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Talking Turkey about Thanksgiving Rituals

22 November 2007

On Salon.com yesterday, Adam Roberts interviewed chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant in New York City. I appreciated his more laid-back attitude to sustainability, but was a little more skeptical about some of his comments about Thanksgiving and tradition.

Are there any traditional dishes you refuse to cook because they’re beneath your standards?

What’s a traditional one — like jellied beets from a can?

Or marshmallows on sweet potatoes.

Well that’s a ’70s tradition. I don’t consider that part of our heritage.

But a lot of people do it.

A lot of people are misguided. That’s a 1975 sort of invention — or ’65.

It makes me wonder what dishes Barber does consider traditional. Turkey, obviously, since he gives advice on buying heirloom breed turkeys for your Thanksgiving dinner. Pumpkin pie? Green beans? Just how old must a tradition be to be legitimate?

The Thanksgiving holiday as we know it dates from the Civil War era, and it’s likely that the inclusion of turkey in the holiday meal dates from about the same time. Accounts of Puritan feasts describe meals that don’t anything like today’s Thanksgiving dinners: fish, roasted meats, cauliflower, syllabub, sugared almonds and chocolate.

So, go ahead and object to marshmallows on sweet potatoes because you don’t like marshmallows, or because you think they’re full of unhealthy ingredients. The argument that they’re too new an innovation to be legitimately traditional seems specious to me.

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