How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?

Norman Rockwell shows us one way to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom from Want, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4″ x 35 1/2″. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.
There’s an interesting backstory to this painting, which I’ll share quickly. This is one of “The Four Freedoms,” paintings inspired by FDR’s 1941 State of the Union address. All four — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear  — were wildly popular here in the US in the years leading up to our involvement in WWII. When the painting appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943, the story that accompanied it was written by the novelist and poet, Carlos Bulosan, who was later blacklisted during the Senate’s Hearings on un-American Activities (aka the McCarthy hearings). Ironic, to say the least. I’ve supplied the link to the original article.

But let’s get back to this post. It’s on food today, Thanksgiving foods to be exact; after all, this is our national feast day. And it’s the closest thing we come to having a “national dish.” Or is it?

Thanksgiving is a time when gluttony is forgiven with a wink and a smile. It’s a time for family and friends to gather. And, most importantly, it’s a time when talking about gratitude and thankfulness is not met with the usual eye rolling. With a nod to tradition, I have always cooked turkey at Thanksgiving (an exception shall be made tomorrow). Let the record show, though, Thanksgiving is the only time I cook turkey — I actually don’t like it.  The dark meat is OK with a lot of gravy, but nearly everyone fights for those two legs. Still, in my mind, it’s the closest thing we have to a “national dish.” Think about that. What would you say if someone asked you what your “national dish” was? We got that question a few times when we were in Kazakhstan. Here’s a scene from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, my Peace Corps memoir, about the day we moved into our new quarters and were greeted with THE national dish of our assigned country (for the second time that day):

“What’s your national dish?” our new host mother asked us, intently, as we politely sampled the bishparmak before us. It was the second time that day that we’d sat before the boiled meat (beef, horse, or mutton) over a bed of homemade noodles that comprised THE national dish of our new homeland, Kazakhstan.

“I’ve never thought of that,” I answered, buying some time. Fried chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers, standing rib with Yorkshire pudding, corned beef and cabbage, pork and sauerkraut, turkey with all the trimmings … so many holiday meals I’ve enjoyed over the years. But one national dish? “It depends on what part of the country you’re in,” I told her.

“And what ethnic group you’re from,” Woody added, reminding me he was there.

Dina pondered this for a bit. I think she felt sorry for us: poor Americans, with no national dish

National dish or not, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and while we were in Peace Corps, I made sure we celebrated it. Here’s a scene from the book about our second Thanksgiving, shared with our two site mates (i.e., new PCVs, Jessica and Anna) and a small group of local colleagues, friends, and counterparts.
Our 2005 turkey, surely pulled from a fascist army somewhere–note the legs.

Sunday, December 4th, was a combined Kazakhstan Election Day, Peace Corps Standfast, and American Thanksgiving in our little apartment in Zhezkazgan.

A student of Woody’s came through with a turkey for us and, though it was killed the day before, its legs stuck straight out in what we jokingly called “Heil Hitler” fashion, too stiff to bend over and tie before we put it in the oven. It made an odd sight, but turned out moist and tender. Woody made corn bread, mashed potatoes, and dressing to go with the turkey. I made pumpkin and apple pies.

Our new site mates brought their traditional dishes: a corn dish made with cream cheese, sweet potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows, a green bean casserole, and a sweet potato pie with vanilla ice cream. I’d never had any of them before. Turkey may be our national tradition, but the side dishes, I came to see, were regional, maybe even family-based, and varied enormously...

  Here we are, gathered around our table celebrating Thanksgiving, 2005.  
Site mate and PCV Jessica is pointing out what’s what while site mate Anna looks on.
  This year we’re passing on the traditional turkey and have bought a goose, which we’ll have with  delicata squash, green beans from our garden (via our freezer), wild rice, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and a fruit salad (oranges and grapefruit that I peel by hand that morning, on a bed of lettuce with a simple homemade dressing drizzled on top). On the side will be homemade applesauce I made a few years ago and forgot about in the cold cellar. We’ll soon see if it’s still edible. My mom will make her traditional no-cook cranberry sauce and a pumpkin pie  (with whipped cream). It would not be Thanksgiving to me if we did not have pumpkin pie; the whipped cream guilds the lily (IMHO). I’ll make an apple pie (served with your choice of cheddar cheese or vanilla ice cream) and our guests will bring a blueberry pie (with a gluten-free crust). They’ll also bring a bottle of wine. It won’t matter so much if the applesauce has turned. Tuesday morning we cleaned and pricked and dunked (in boiling water, one minute per end) the goose and now it rests naked in the refrigerator until its grand debut. Facebook photos to follow, of course.   Back in Kazakhstan thirteen years ago now, here we are at dessert time: a  pumpkin, a sweet potato, and an apple pie.  Yum.
Dessert time, Thanksgiving 2005
  How about you? What will you be serving this Thanksgiving? Do you have a dish that makes it truly “Thanksgiving” to you?  50 year heads up: This week marks a few 50th anniversaries.
  • November 16: Hey Jude was released and on Thanksgiving Day be sure to pull out your Beatle’s White Album; it too was released 50 years ago.
  • For you Star Trek fans, 50 years ago today, November 21, television had it’s first interracial kiss. Do you recall who?
  • And finally, November 26 will mark the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of the Paris Peace Talks, the negotiations that led to our departure from VietNam.
Any one of these would have made a great post. And so it goes . . .

25 Responses

  1. Allene Hogan
    | Reply

    Oh, a goose for Thanksgiving sounds great. Don’t forget to save the fat. After you strain it, makes the most fantastic pie crust and biscuits.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh yes, Allene. Goose fat is cherished here. But I’d not thought of using it in my pie crusts. Shall do — and think of you when I do. Thanks so much. Happy Thanksgiving if you are stateside. (I don’t know where you live; sorry).
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  2. Clive
    | Reply

    Interesting memories, Janet, and I hope the celebrations go well tomorrow. Good luck with that aged apple sauce – fingers crossed that your next post isn’t from the ER!
    Clive recently posted…Time For A LaughMy Profile

  3. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet! Of course, there are many regional, ethnic–and familial riffs on Thanksgiving dinner. (One friend always has mac and cheese along with everything else; some with Italian backgrounds always have pasta along with the turkey, stuffing, etc.) My mom said her family didn’t celebrate the holiday when she was growing up, and her mother-in-law taught her how to roast a turkey. I no longer cook it in an oiled paper bag, as she did because of the chemicals, but it was a tradition for much of my life. We have lots of food traditions, and some newer ones, like a vegetarian mushroom gravy, as well as the turkey gravy, but the one that really stands out is the cranberry squirrel, which I know you’ve seen in photos from previous years. Enjoy your goose and your family–Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!
    Merril Smith recently posted…The OwlMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      So many ways to approach a Thanksgiving post, Merril. I thought of the creamed onions,scalloped oysters, and lemon meringue pie that various marriages in my extended family have brought me to over the years. But mac and cheese? Never. Now I have a something new to add to my Thankful-For list. Thanks. 🙂 Happy Thanksgiving to you too.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  4. Pamela S. Wight
    | Reply

    Yes, I’d say that turkey with all the trimmings is our national dish. I teach creative writing classes, in different towns and different states, and every single student celebrates Thanksgiving and ‘the feast.’ Even the few vegetarians have all the sides, just skipping the meat.
    Many people say Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday because no gifts are needed, just family/friends spending time together. Isn’t that the best? (And you show a great example of that with your 2005 photos).
    Hey Jude – 50 years? Oh myyyy. In some ways, that’s become a national song (despite being written by the British Beatles). Every Paul McCartney concert I’ve attended in the past decade, thousands of people sing Hey Jude along with Sir Paul at the top of their voices, as if the song belongs to us.
    Pamela S. Wight recently posted…Unwrapping ChildhoodMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’ve been to a Simon & Garfunkel live concert, but no Beatles of any sort. Oh my! I’m quite envious. I would love to take in Joan Baez’s farewell tour, but doubt that I will. They all start so late now! I need one that starts at 2 pm.

      Have a Happy Thanksgiving, Pam. And, in the spirit of small world stories, I was up until midnight last night finding out how Twin Desires was going to end. Now I can relax again. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  5. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    My fondest memories of Thanksgiving evoke an image of sitting around Grandma’s table with Vietnamese families, the refugees of the 1960s-70s. Later other nationalities appeared.

    I peeked into Aunt Ruthie’s diary of 1945 recently and saw she baked 4 ducks for Thanksgiving that year. She thought this bird was juicier than turkey. Enjoy your goose this Thanksgiving!

  6. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Happy Thanksgiving, Janet! Your alternative meal sounds yummy. However, I always opt for the traditional turkey and stuffing. Interesting, although I enjoy it, I usually reserve it forThanksgiving Day.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Happy Thanksgiving to you as well, Kathy. We’ve had goose for Christmas many times; staying with Thanksgiving turkey. This year we have cut loose. No telling what crazy thing we might do next. 🙂 My best to Wayne and a scratch for Max.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  7. susan scott
    | Reply

    happy Thanksgiving Janet to you and family! Enjoy the goose and all the other trimmings. (You know the saying, his/her goose has been cooked? Means something entirely different). Hope the apple sauce is as good as when originally made. All that lovely whipped cream to go with the pies – most times I enjoy the cream best. I’ll be raising a metaphorical glass to all Americans –

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Interesting adage there isn’t it, to cook one’s goose? Aesop Fable of the golden goose; you kill it, those golden eggs stop coming. Talk about being short sighted! Thanks for your good wishes, Susan. I shall think of you as I enjoy the whipped cream on my piece of pumpkin pie.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  8. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Hi Janet, I’m heartened to know there are still some regional differences out there when it comes to our national feast. Growing up, ours was as traditional as it gets, although my parents did make scalloped oysters, which I’ve found many people have never heard of (and which I couldn’t stand)! My wife always prepares spinach and broccoli pies, which were new to me (but which I love)! I suppose the dishes that really “make it” for me are stuffing, mash potatoes and gravy, and cranberries, perhaps since it’s about the only time all year I eat any of them. PS – I’d never heard of “standing rib with Yorkshire pudding.” PSS – interesting that Hey Jude came out at the same time as the White Album, since it didn’t actually appear on that album (old Beatles fan here). I hope you and Woody have an excellent Thanksgiving! – T

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m now embarrassed it took me so long to realize how varied Thanksgiving side dishes are. I never really thought much about them until I married for the first time; my far-more-upper-middle-class-than-I in-laws served those scalloped oysters and I assumed that’s what the upper classes did! I enjoyed them for many years until I made them myself; yuk. Now I agree with you. My fruit salad, though, is a holdover from those days. That mother-in-law was a fantastic cook; I learned a lot from her. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, Tim, and if Jackie would like to share her spinach and broccoli pie recipe, I’d be game to try it; sounds right up my alley.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  9. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Your meal sounds scrumptious! We’re going to enjoy a blend of traditional and non-traditional foods tomorrow:

    Lemon Goat-Cheese Dip served with homemade pita bread
    Marinated Turkey Tenderloins (grilled on the outside grill)
    Sweet Potato Casserole with a candied pecan top
    Brussels Sprouts/Bacon/Dried Cranberries
    Stuffing (our daughter-in-law is making this side dish)
    Fresh Broccoli Salad
    Key Lime Pie (our son’s favorite) for dessert

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yum, all of it (I love key lime pie, and Brussel sprouts are Woody’s favorite vegetable). But I’m having a hard time figuring out where the tenderloin is in the turkey. 🙂

      There is something magical in having such a wide range of people engaged in a similar ritual across the country. Somehow, this year, the magnificence of that fact has settled on me. Happy Thanksgiving, Laurie.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  10. Rachael Stray
    | Reply

    I don’t know what our national dish is here in the UK – I think it depends which part of the UK you’re from. I really like turkey – we mainly have it at Christmas several times over the festive period. I prefer breast to leg though!

  11. Rachael Stray
    | Reply

    I don’t know what our national dish is here in the UK – I think it depends which part of the UK you’re from. I really like turkey – we mainly have it at Christmas several times over the festive period. I prefer breast to leg though! Also, happy Thanksgiving!!
    Rachael Stray recently posted…The TV shows to watch when you have the flu 🤧My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Rachel. The closest we came to turkey today was watching a flock of them strut past my kitchen window. When I think of British food I think of bangers and mash. I have no idea why. I love shepherds pie; why I don’t think of that I can’t imagine; bangers and mash it is.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  12. Denise
    | Reply

    I love Thanksgiving. I love having that day to spend with my family and enjoy a good meal. Although we celebrated in October (I’m Canadian!), it’s a holiday I cherish. Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you very much, Denise. Your Thanksgiving is my wedding anniversary, so we celebrate. I’ve often thought your thanksgiving comes at a much better time then mine. So glad you stopped by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  13. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    The thing about Thanksgiving is that I like the idea of being grateful, but do that daily so one day devoted to it seems a bit contrived to me. As for the traditional turkey dinner, welp– not a fan of it. I’ve made it and eaten it over the years without complaint, but left to my own devices I avoid it. Hence today we’ll be having Greek salad, French beef bourguignon, and English mince pie. How’s that for mixing it up?

    Happy Thanksgiving, Janet. Enjoy, enjoy.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Unexpected Entertainment: A Tale Of Grocery Shopping, One Little Girl, & Live MusicMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Good point, Ally. I usually go around the table and get everyone to say what they are thankful for. Today, I forgot! Great menu too. Beef bourguignon—- if it were easier to spell, I’d probably make it. Our goose was tough, I forgot the rice. My green beans were cold, some over cooked, some still hard. Weird. But everything else was great, even my gravy. Best of all, it didn’t really matter. Cause this was Thanksgiving and the food (really now) is never all that great. I mean, who’d ever order this stuff at a restaurant? Not I. It’s really a strange ritual we pull off each year.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

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