I Don’t Have Any Thanksgiving Traditions (& That's Okay)

November 25, 2015

My sharpest memories of Thanksgiving, ages toddler through teen, are the morning-of pancake lunch at the Greek diner in Princeton, New Jersey; the pigs-in-blankets bobbing in a bowl of mustard sauce; and the voice of Great Aunt Lenore declaring, post-dessert, that she’d never eat again—the day’s death knell.

The day after, at Lenore and Seymour’s house, we’d take-in Chinese food and I'd ask for extra of the crunchy wontons.

That dinner was just as important (and arguably better-tasting) than the last.

My kind of Thanksgiving food. Photo by James Ransom

The Thanksgiving holiday, the meal, didn't matter to me until I started working at Food52 and even now, it only matters to me because it matters to others. It’s Food52’s championship game, but I’m a hired recruit. My nuclear family has never hosted a Thanksgiving, and the day was never about cooking—or eating, either.

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It was about scrounging enough food to add up to dinner for this picky vegetarian (that is, stocking up on rolls and mashed potatoes). It was about long car rides to New Jersey, Billy Joel on cassette, and annual coerced hugs with a relatives I was never quite sure were relatives, or how. It was about hours in traffic and at the kids table and on the couch rather than in the kitchen with my mom, crimping umpteen pies or blooming gelatin for Grandma’s old-timey jello.

My mom has never crimped a pie crust; my grandma’s limited set of specialties includes nothing as charmingly eccentric as a jello mold.

Our table is decidedly more average than this one. Photo by Alpha Smoot

I don't think we cooked anything. I imagine we brought a gift for the hosts.

Once we stopped going to my second cousins’ and, strangely yet wonderfully, traded in the four-hour turnpike crawl for a twenty-minute drive down a two-lane road to my boyfriend’s family’s house (yes, my whole family goes to my boyfriend’s family’s for Thanksgiving), cooking existed, but it was haphazard and low-maintenance.

The four times our families have celebrated Thanksgiving together, we’ve cobbled together something different. Adam’s mom will make turkey, sweet potato casserole (a hybrid of recipes she’s found on the internet), and some sort of dish with wild rice. And then sometime on Thursday afternoon, Adam and I will make our own assortment of random vegetarian dishes (it’s a cook-what-you-eat sort of affair, in that sense), with no particular reason beyond vague desire.

My parents did not understand how this worked. Photo by James Ransom

I know that one year we made Alon Shaya’s roasted cauliflower (how could I forget watching my parents try to figure that one out). I can believe that we onced stuffed mushrooms and that another time I brought yeasted rolls, which competed with the frozen ones from Wegman's.

When I asked Adam if he could remember anything in particular, he said “some type of roasted sliced tomatoes, I think” (yes, tomatoes in November) and “I’m guessing we made brussels sprouts one year because I kind of remember my dad being grossed out by them.”

Adam's dad hates brussels sprouts. Photo by Bobbi Lin

As for my family, my mom usually arrives toting a dessert I made but am forcing her to take credit for, too embarrassed that it’s overdressed for the occasion. The only constant is that I pick something that’s way more complicated than necessary and then fail to execute it well.

And that whatever I make, my boyfriend’s dad declares it “the best he’s ever had." Then we all forget about it until next year's Thanksgiving meal conversation.

Is this the year the giant cinnamon roll cake makes its debut? Photo by James Ransom

It's neither classic nor kooky. It's decidedly ordinary. It's decidedly suburban. We drive there at 5 P.M. and leave before 10. The leftovers are of normal proportions.

It's fine. It's good. It's fortunate. It's something to be grateful for.

Here's a scene you'll never find in my house. Photo by James Ransom

Yet when I hear tales of 80-person leftover feasts, of intergenerational stuffing feuds, of day-long pie-making marathons with Grandma, of father-daughter turducken, I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing out. My house doesn’t smell like turkey from Wednesday morning to Saturday night (I’ve never even tasted turkey!). Some of our pies come from the grocery store.

Thankfully, this fear of inadequacy eases, quickly, into relief. For this control freak, my expectations for Thanksgiving are, shockingly, reasonable. And the pressure’s off. It’s nice to cede to the eccentricities of someone else’s family, to their kitchen quirks (knives in the dishwasher) and food tendencies (zucchini in November).

With longstanding traditions to maintain, no risk of messing them up, and no fellow food writers to impress, it’s one of the few days I can let go of some control, confident that no matter what happens, we can—and we will—try something new next year.

Much fancier than the pear tart I'm planning to make. Photo by James Ransom

So it's not the most important meal—or the most important day—of the year: The dressing will be bland; there may be anemic supermarket tomatoes on the table; the cake I (make my mom) bring will try way too hard and fail, sympathetically. The menu will be random. This year, we're making Thomas Keller's bread pudding just because we tried it a few weeks back and loved it. And while I normally I spend every Friday afternoon obsessing over what to bake that weekend, I chose what I'm going to bring to Thanksgiving at 2 A.M. a few days ago: It's a pear custard tart I saw on Pinterest.

The crust may be soggy and the pears too sweet, but I think Adam's dad will proclaim it the best pear custard tart he's ever tasted (and I'll be inclined to believe him).

I've never made a pie so perfect. Photo by James Ransom
52 Days of Thanksgiving
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I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.