A brief explainer on the calorie-laden American holiday (with recipes!).
First, let’s dispense with the tangled history that is Thanksgiving.
While it has roots in the Protestant Reformation and harvest festivals, it’s generally believed to have been first celebrated at Plymouth (which is now in the state of Massachusetts) in 1621 after a particularly good harvest by Puritans, Pilgrims, and Wampanoag American Indians. A letter from the time notes the Wampanoag brought five deer to the meal. They also likely ate turkey, wildfowl (like duck or pigeon), corn porridge, venison, eels, and clams at that first Thanksgiving.
President George Washington issued a proclamation that Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 would be a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin.” Later presidents followed suit, but often differed in the day and month it was to be celebrated. Today, it’s celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November ever since U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in an effort to boost the economy by lengthening the Christmas shopping season, formally set the date.
Now for the yummy stuff! As far back as 1889, the Hotel Normandie in Washington, D.C., listed Vermont Young Turkey With Chestnuts, Pumpkin Pie, and Mashed Potatoes — all standard Thanksgiving fare — on its dinner menu.
The standard recipe calls for stuffing the thawed turkey (don’t try to cook a frozen bird!) with lemon, onion, garlic, fresh herbs like thyme, sage, and rosemary, salt, and pepper. Brush olive oil or melted butter all over the skin, add more salt and pepper on the outside, and the bird goes breast-side up onto a roasting rack and into a 350 degree oven for a few hours.
The amount of time the turkey needs to roast depends on how big it is. How big a turkey should you get? The rule of thumb is one pound per person, one and a half pounds if you’d like some leftovers, and two pounds per person for leftovers for a week.
Depending on your oven, a 12-pound turkey takes about two and a half hours of roasting time; a 7-pound turkey, roughly 90 minutes.
You know it’s done when the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and thigh, and a thermometer reaches about 160 degrees when inserted in the deepest part of the breast meat. (Don’t rely on the plastic pop up pins – you’ll likely overcook the bird.) If parts of the turkey start to brown too quickly – like the wings – cover them with tinfoil.
The goal is a gorgeously golden, crispy-skinned turkey with juicy, tender meat. Spooning the pan juices over the bird every half hour or so adds flavor and juiciness.
SPEAKING OF PAN JUICES
They make a lovely (and decadent) sauce. When the bird is done cooking, take if off the roasting rack and let it cool for a bit, tented in foil. (Don’t cut into it too quickly — the turkey’s juices haven’t set yet and you may lose too much of them if you cut in too soon after pulling it out of the oven.) Put the roasting pan on the stove, set to medium low. You can keep the juices warm and simply serve with the turkey — always an excellent and delicious idea — or if you need a thicker sauce (and if you want gravy for your mashed potatoes), make a gravy.
While the bird is roasting away, saute a bit of onion in 6 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan on the stove over medium heat. Give it 15 or 20 minutes to caramelize: this makes the onion’s sweetness truly bloom and overrides the sharp bite. Stir in a bit of chopped garlic, and after a minute or so (you don’t want the garlic to burn) sprinkle in a few tablespoons of flour. Whisk constantly during this part, and add the flour a bit at a time – this will help prevent lumps.
Stir in 4 cups of chicken stock, some salt and pepper, a tablespoon or two of brandy, and a handful of fresh herbs (sage is my favorite) . Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let it cool, and then strain out any solids — like sage stems.
Back to the pan juices staying warm on the stove: add a cup of dry white wine (a Sauvignon Blanc is a good bet) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer (sound familiar?) for two minutes. While it’s simmering, use a heavy wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits — these are gold mines of flavor — while you’re stirring. Slowly add in your gravy base, simmer and stir for 5 minutes or until it’s a bit thickened and smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with the turkey (here’s how to carve it), mashed potatoes, on stuffing, on rolls, on Brussels sprouts – you get the point.
Some may argue that the sides are the best part of the meal. The options are literally endless. Here’s a smattering of some of the classics:
Blended with butter and a bit of salt and pepper. Recipe.
STUFFING or DRESSING
Some like to stuff the turkey with the bready mixture; others cook it in the oven on its own. Call it dressing or stuffing, it’s arguably one of the more standout dishes at Thanksgiving. Recipe.
ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
Salty, crispy, delicious. Some add bacon or pancetta, and we think that’s just fine. Recipe.
The tart, deeply red cranberries pop (literally) with some citrus, sugar, and spice. Recipe.
GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
There’s the traditional version, with canned green beans smothered in a can of condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup, topped with crispy onions, and baked (recipe). Newer, more health-conscious versions opt for almonds and garlic, and ditch the soup (recipe).
Pumpkin pie. Creative Commons image by RebeccaVC1 via flickr.
Pie! And more pie! While some don’t care for pumpkin pie (which is beyond the ability of this writer to understand), it’s a big part of classic Thanksgiving cuisine. Here’s a recipe that calls for roasted pumpkin, rather than the stuff that comes out of a can (and is most likely not even pumpkin, anyway). Apple pie, pecan pies, and various cheesecakes are popular, too.
THE ENTERTAINMENT: FOOTBALL, a PARADE, DOGS, and MOVIES
There’s lots of TV watching in the U.S. during Thanksgiving day. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with dancers, singers, and giant inflatable characters has been an annual tradition since 1926, and pulled some 50 million viewers in 2014. The U.S. National Dog Show starts as soon as the parade ends. And three NFL games are played that day – in 2014, an average of 28.4 million viewers tuned in to the games. In the evening, television networks usually program holiday movies or specials.
The day after Thanksgiving has traditionally kicked off the Christmas shopping season (see President Roosevelt, above), known as Black Friday. Last year shoppers spent some $380.9 million during the holiday weekend, Friday through Sunday. But more and more stores are opening on Thanksgiving afternoon or evening, a day that shops have traditionally been closed, for the truly
crazy committed Black Friday shoppers.
There is, of course, a lot more to Thanksgiving, different takes on tradition, and we didn’t even touch on the nightmare that is holiday travel. But we hope you got to know a little bit more about this holiday.