Nobody’s really sure if the first Thanksgiving had turkey on the menu. Historical accounts mention that “wild fowl” was served, and turkeys were among the birds the Pilgrims hunted at the time, but the meat dish most prominently mentioned was venison, which the Wampanoag brought. Potatoes weren’t a thing in North America yet, and butter, sugar, and flour were very rare, so you can cross off several other traditional Thanksgiving staples.
Consequently – and I’m deeply sorry if this offends, Senator Tom Cotton – you can make whatever the hell you want for Thanksgiving without violating any real traditions. Technically, you’ve already been ignoring the original Pilgrim feast by not putting a heaping helping of deer meat on your table.
To be clear: If roasting a turkey and making mashed potatoes and preparing green bean casserole and baking a couple of pies and so on is your jam, have at it. Even better, buy those things from a local business that could use your support and save yourself a bunch of kitchen stress. My job is not to dissuade you from enjoying the traditional Thanksgiving spread, if that’s what you’re excited to eat.
But if you’re so-so on the turkey-potatoes-stuffing-cranberry sauce combo, let me welcome you into the freeing knowledge that you can change the menu in whatever manner you see fit. I say this as someone who’s made a standard Thanksgiving dinner before, and been too exhausted by the end of it to really enjoy the meal. More importantly, I bring you this advice having adopted it myself.
One year, I made turkey meatballs, a green salad with walnuts and dried cranberries, polenta, and gnocchi. Another Thanksgiving, our menu had more of a Mexican twist, including turkey enchiladas, elote-style corn, and green chile cheese rice casserole. Both years I served pie, because I enjoy making and eating it, and I’m fine with pie going with any kind of dinner.
Do you know what the reaction was when family and friends came over for this Thanksgiving that did not look like it leapt from the November 1994 issue of Bon Appétit? Everyone was fine! They got to eat good food that they didn’t have to cook, drink slightly too much wine, and take home a container of leftovers at the end of the meal. It turns out those are the only key elements of a successful Thanksgiving!
Now, I will offer one word of caution: don’t spring this on your family or guests without any warning. Some people aren’t going to like the departure from tradition. They’ll be mad they don’t get to eat mashed potatoes and gravy, even though Boston Market has 346 locations in the United States. Let them work out that frustration the way extended families ought to: privately, by bitching about you behind your back. Once Thanksgiving rolls around, if they offer a snide remark, explain that they’re perfectly welcome to host next year, and give them tips on where to get the best deals on the 27 sticks of butter they’ll need to pull it off.
But that doesn’t have to be you, buying 27 sticks of butter to make food you don’t particularly enjoy. The holidays should be a time of celebration and happiness, not shackling yourself to traditions you take no joy in. Make fried rice this year! You’ll certainly be better at it than I am.