I used to try to fancify Thanksgiving dinners. I made elaborate scratch-made stuffings and, yes, my own cranberry sauce. They were delicious, but oddly unsatisfying.
What I came to understand is that Thanksgiving is a cultural experience, but not necessarily a culinary one. It revolves around food, yet it isn’t necessarily about the food itself. Mostly, it’s about nostalgia and tradition. As such, it’s one of those food experiences, like nachos at a baseball game, where higher quality isn’t actually better — not if it distances the dish, and the eating of it, from those qualities you cherish.
Canned cranberry sauce beats any other preparation for Thanksgiving dinner, not because it’s the best possible way to make a cranberry sauce, but because it’s the most satisfying. For most people who celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s the cranberry sauce of their childhoods, back when holiday gatherings were fun and not an electrified tangle of familial tensions.
It’s not a debased form of the thing — it’s the thing itself. It requires nothing other than to exist alongside some turkey and stuffing. Most attempts to “improve” it only serve to draw it away from its own essential nature.
That’s why I’ve stopped trying to “elevate” Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t need or want my turkey cooked in novel ways, or stuffing that isn’t just your store-bought box, minimally doctored.
I think America is a culture of optimizers. We want things to be the best. Nothing can’t be fixed or improved. For many of us, there’s nothing more aggravating than something that’s fine just the way it is, that doesn’t require or benefit from tinkering.
Thanksgiving turkey epitomizes this. Every year we get a parade of food magazines hawking elaborate turkey-roasting techniques, mostly designed to make the increasingly anxious home cook buy more food magazines. All for a bird that, in truth, just needs to be salted and put in the oven.
Fancifying Thanksgiving dinner also strikes me as contrary to the spirit of the holiday. The Thanksgiving meal is, traditionally, a humble meal. It’s made out of inexpensive, filling ingredients. You can eat Thanksgiving dinner in a soup kitchen and get basically the same food — turkey, bread, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes — as you’d get in most households.
A day of expressing gratitude for your blessings should, to my way of thinking, be plain, simple, and humble. It’s not a day to flaunt your wealth or talents, or to worship extravagance. That’s what Black Friday is for.