We asked National Review Online contributors to share their favorite Thanksgiving recipes, memories, and traditions.
Since I come from a small family, Thanksgiving was one of only two times a year we really gathered as an extended group (the other being Passover). I remember feeling a sense of security knowing that there were other people, beyond the immediate members I saw every day, that could be a part of my family’s life. In addition, by Thanksgiving time, Chicago was usually fairly chilly, often blustery, with bare trees. So there was a particular sense of warmth inside whichever house we had gathered at, the first time in the season I was really aware of appreciating coming in from playing outside in the cold.
My favorite Thanksgiving tradition is something that, in light of recent controversies over football mascots and Halloween costumes, may land my family on the politically incorrect hot seat. Every year, the littlest of our six kids always greet our guests at the door dressed up as Pilgrims and Indians. Inevitably, the opportunity to wear face paint and feathers, strap baby dolls to their backs papoose-style, and cause a ruckus of howling with no reprimands means that my crew is made up largely of Indians and I end up having to talk (or bribe) one of them into wearing the cute pilgrim dress and hat I bought on eBay years ago. One of the things I’ll be thankful for this year is that we still have the freedom in our home to allow our kids to creatively interpret this beautiful, historical holiday free from the buzz-kill lens of victimhood and grievance politics. To be sure, we teach our kids about the history of Thanksgiving and the beauty of a nation that, from it’s very inception, was an experiment in cultures and people learning, albeit at times imperfectly, to live and work together. But that’s no cause to wreck the fun on Thanksgiving Day by burdening them with our current politically correct, cultural obsessions. They’ll have the rest of their adult lives to navigate that terrain.
— Rachel Campos-Duffy is an author, pundit, and mother of six. She is the national spokesperson for the LIBRE Initiative, an organization that promotes economic liberty, empowerment and opportunity for Hispanics.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday for all the usual reasons — the family togetherness, the relaxation, the feeling of unity in the country, and the absolutely brilliant mixture of cranberry sauce with turkey. Counting your blessings is one of the secrets of happiness, or at least contentment, and it’s always gratifying to see the generosity of Americans at this time of year as they ensure that everyone has a feast to enjoy.
Thanksgiving is a favorite for another reason: It’s one of the last American institutions to withstand complete commercialization and trivialization. Sure, you find the occasional plastic turkey — and don’t you detest calling it “Turkey Day”? — as well as some tacky pilgrim costumes. But for the most part the holiday remains what it was intended to be — a joyous occasion to express gratitude for God’s blessings.
Some have attempted to taint the holiday by stressing the misfortune that the arrival of Europeans promised for Native Americans. But my sense is that Thanksgiving has proven remarkably durable. The Wall Street Journal still publishes its “Desolate Wilderness/Fair Land” essays on the struggles of the pilgrims on the editorial page (which I find moving, year in and year out), and the newspapers and TV still feature recipes for homemade pumpkin, apple, and cream pies. When Americans live abroad, this is the day, even more than July 4, that evokes homesickness.
This is America’s day to celebrate the great spiritual virtue of gratitude. You needn’t be religious to observe it with religious ardor.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.
There is an almost otherworldly reassurance when you see your children celebrating a holiday the way you remember doing as a child — watching the “Peanuts” Thanksgiving special or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, throwing a football around in the backyard, or pulling on the turkey’s wishbone.
As you grow up, you put aside childish things, but you still miss them or at least the way they made you feel. And then as a parent, suddenly you’re allowed to enjoy them again by experiencing them through the eyes of your kids.
I’m not playing with toys, honest; I’m spending quality time with my kids.
— Jim Geraghty writes The Campaign Spot on National Review Online.
Steven f. Hayword
My favorite Thanksgiving recipe involves lightly rinsing the chilled glass first with vermouth . . . oh, wait, that’s an everyday recipe. Never mind.
Thanksgiving presents a tough choice. Should you cook the turkey on a rotisserie grill, or should you deep-fry it? Forget the barbaric oven, but if it’s all you have, give yourself a fighting chance and cook the turkey upside-down — that is on a V-rack with the breast side down, so that the white meat doesn’t dry out so badly. (Wait: Can we actually still say “white meat,” or is that racist?)
Now the best solution to this dilemma is simple: Make sure you have enough people coming to dinner so that you can do both! Works for me. You can cook a turkey on a rotisserie in about half the time as an oven; about an hour and a half does it for a 15-pound turkey, though you’ll need to adjust significantly upward if you’re cooking one of those special gourmet Lance Armstrong-thunder-thigh, steroid-plumped 24-pounders. Likewise, you can deep fry a 15-pound turkey in about 35 to 40 minutes, if you have the oil pre-heated to about 350 degrees. (If you don’t pre-heat your oil properly, your turkey will look and taste like something that washed up from the BP Gulf oil spill.) Safety tips: Only do this OUTSIDE. Pre-measure the oil to make sure Archimedes doesn’t exact hubristic revenge. Make sure the turkey is completely thawed inside and out; if there’s any part still frozen, or if there is ice lurking anywhere in the bird, you’ll think someone inserted a Stuxnet virus into your rig.
And always brine your turkey for a day before cooking. Any of the over-the-counter brines will do, but if you’re stuck, just boil up a couple of handfuls of salt and a few herbs in about two cups of water, let cool down, add more cold water, and then soak the turkey in a tub or large bucket.
Both rotisserie and deep-fried turkeys are much juicier and more flavorful. If you get the turkey right, side dishes don’t matter. The dirty little secret of Thanksgiving side dishes is that they were invented mostly to cover for the fact that we’ve been overcooking our turkeys for decades, making them dry and barely edible.
As for the subsidiary question of wine/food pairing for Thanksgiving, the answer is: Yes, they should be paired. But those details belong in another post.
— Steven F. Hayward is author of Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders.
I’m strange because I don’t like chocolate. So my favorite Thanksgiving memory is that my grandmother Heath — “MawMaw” — would always cook a spiced-just-right pumpkin pie. It’s served hot, but I always put about a one-to-one ratio of Cool Whip on top.
Around Thanksgiving last year, my grandmother passed away. The pie didn’t matter anymore. It was a season of thankfulness — but for my family, a season of grieving.
This summer, while helping my dad go through MawMaw’s kitchen, I found her pumpkin-pie recipe. I’ve never treasured a little scrap of paper so much.
This year I’m going to try to bring the tradition back by following my grandmother’s carefully handwritten amendments to this time-perfected recipe. I don’t know how mine will turn out, but if memory serves, every bite of that pie tasted like heaven.
— Hadley Heath is senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.
Memory: After everyone has sat down to the groaning table, but before the grace and the first carving, a reading of Abraham Lincoln’s October 3, 1863, Thanksgiving Day proclamation, setting aside November 26, 1863, as a day of national thanksgiving.
— Allen Guelzo is author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.
A North Dakota Thanksgiving in the mid 1960s: Let us just note that the stuffing did not have a top note of fennel, and a zesty dash of lark’s thyroid. It was stuffing. It stuffed. First the bird, then you. Prosaic potatoes; honest farm gravy — meaning, lumps; soft buns that split easily into three parts like Italian government coalitions. The regal bird, ready to be chainsawed by dad’s electric knife. It was as basic as it gets, and I’ve never wanted more.
Not to say there weren’t embellishments. Mother prepared a Relish Tray, set out for pre-meal nibbling by the menfolk in the front room discussing Nixon or wheat. It had crinkle-cut carrots, radishes whose peppery flavor belied every other item on the table, and useless celery, also known as “stiff water.” Comes with its own floss.
Most of these items went uneaten except for the radishes, which my father devoured. Years of working with gasoline had dulled his sense of taste and smell, and radishes were one of the few things that got through. (Years later I would introduce him to hot sauces capable of burning through the deck of an aircraft carrier, and he was delighted. I wonder if the turkey dinner just tasted like a plate of mucilage, and he kept quiet about it, excusing himself to sneak downstairs and eat a tablespoon of pepper.)
There was one regional speciality: lefse, a Norwegian flatbread. Buttered, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, lanced with a toothpick to hold it together. Dessert, really, but dessert you could eat during dinner. You’d get a parental admonition if you had too much. You snuck an extra piece when they weren’t looking.
It’s on the menu this year. I insist. It’s not a holiday dinner without Norwegian lefse, says the guy with the Czech name to the wife with the Italian handle, as we set the table for a crew that always includes a Frenchman and possibly some Brazilians. Every year you expand the guest list and tweak the dishes; every year it’s something new. Crème-brûlée Yams! Stuffing with minced oxen sinuses! It’s all brown and delicious, the side dishes mere asteroids circling the eternal dense truth of the Tturkey. But every year I’m glad there’s lefse.
Every year I wish there were radishes, like Dad requested. I’m not saying I like them. I just wish they were there.
My favorite Thanksgiving dish is “tipsy sweet potatoes,” a bourbon-and-brown-sugar delight that was a specialty of one of Rod Dreher’s St. Francisville characters, the transvestite Miss Charles.
I’m also fond of this now-threadbare little Steiff turkey that graced our dining table every year when I was growing up.
— Frederica Mathewes-Green is author of Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity, among other books on religion and culture.
My favorite recipe is yams and apples.
Bake four large yams until then can easily be pierced with a fork. Peel, and then slice into rounds about a quarter-inch thick.
Peel and core six Granny Smith apples. Slice into pieces about a quarter-inch thick.
Place one layer of yams into a buttered casserole dish. On top of the yams place one layer of apples. Place pats of butter on top of the yams, about six pats. Sprinkle brown sugar lightly over that layer, and then repeat process until the yams and apples are all used.
Bake for at least two hours at 350 degrees. The longer you cook them, the more the flavors will marry.
— Pat Nolan is Chuck Colson Distinguished Fellow on Justice at Prison Fellowship Ministries.
After the age of about three, I guess, I have so many good memories of Thanksgiving: the time of the year, and the wind-whipped, leafless hills of western Pennsylvania; the brisk smell of burnt leaves (in those marvelous days when we could still burn leaves in our back yards); the dull sound of a football in very cold air; mud on one’s shoes from playing in the biggest back yard in the neighborhood; rolling over with the ball in the last piles of oak leaves.
Then, coming in hungry to the unrivaled aroma of long-hour slowly roasting, often-basted turkey with my mother’s specially spiced stuffing, and the scent of the baked sweet potatoes and all the other vegetables being turned on one at a time; the mashing of the milky, buttery, carefully peeled (often enough by me) red-skinned potatoes; the pumpkin pie. And we never had tart-sweet cranberries except at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Not least, the attempt to be mindful of all the reasons why people of our country should be more grateful than any other to a good providence that blessed our beginnings – and also to the good people whose virtue and valor won our independence, and who conceived of the structure of the extraordinary civic life we enjoy. As a family with relatively recent immigrants (my grandparents, who in the early days shared these meals with us), we had better reasons than most for gratefully recognizing these blessings. Such blessings are by no means universally enjoyed. Indeed, in many places, barely.
At first it seems odd to have memories most vividly of meals. Yet what would human life be without community, and how does our poor human race better celebrate our close communities than by communal banquets. Food is the great communion of our species: food and the rituals of preparing it and eating it.
One nation, under God, giving thanks together.
I have always thought that the drawback in atheism is not having the one point of union to thank. All the more reason to welcome our atheist friends and family members at the table and give them a hug.
— Michael Novak is author of Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.
When I was in college in New York City, I never had time to head home to California for Thanksgiving and would spend the holiday with random relatives in the area. One year, after a boring and uneventful actual Thanksgiving, some friends, who like myself were stranded in the city, and I headed down to Little Italy and Puglia for a special Friday-edition of Thanksgiving that included wine, Italian food, wine, and wine. It wasn’t the most traditional of holidays, but the most memorable.
And it left me with this lesson: When life gives you lemons, eat chicken piccata.
— Greg Pollowitz blogs for National Review Online.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Thanksgiving is my favorite religious non-religious holiday. I am always grateful that the bishops never made it a Holy Day. (I am not sure if they ever thought of it.) It is one of the few presidential proclamations that has not caused irreparable damage to the Republic. It is the worst time of year to travel. Yet the travel congestion is a sign of the feast’s worth. It is a testimony to family, to our realization that we belong together, especially with those we love. Not much thanksgiving is for the harvest anymore, but, in fact, Thanksgiving is a sign of abundance, properly understood. Thanksgiving means giving thanks to someone, not just to thin air. The founders of this feast had a pretty good idea of the “to Whom” thanks are to be given. To the degree to which we lack an object to our thanks, to that degree we really have no idea about the meaning of this remarkable feast.
— Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. is professor emeritus in the government department at Georgetown. He is the author of many books, including Another Sort of Learning.
On the plus side of having children is that they get you out of traveling on Thanksgiving. I suppose there are grandparents who successfully guilt their grandchildren’s parents into coming to see them, but no baby-in-the-arms dashes through airports for me. It may very well be that since 9/11, airports on Thanksgiving have become sanctuaries of calm, order and efficiency, but I have no interest in finding out.
The main reason for staying home on Thanksgiving is, of course, leftovers. Even the most generous of hosts will never send you home with a sufficiently large care package to fuel the post-Thanksgiving festivities. One year, I miscalculated and our guests picked the turkey clean; won’t make that mistake again. The day-after centerpiece is “the sandwich”: pumpernickel rye, mayo, cranberry dressing, turkey, Havarti cheese, a slab of now congealed stuffing. A foretaste of Heaven.
The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, second of that series and published in 1984 (in the bloom of the Reagan administration, when, you know, pretty much everything was better), changed my life. For Thanksgiving of 1986, in the third year of my marriage, I prepared for my bride the Grand Marnier apricot stuffing. I have been forbidden to make anything else since. Now I like adding two cups of expensive liqueur to recipes as much as the next guy, but I do long to try a wild rice or cornbread and kale stuffing. “Forget it, bub.”
A word to the wise: Brine the bird, then smoke it. Long after those new-fangled deep-fat turkey fryers are gathering dust in the basement, my domed Weber grill, which we got as a wedding gift, will be turning out succulent, orange-hued birds. Which brings us to the great mystery of Thanksgiving: Why do we only do this once a year?
— Steven Wagner is president of the Renewal Forum and former director of the human trafficking program at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Looking back on a lifetime of Thanksgiving memories, one thing that stands out is the homey joy of smelling the turkey as it cooked throughout the day. If you stepped out of the house and came back in, your nostrils would be filled all the more with delight. Smells, of course, are deeply connected with memories in our minds. Whenever I smell a turkey cooking, whether it’s Thanksgiving or not, I’m filled with pleasant memories of gathering with family on the fourth Thursday of November.
— Christopher West is author of Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing.
We read somewhere that the Pilgrims survived on a few kernels of corn and were thankful, so we settled on an exquisite Thanksgiving torture wherein we set bowls of steaming, buttered, gravy-addled food in front of our children who have been begging to be fed for hours, and make them name their blessings before they can eat. One blessing for each kernel surreptitiously placed on your plate while you were hovering about the stove threatening to die if you didn’t get a spoonful of mashed potatoes right now.
We go round the table, blessing after blessing, until the kernels are gone. My oldest is thankful for his “mad beatbox skills.” I was not aware of these skills, and for this I am quietly thankful. His little brother is thankful for the stuffed lamb with whose paw he sometimes strokes his cheek when he is heartsick. Another gives thanks for his mother, which prompts the next to give thanks for me.
The youngest exclaims that everybody took all the good stuff. His brother tells him to be thankful for clean water. He grumbles thanks for water. Around we go, naming the sky, the candles, the turkey.
My children have no sense of proportion; they cast blessings great and small into the circle as if they are equal. They remind me that grace lingers in the smallest things — an apple’s sweetness, a restless child’s squirming, candlelight reflected off windowpanes that restrain the gathering darkness.
When I hold the last kernel, though many blessings have been named, I am only beginning. I am only beginning, for I need to name their squabbles and their expectant upturned faces, their groaning at vegetables, and their falling out of chairs. These blessings rain down and I have not breath to name them all, which is why our deepest prayers are wordless.
— Tony Woodlief is author of Somewhere More Holy: Stories from a Bewildered Father, Stumbling Husband, Reluctant Handyman, and Prodigal Son.