Every year around this time, I marvel at the sheer volume and creative breadth and depth of content dedicated to finding ways to spice up Thanksgiving dinner. Braise a pork loin instead of roasting a turkey! Try this Ultimate Stuffing recipe! Whip up these clever potato dishes rather than boring old mashed! Make a Thanksgiving salad! Add some fiery heat to your gravy!
However, my awe is almost instantly overtaken by scorn. Why on earth would one assume such a massive and expensive editorial task year after year, I wonder, when everyone knows only one directive exists when it comes to Thanksgiving? Don't f**k with tradition.
Tradition dictates that we always purchase a turkey at least 10 pounds heavier than our group size necessitates. We cannot pack said bird with anything other than stuffing made from torn-up hot dog buns, celery, onion and a whole tube of breakfast sausage — dusted with a few healthy shakes of Bell's Seasoning. (The true dogmatist will have already drained one of Dad's high-octane 7 and 7s with Canada Dry ginger ale by the time the turkey's in the oven.)
Tradition will not permit deviations from baked mashed potatoes laced and topped with diced sautéed onions. It might overlook a surreptitious zesting of lemon over the buttered green beans, but it expressly forbids any wine or unsanctioned spices in the pan gravy, which — by the way — must be thickened with a flour slurry that's whisked with a fork in the same glass liquid measuring cup.
Only a fool would suggest that "cranberry sauce" comprises fresh or frozen cranberries cooked down with sugar, lemon and warm spices. As Tradition mandates, Ocean Spray makes the only cranberry sauce worth having — which you chill down in its can before dinner, then coax out with a butter knife 'till it flops out onto the good, gold-rimmed china, its edges artistically ringed with can indents. (I suppose this technically makes it a cranberry jelly, but we don't call it that. Nor should you.)
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How did my family become so tyrannical that we demand the same shit, prepared to these exacting specs, year after year? That whoever takes up the Thanksgiving cooking mantle gets into the anxious habit of stockpiling Bell's Seasoning and Ocean Spray Cranberry (Sauce) to avoid hours of passive-aggressive mockery at the table? That every new family member and/or Lost Boy we absorb in a given year must fall in line by concurring that our sausage stuffing is far better than whatever chestnuts-and-crap they grew up eating?
Is nostalgia this competitive? This f**king ruthless? In our house it is.
It's not like Mom hasn't tried to mix it up in the nearly four decades my sister and I have been alive. One couldn't easily forget the ill-fated year when she swapped out the green beans for carrots glazed in brown sugar. My sister, around 11 at the time, took one look at it, screamed, then ran to her room and slammed the door, leaving her entire meal untouched. Nor the time Mom test drove an admittedly delightful spicy cornbread stuffing, which was prodded disinterestedly by three ungrateful jerks who may as well have been wearing matching biker jackets embroidered with Don't F**k With Tradition on the back.
"I miss the old stuffing," one moaned childishly.
After gratefully handing off Thanksgiving prep these past few years, Mom's cooking again this year. A few days ago, she texted me an innocuous photo of Trader Joe's jarred cranberry sauce, which was visibly packed with real cranberry pieces.
"Do you want to try this on Thanksgiving?" she ventured. "It's just cranberries, sugar and pectin."
I wanted to say yes — really I did, I told her. But I wanted my cylindrical slice of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce more.
"Just like always!" she replied.
It brought to mind one Christmas season about 10 years ago, when Mom suggested our family see a different play besides the annual Nutcracker ballet we'd attended for 20-odd years since my sister and I were little. She'd started noticing that my dad, sister and I would take turns nodding off during the ballet; maybe it wasn't worth paying $100 apiece for tickets anymore? Aghast, we insisted it was Tradition, and we all loved it just the same.
That year — the last Nutcracker we'd attend for many — she glanced over in the middle of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," and all three of us were fast asleep.
But wait! We were just resting our eyes! And it's Tradition! Would you dare deny us this beloved ritual that comes just once a year? Would you?