A lot of people out there look forward to Thanksgiving, but not really for the right reasons. You quiz people excited about the holiday, and you're likely to hear Jim Gaffigan-esque monologues about eating until you're sick, diatribes for or against Black Friday, or, if you come from a household where people pretend to get along, a canned response about coming together as a family (excluding any black sheep, of course). But when it comes to all of the trappings and traditions that separate the holiday from any other meal, you don't always get a rousing response.
And you know why? Because for a lot of people, traditional Thanksgiving can be really, really shitty.
For some it just conjures to mind stuffy memories of forced politeness and a whole lot of uncomfortable waiting around making awkward small talk before a pretty mediocre meal. For others still, it can be even worse – Thanksgiving can be nothing but rough for folks estranged from their families or dealing with the death of a relative. An insistence on churning out the same old dishes again and again really only serves to give consistency to the discomfort.
Why should we feel so chained to the same meal over and over again? It's not like any of the dishes represent anything significant on a cultural level. In all likelihood, the first Thanksgiving included a lot of corn, fish, deer, and maybe a turkey or two…but candied yams with marshmallows on them? Historically inaccurate AND disgusting. (And, as an interlude? If it weren't some sort of weird traditional dish, "sweet potatoes with marshmallows" would be better suited for a We Eat It So You Don't Have To. Jesus Christ – try incorporating marshmallows into a non-dessert dish in any other context. My friend used to melt marshmallows onto his Mama Celeste frozen mini pizzas, but if I suggested those as a Thanksgiving side dish, people'd look at me like I was absolutely bonkers).
If we're all being honest, is there anything particularly alluring about the traditional Thanksgiving fare? Turkey, potatoes, green beans, rolls, corn…I mean, think about it, where's the zest? The spice? Good meals are rich and flavorful with a lot of variety in taste. But at best, these dishes are covered in salty, fattening butter, and at least then they're savory. There are at least four other taste sensations. More likely than not, somebody in the kitchen half-assed something, and you're looking at a pretty bland spread. Seriously, it's not 1954 – it's okay to put pepper and garlic and flavor into our food.
Be real, people, Thanksgiving Dinner cannot be your favorite meal. After all, its gaping flaw is the poor choice of poultry.
Think about it – there's a reason we prefer chicken to turkey in pretty much every other culinary instance. Chicken is significantly moister. Chicken better absorbs and pairs with sauces and seasonings and rubs. It's just…better. Chicken is way more versatile – your leftovers wouldn't feel like a constant struggle to shove dead bird down your relatives' throats if you could convincingly disguise them with buffalo sauce, inventive seasonings, and familiar dishes. The turkey honestly isn't worth eating unless it's brined or deep-fried, and even then, it can barely compare to its diminutive cousin.
But even that kind of thinking is incredibly uninspired. And I really do feel that Thanksgiving needs some inspiration — it shouldn't just comprise the awkward middle child position between Halloween and Christmas. Every other holiday (at least, your standard cadre of white American holidays) has been transformed over the course of centuries. Every generation has made its own stamp on the traditions to make them more exciting and appealing – so far, all we've got is the addition of Black Friday insanity, and frankly, that blows.
It's time to take Thanksgiving back, and that starts in the kitchen and ends at the table. If you don't have the best relationship with your genetic relatives, or if you just don't want to hear your older relations spew Fox News tidbits at you for eight solid hours, ditch the family. Your real family should be the people you love who love you – grab your friends, your significant others, your coworkers, and go somewhere warm that you love.
Be close and be thankful, and sit down to a dinner that matters to you. Maybe that DOES mean working hard to recreate the traditional spread for a group of people you care about…as long as it's not an obligation. Maybe your perfect Thanksgiving is a culturally specific set of dishes, or a multicultural mélange. Hell, maybe your perfect Thanksgiving is just cramming your friends into the car and heading to Albertaco's on Lincoln for California Burritos, and speeding back home to catch the tail-end of the Syfy channel Twilight Zone Marathon.
At the end of the day, it isn't really about what you eat, but why you eat it, and who you eat it with. If your immediate gene pool gives you the warm fuzzies, then go for it. If you're still convinced that chunks of dry turkey slathered in boring brown gravy is what gets your gratitude gears grinding, then by all means, go to town. But if you're not feeling thankful for turkey and 'taters and football, if you truly don't feel comfortable or safe or happy with the traditional Thanksgiving circumstances, don't suffer through.
Holidays shouldn't be a chore.