Thanksgiving 2020: tradition, turkey and gluttony in a year where there’s not much to be thankful for
- Thanksgiving is usually celebrated with friends and family, and traditional dishes include turkey and pumpkin pie
- This year will be different because of social distancing, but the feasts will no doubt be in full force
American Thanksgiving is going to be weird this year. For one thing, there hasn’t been a lot to give thanks for in 2020.
The other obvious hitch is it’s still not a great idea to gather all your loved ones together in one place. You don’t want to be remembered by future descendants as the great-granduncle who wiped out almost an entire branch of the family by inviting them over to eat turkey and stuffing during the great pandemic of the 21st century.
I do admit I have an unusual fondness for Thanksgiving. It’s one of the public holidays without any denominational baggage. Anyone from any faith and background can join in the fun and make it their own.
It originated as a celebration of the harvest, but the custom was whitewashed with an American myth about the Pilgrims sharing a meal with Native Americans. Over time, it would be one of the bedrock platitudes of this holiday.
In the United States, generations of families reunite each November to indulge in a big feast, followed by the watching of NFL games, a food coma and drunken arguments with your relatives about old issues after months of emotional distancing, denial and resentment.
The US might be the country best known for its Thanksgiving, but the seasonal fete is enjoyed the world over. Canada’s Thanksgiving occurs in October, which is actually closer to when the harvest ends. Celebrating the end of summer crop also occurs across Europe, Africa and Asia.
The gathering is not really even about the food. People like Thanksgiving because it’s about quantity more than quality. The gluttony is the appeal.
I wonder if certain dishes are eaten at Thanksgiving because nobody wants to have them the rest of the year. I’ve yet to hear anyone say they prefer pumpkin pie over chocolate cake. Cranberry sauce is a nice hit of sweetness eaten with bland turkey breast but it’s nobody’s go-to preference as a condiment with chicken, duck or any other fowl.
Chefs rarely offer turkey on their menus except during Thanksgiving, because it’s not a very gastronomically interesting protein. It’s universally agreed the meat is too dry. The skin doesn’t crisp up. Not even the bird’s name is particularly sexy. In Hong Kong, people haven’t jumped on the Thanksgiving train because most folks don’t have an oven (or one that’s large enough) to cook the turkey.
A friend likes to wrap her Thanksgiving bird with bacon – as Gordon Ramsay recommends – which is supposed to keep it moist and tasty. However, I still drench it with gravy so whatever difference it makes is moot.
Like most family festivities, the day is about nostalgia and tradition, more than culinary excellence. I have another friend who enjoys making his pumpkin pie from scratch. He’ll roll out his own pastry, cut up, cook and purée the pumpkin, and assemble the prettiest Instagram-worthy pie. But it’s also obligatory for him to serve it with a large dollop of fake cream from the supermarket.
“There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares to Cool Whip for pumpkin pie. It is the best accompaniment,” he proclaims.
The same love also exists for custard from a carton and cranberry jelly in a tin. Sure, you can make your own but it’s just not the same without those artificial flavourings we grew up with.
A chef I met recently says he enjoys faithfully recreating his family’s classic English holiday trifle. But the most significant element is to present it in out-of-fashion serving ware. “Honestly, if it’s not served in a tacky retro bowl, then it’s doesn’t count,” he declares.
I understand this old-fashioned mentality. It’s how you make Thanksgiving great again.