We’re here to pick a bone about Thanksgiving 2020. This is the iconic American family holiday when multiple smells of cooking waft throughout our homes. We set our tables with the good dishes and get ready for the big day with lots of guests, food, multiple courses, fancy centerpieces and typically the same cast of characters. It’s also a time to revel and rejoice, to give thanks for one’s blessings, although 2020 has been a challenging year for all, turning our world upside down and our Thanksgiving topsyturkey.
We don’t want to be killjoys, but this year our Thanksgiving might look very different. The late Phillip Roth, who wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, American Pastoral, considered Thanksgiving to be the great equalizer. It’s when everybody eats the same thing, turkey, and there’s a moratorium on strange foods and any religion, he says. This year, however, the only moratorium might be on the same rituals.
In fact, nearly 70 percent of Americans plan to celebrate Thanksgiving differently this year, according to a consumer survey released last month by Numerator, a Chicago-based market research firm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDA) has stepped right into the middle of our holiday plans with a blueprint of its own to keep us healthy. In addition to skipping holiday travel, the CDC suggests limiting celebrations to people living in the same household or doing the whole shebang on a screen.
It is, oh, so tempting to put the pandemic aside for this holiday. We understand. We fantasize about our kids boarding airplanes or getting behind the wheel to come home. When we invite family, who might fly or drive to see us, we are also inviting whatever germs they may be carrying along with their luggage. Science has shown that even family groups that eat together, especially inside, can spread the virus faster than a swarm of locusts. We’ve all read about family pods, which sound good in theory if everyone is up front and honest, remembers where they’ve been and if they’ve been tested. So, we ask ourselves, is one dinner for one night worth the risk of contracting the virus? That’s the question on the tip of all our tongues. Depends. As we know so well, it’s an individual decision.
If we opt to gather ‘round the table, perhaps let the traditional turkey fly the coop as the meal’s centerpiece and try some new entrants in its place. Everything will most likely be smaller such as the group (fewer critics and mouths to feed), the turkey, the number of dishes and portions. As a result, this extraordinary time might be the right time to experiment with our menus.
With diversity so timely, why not forgo the American apple and pumpkin pies and accoutrement scenario—butternut squash soup, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberries, cornbread and the rest--and go for new dishes including foods from other cultures and countries.
Instead of one large turkey, why not downsize to individual Cornish hens with sun dried tomatoes and rosemary butter or a big turkey breast. Don’t like fowl for your feast, what about fish as in fillet of sole Ponte Vecchio style, with tomatoes, simmered in white wine and various spices. Perhaps, consider an Asian theme with Cambodian barbecued chicken or curried duck. And then for those beef eaters out there, why not think filet mignon with bearnaise sauce a la Julia Child.
Because Hanukkah often comes quick on the heels of Thanksgiving and starts this year December 10, Barbara’s family will continue with one tradition of an appetizer of hand-grated miniature potato pancakes with applesauce but maybe add another that’s wildly different.
Instead of a boring salad or brussels sprouts, why not opt for collard greens made with bacon fat (can substitute olive oil), onion, sesame seeds and various spices or black eyed peas (there are dozens of recipes online) in place of green bean casserole that few of us really like but feel is a time-honored traditional side dish. Black-eye peas also symbolize good luck for the New Year and luck for all can’t come too soon.
One woman we know, who rarely has time to read about or watch the news, was going to have 14 for Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings. After her boss contracted the virus and the entire staff had to quarantine, she switched on the news and switched her plans. Now she’s having only four and might just serve scrambled eggs and bacon. Yum.
Here are some other alternatives. What about in lieu of white mashed potatoes, you try winter squash that is healthier and has a bright white rind and nearly white flesh? When baked and fluffed, it has the consistency of mashed potatoes. Or for color, instead of those orange-hued yams, try an orange-maple-butternut squash mash. As for bread, Barbara has been on a yeast kick since the pandemic by making her own bagels and challah. She wants to rise to a new level of bread making this holiday to achieve a triumphant 2020 bread-making trifecta. Instead of her traditional cornbread, she is going to make Parker House rolls she spied in a Bon Appetit recipe list.
Whatever is on your menu and plate, preparation is key and is the first step toward having a solid meal plan. Create your menu and get creative because you can. Write out the ingredients needed and figure how they’ll fit into your budget. Then either schlep to the store or order online from one of the many delivery services. You can even order an already cooked holiday meal and bag the cooking. Don’t forget some kind of cute place cards and also place mats.
If Zoom is your Thanksgiving gathering of choice, rather than sharing food, share family photos, stories, ideas and more. Screen time can prove to be a great time to relax, exchange recipes, really listen to one another’s cooking tips without any animus between cooks—my stuffing with chestnuts and oysters is so much better than yours with sausage and cornbread-- or kids complaining, “You changed the sweet potato pudding. Where are the marshmallows? We liked last year’s version better.” If someone does have a meltdown or there’s a one-on-one screaming match, simply mute the mic. Obviously, this is not the game plan you had in mind!
When it comes to drinks, maybe you’ll follow Barbara’s example of choosing a different signature drink each year. Margaret’s clan loves good wine and this year she and her daughter, Remy, an expert who works for Duckhorn winery, are talking about good pinot noirs to accompany the holiday meal, even though they’ll be in different cities. They can still share notes and do an online toast. She recommends either a Goldeneye, Flowers or Calera Pinot Noir in the $25 to $75 range.
Also accept the fact that a virtual buffet, unless you bring your own (BYO) to the online party, will leave guests feeling empty, quite the opposite of the way we stuff ourselves at the traditional holiday table, which is another plus for good health. A virtual feast has other advantages. It means we’ll be relieved of gobs of time cooking and spending tons on ingredients. There are no worries about social distancing, mask wearing, what to wear, having to set the table, clearing it, washing dishes and those greasy sticky pots and pans. Also, there will be less food waste. Unfortunately, that means fewer or no leftovers as well.
If you do decide to go full out with family and fowl, be sure to find the wishbone. Make a pledge that 2021 will be a much better, happier, healthier year. Perhaps, we might even get back to basics of more time spent together in person.
Here are some alternative recipe suggestions. The first two are from the late Molly O’Neill that appeared in the New York Times Magazine (Feb. 11, 1996), who was a favorite food writer and FB friend of Barbara’s. And for dessert, we’re thinking variations on the usual—maybe, a new type of pumpkin pie or even a pumpkin cheesecake; an apple cobbler rather than pie; something with chocolate for those who can’t do without that ingredient, and a tiramisu or English trifle for a wild card. Every gathering these days should feature something out of the box, but not from a box, to add joy.
Cornish Hens with Sun-Dried-Tomato-And-Rosemary Butter
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ cut oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and finely chopped
5 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
5 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 Cornish hens, 1 ½ pounds each
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Stir together the butter, tomatoes, roe=semary,1 teaspoon of salt, pepper and lemon juice. Using one teaspoon of salt for each, salt and pepper the inside the cavity and over the skin. Loosen the skin over the breasts and thighs to make pockets. Place 2 tablespoons of butter mixture in each pocket. Rub any remaining mixture over the outside of the hens.
- Place the hens in a large roasting pan breast side down. Roast for 20 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Roast until just cooked through, about 30 minutes longer. Split the hens in half lengthwise. Place half of a hen on each of eight plates. Serve with mascarpone polenta.
Yield: Eight servings.
Creamy Mascarpone Polenta
8 cups of water
4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup mascarpone cheese
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the salt. Whisking constantly, add the cornmeal in a very thin, steady stream. Turn the heat as low as possible. Cook for one hour, stirring vigorously every 10 minutes. Add the mascarpone and pepper and beat until smooth and creamy. Serve hot.
Yield: Eight servings.
Collard Greens (from “Simply Recipes” by Elise Bauer)
- 2 teaspoons bacon fat (or substitute olive oil)
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons onion, chopped
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 pounds collard greens, tough stems discarded, leaves chopped
- 2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
- Chili pepper flakes, a pinch
- Salt, a couple pinches
- Sugar, a couple pinches
- Barbecue sauce (optional)
- Cook onions and garlic:Use a large skillet with a tight- fitting cover. Melt bacon fat and heat olive oil on medium heat. Sauté onion until transparent, a couple of minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Cook the collards: Mix in the greens, sesame oil, chili pepper flakes, salt, and sugar. Cover and cook until tender, 8-15 minutes. (Note that young collard greens will cook up relatively quickly. Older greens may take upwards of 45 minutes to tenderize.)
If you want, serve with barbecue sauce.
From Tyler Florence, with a few tweaks from us
1-pint strawberries, hulled and cut into slices
1 lemon, juiced
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
1-quart whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 11-ounce jar lemon curd or make your own!
1 store bought pound cake sliced ½ inch thick or make your own!
Place the berries in a large bowl and sprinkle with half the lemon juice.
Combine the berries, sugar, cornstarch and remaining lemon juice in a saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until the berries begin to break down and give up their juices, about 3 minutes. Take the berries off the heat and let cool. The mixture should thicken up as it cools.
In a clean bowl, whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla to soft peaks. Put the lemon curd into a second bowl and stir in a little of the whipped cream to loosen it. Then, fold in the rest of the cream.
To assemble the trifle, spoon a layer of the lemon cream into a large glass bowl. Add a layer of pound cake slices. Soak the cake with a layer of berries and juices. Keep going to make three or four more layers, depending on the size of the bowl, finishing with a layer of lemon cream. Decorate with berries on top and maybe a sprig of something green. Refrigerate until ready to serve.