Okay, I’ll admit it — I think Thanksgiving is the most boring holiday meal of the year. Perhaps it’s the residue of the Turkey Years, when Mom fed us on a couple of turkeys a month because it was a lot of meat for the dollar, or perhaps it’s just because it *is* the most boring meal of the year — but snore snore snore. Turkey. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. A couple of sides — brussell sprouts or green beans. Cranberry sauce. Pie.
It’s inviolable. There are variations, sure — every year the magazines plop into my box full of variations, but essentially, you’re stuck with the same meal. For a couple of years there I fled the country — went to Paris for Thanksgiving (I could take a full 10-day vacation and only had to take 3 days off work.) I remember explaining to some French people that it’s a meal no one really likes, but everyone is forced, by the culture, to eat. They were French, a culture in which food ritual is so ingrained that although they were bewildered by the very American excess, and by the somewhat crude nature of the menu — they understood the concept of a shared national meal.
What saves Thanksgiving for me is the annual appearance of those ceremonial dishes that are really horrible, but without which it just doesn’t seem like Thanksgiving. My Aunt Daphne’s Baked Oyster Thing, for example. Beloved to her because it evokes her Maryland girlhood but translated to the Midwest in the 70s and 80s it appeared as a loose gratin of jarred oysters in cream, covered with smashed saltines. To a bunch of 10-15 year olds, it was everything horrible — slimy, wet, oystery and as I recall, a sort of unappealing grey color — but there it was, every year. And we were raised with the kind of manners that required us to take at least a bite, and to thank our beloved Aunt Daphne for the delicious Oyster Thing.
Or my mother’s standard — the Tomato Aspic Ring. This one is right out of some 1960s magazine. A jello mold made with half strawberry jello, half tomato juice into which is suspended a hash of onion, green pepper and celery that has been shredded in the Cuisinart. It’s unmolded onto a lettuce-lined plate, filled with curried mayonnaise and surrounded by a festive garland of canned artichoke hearts and hearts of palm. It’s ridiculous, and actually sort of refreshing, and when my mother tried to retire it, my cousin Denise specifically requested it’s return. It just didn’t feel like a holiday without it.
So folks, spill the beans — what are the ceremonial food items without which your Thanksgiving just wouldn’t feel complete?