Thanksgiving is my OCD holiday. And because Thanksgiving is all about food, it’s the day I get all OCD about food. I feel compelled to duplicate with exactitude the very same, identical Thanksgiving dinner that my mother served our family when I was a child. It has to do partly with the fact that my mother is a fabulous cook. But it mostly has to do with the fact that Thanksgiving dinner is above all a ceremonial meal, and Thanksgiving is the only holiday on the calendar whose sole liturgy, apart from saying a quick blessing, consists of eating. Even the Jewish Passover meal includes an elaborate verbal ritual as well as foodstuffs.
Thanksgiving also has its own built-in OCD menu. Not so Christmas, where you can ponder whether to serve prime rib or goose, and you can ask yourself, should I try a Victorian fig pudding for dessert or a crowd-pleaser chocolate mousse? On Thanksgiving, it’s turkey, period. Plus stuffing and cranberry sauce. Plus pumpkin pie. Period. I take it a step further. Here was my mother’s complete menu, besides the above: candied sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts sautéed with peeled roasted chestnuts, wild rice and mushrooms, peas sautéed with pearl onions. All of the above involved copious amounts of butter, God’s special gift to Thanksgiving. Fortunately, my mother was and remains a consummate snob, so we did not have to endure the horrid Thanksgiving ritual edibles that other American households grit their teeth and serve. The sweet potatoes came out of the ground, not a can, there was not a marshmallow to be seen, and that glop with the canned green beans and the canned cream-of-mushroom soup was unthinkable in our household. But it was the 1950s, after all, so the cranberry sauce was indeed a nicely extruded cylinder (although it was the whole-berry, not the jelly — we had class!), and a “relish tray” of carrot and celery sticks that no one ever ate sat on the table.
I have spent all my life fighting my compulsion to duplicate that dinner when I’m called upon to preside over Thanksgiving. I dumped the relish tray early on, and I do make my own cranberry sauce — I’m a foodie. And because the dinner guests usually consist of just my husband and me (we live far away from either of our families), I’ve pared down the number of side dishes, skipping the wild rice and the peas. At the plea of my husband, I’ve switched from candied sweet potatoes to chipotle-mashed sweet potatoes because he loves the latter so much. The Brussels sprouts stay. The pumpkin pie (from an ancient New York Times Cookbook recipe that my mother used) stays. The stuffing stays — Mama’s recipe always. The gravy stays.
This Thanksgiving, though, for the first time, I’ll be swapping the turkey for roast pork tenderloin to avoid dealing with a huge leftover carcass. I feel overwhelmed with OCD guilt, I must say. But I think I can assuage it by doubling down on the butter.
— Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ.