned at all in the ingredient list. This is what happens when recipes concocted in the, oh, 1940s, are kept on hand-written cards. The institutional knowledge is enough to make it; the card is a reminder, not a bible.

I muddled through, and managed to create something that tasted pretty close, but the consistency was way off. Lots of grating was my undoing; my grandfather had hand-grated the potatoes, the primary ingredient, for years; I used a food processor. The gratings were thicker and longer and didn’t magically fuse into a wonderful casserole of sorts that was greater than the sum of its parts. Its consistency was more like a potato hash.

Fortunately, I had the foresight to attempt it for the first time on the second annual Practice Turkey Day. When I made it again for Thanksgiving itself, it turned out pretty close to perfect. (A few kind relatives claimed they liked my version better, to which I say “thanks” and “what a load of shit.”) And I keep at it; much like my wife’s constantly evolving practice turkey methodology, the stuffing seems to be moving closer to both how I remember it and how I want it to be. I’m getting braver: this year on Practice Turkey Day I tested a lower carb version and a version that subs half the potatoes with yams. One of which I’ll be making a small batch of for our celebration, along with a double batch of the traditional recipe. (It should be obvious which one of the experimental versions I’ll be scuttling. The rest of the year can be for diets; Thanksgiving is, simply, not).

Food and memory go hand in hand, and maybe there’s not a better, more rewarding responsibility than being the gatekeeper of Thanksgiving memories gone by . . . except perhaps helping to create new ones.

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