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The unturkey

(article, Zena Chew)

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Thanksgiving may be a secular holiday, but the dinner menu is sacred. Ask your friends. Can you find anyone who doesn’t eat turkey for Thanksgiving, or Tofurky, the turkey’s processed vegetarian cousin? 

Skipping even one turkey dinner can be cause for embarrassment. A friend of mine admits that once, when she was in college and far away from home, she and a friend planned to cook a modest Thanksgiving meal for themselves. But that was before they discovered a 24-hour marathon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Dinner that year? Cheese and crackers, consumed in front of the TV. 

She gave me permission to share this story only after swearing me to secrecy about her identity. Nothing, it seems, is quite as much of a holy cow as the Thanksgiving turkey.

I understand. I’ve often had to defend my own unusual Thanksgiving eating habits. I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t eat turkey, but I don’t want any turkey substitute either. All I really care about is eating mashed potatoes. Protein would take up space in my stomach that could otherwise be filled with potatoes and mushroom gravy. Other people usually think this is weird.

[%image turkey float=left width=350 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/mneale" caption="Not everybody eats a turkey on Thanksgiving."]

And they have a point. The items on the Thanksgiving dinner menu weren’t randomly selected. They have meaning. Turkey and the other traditional foods of Thanksgiving — cranberries, potatoes, corn, and pumpkins — are all native to the Americas. These are the foods we've long imagined the helpful American Indians introducing to the starving Pilgrims at Plymouth. 

The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that farmers in the U.S. will raise 272 million turkeys and harvest 6.9 million barrels of cranberries in 2007. (If you’re interested in buying a barrel of cranberries, you should know that one barrel weighs 100 pounds. That’s a lot of sauce.) The vegetarians are a little behind, but they’re getting organized. Turtle Island Foods sold its 1 millionth Tofurky last year. This year they expect to sell 230,000 Tofurky roasts.

But think about it: We have many more food options than the Pilgrims did. Why not expand the traditional dinner to give thanks for the bounty now available at the local farmers’ market and the grocery store? Some folks are already doing this. They’re making different kinds of dishes, going international, and even preparing food that doesn’t require any cooking at all. 

h3. The fish fan

Sarah Ankersmit, 28, of Seattle, became a pescatarian (a vegetarian who also eats fish) when she was 13 years old. That’s when her dad started barbecuing a whole salmon for Thanksgiving dinner. She’s not allowed to help, but she’s watched him cook the fish. He wraps it in foil with lemon slices and butter, and he pours beer on the fish every time he opens the foil to check on it.

Ankersmit’s dad lives in Idaho, where buying a whole fresh fish in November is somewhat extravagant — perfect for a holiday meal. Where does he get the fish? She says there’s a man in his town who drives to Seattle once a week to buy a boatload of fish, then drives it back to Idaho and sells it out of the back of his truck in a supermarket parking lot.

Ankersmit says her dad is a great cook, but the salmon is the only non-traditional food on the table. She’s not allowed to contribute anything for dinner, because, she says, she would bring “weirdo stuff. Too weird for them, like roasted carrots.” 

h3. The Limey

Helen Helms left England when she was 18 years old for a yearlong babysitting job in Seattle. Sixteen years later, she’s still in Seattle, and her Yankee husband and two children love eating her Yorkshire pudding on Thanksgiving.

When Helms was young, she watched her mother cook Yorkshire pudding, but she never tried to make it herself until she was on her own, living in the U.S. It required several attempts to get it right, and more than one late-night call to her mum.

Describing true Yorkshire pudding, says Helms, is challenging. It’s not like chocolate pudding, and it’s not like bread pudding. “It’s like a doughy cake,” she says, “crispy on the outside, with a hollow middle.” Like a popover, or like a cream puff without the cream? “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like,” she says. She bakes the pudding puffs in a muffin tin, and serves them hot out of the oven, filled with Bisto gravy.

“If you say Bisto to an English person, they’ll know exactly what you mean,” Helms says. She uses powdered Bisto, which, when mixed with water and microwaved, turns into brown gravy. The Bisto also goes well with her roasted parsnips, steamed carrots, mashed potatoes, and, yes, turkey.

For dessert, Helms makes a hazelnut gâteau: two layers of hazelnut meringue filled with fresh whipped cream and puréed apricots. She puts a pumpkin pie on the table too, because, she says, she doesn’t want to Anglicize the entire dinner. But, not surprisingly, the meringue cake is more popular.

h3. East and West

Instead of cramming traditional and international dishes into one meal, Christine Lee’s family shares two full meals on Thanksgiving day: one featuring turkey, and one starring kimchi, the pungent, fermented cabbage pickle so beloved by Koreans. Lee, 25, grew up in Gig Harbor, Washington. Her parents, aunts, and uncles are from South Korea.

At Thanksgiving, Lee’s extended family (more than two dozen people) gathers at the home of her father’s older brother. Lee always brings the Watergate Salad, a concoction of Cool Whip, pistachio Jell-O powder, canned crushed pineapple, walnuts, and miniature marshmallows. This 1950s-style “salad” has been a staple at Thanksgiving since she and her cousins were very young. “I guarantee it is delicious,” says Lee, but her parents won’t eat it.

[%image plate float=right width=425 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Funwithfood" caption="Traditional Thanksgiving dinner? Or raw cranberry sauce with Tofurky?"]

The family begins eating its first dinner of the day around lunchtime, with aunts and uncles seated in the dining room and cousins lounging around the living room. This meal, like the Watergate Salad, is echt Middle America: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, rolls, creamy green beans with crunchy fried onions, yams, and canned cranberry sauce. “It has to be out of a can, sliced,” says Lee. “We tried doing real cranberries one time, but our family grew up with canned. That’s what we’re most happy with.”

The cousins talk, catch up, play board games, watch a movie, go back to the buffet to graze, maybe make a little turkey sandwich. A few hours after the first dinner, everyone rouses themselves to eat pumpkin pie and drink some wine. The aunts do the dishes. One uncle takes a nap.

Then, at around 6:30 p.m., the aunts start cooking the second dinner, this one an all-Korean affair. They make somen: wheat noodles and matchstick zucchini in chicken broth. One pot is plain and one pot is spicy, with red-pepper flakes and kimchi. They make kimchi jigae,_ thinly sliced beef and chunks of tofu cooked in a spicy kimchi broth. The soups are served with panchan, a selection of kimchi and pickles. One year, says Lee, they ate noodles with spicy octopus.

For dessert, they eat grapes and apples. The apples are peeled and sliced in wedges. When she was a child, Lee says, she liked to watch her grandmother peel apples. “She would peel the whole apple, trying not to break the peel. All fruit is peeled. Koreans don’t really like the taste of the peel!”

h3. The uncooked

Heather Andersen, 29, of Edmonds, Washington, has been eating raw food for almost five years. At first, she says, she mostly ate tomatoes, because she couldn’t figure out what to eat. Luckily, she had almost a year to re-learn how to “cook” before her first raw Thanksgiving. She experimented in the kitchen and invented raw versions of her favorite Thanksgiving foods: mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and apple pie. When she took the raw food to share at her family dinner, “people were confused,” she says, “but when they tried the apple pie, they got it.”

When you translate a dish from cooked to raw, you can’t always use the same ingredients. Making raw mashed potatoes isn’t as simple as grinding up raw potatoes. You have to look for ingredients that will have a similar texture, or mouth-feel, to the original cooked dish, then add herbs and seasoning to recreate the flavor.

For her “mashed potatoes,” Andersen purées parsnips and pine nuts together and tops this with mushroom gravy. For cranberry sauce, she blends cranberries with agave nectar. Her apple pie has a crust of nuts and dates and a custard filling made of cashews, dates, and agave nectar. This is topped with slices of tart apple and a drizzle of “caramel” sauce. The caramel is made from mesquite pods that are dried, ground to a powder, then mixed with agave nectar.

Andersen now has a raw-food career. She’s a cook at the Chaco Canyon Café, a restaurant in Seattle that specializes in raw and vegan food. For the last two years, she has helped prepare the restaurant’s raw Thanksgiving dinners. On Thanksgiving Day, the staff assembles boxed dishes for raw eaters to bring to family dinners. On the day after, they all enjoy a raw feast at the café.

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Last year’s menu included cucumber-avocado soup; a root mélange of turnips, golden beets, and butternut squash, diced, then marinated in apple-cider vinegar and agave nectar; and a nut-and-seed loaf. The hearty flavor of the loaf comes from the same stuff you’d put in a soup stock: carrots, celery, garlic, sage, and thyme.

Bread is the most difficult thing to substitute in a raw-food diet. Andersen’s raw flatbread is made from almonds, flaxseeds, and olive oil. She grinds this into a paste and spreads it in her industrial food dehydrator. She offered me a piece with pesto and cashew “cheese” spread. It has the flavor of a cracker, but it’s soft. “It doesn’t taste like bread,” says Andersen, “but imagine that you’re never going to eat another piece of bread.” Then it’s not so bad at all.

So imagine that you’re never going to eat another Thanksgiving turkey. Terrifying prospect, or appealing idea? Maybe you love turkey with all the trimmings but are tired of the same old traditional routine; for you, perhaps a soy-sauce-basted turkey with a side of wasabi mashed potatoes and curried pumpkin is the way to go. But for those of us desiring or needing something different, remember this: Thanksgiving is about celebration, not the Ten Commandments of menus. There’s nothing stopping us from making the holiday our own with menus we write ourselves.

So think outside the Tofurky box. After all, holidays are for enjoying, not just revering.

p(bio). Seattle writer Zena Chew plans to eat mashed squash as well as mashed potatoes this Thanksgiving. She thinks squash is the new sweet potato.


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