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Turkey With a Twist: Rethinking Thanksgiving

Our readers tell how they've adapted tradition to changing times

As Next Avenue readers gather together for Thanksgiving, many will be surrounded by family and friends they’ve celebrated with for years, sharing the same dishes they wouldn’t think of leaving off the menu.

And while they treasure tradition, some have adapted their customs to accommodate changes in their lives.

Last year, we asked our readers how they’ve reinvented the holiday to suit their needs and make the day more meaningful. Here’s what they said:

Popsicles and Pinatas

Pamela Hastings from Port Angeles, Wash., says her family tired of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner years ago. Instead, she began hosting themed celebrations for her self-described family of foodies.

Three years ago, it was Thanksgiving-on-a-stick, with a menu that included stuffing muffins on sticks; a cherished family corn casserole made into balls and deep fried; pie folded over popsicle sticks and the turkey impaled by a large dowel. Another year it was all pies (potato pie, squash pie with pumpernickel bread crust, ricotta pie, artichoke pie, elk mincemeat pie and assorted dessert pies). Hastings once hosted a Mexican Thanksgiving, complete with a turkey piñata. This year the theme is Mediterranean, inspired by a friend’s baklava.

Goodbye, Perfection — Hello, Simplicity

Not everyone was as willing to be as creative with their meals as Hastings. Some readers said it was important to prepare a holiday meal that would make their grandmother proud with oven-baked, shiny brown turkeys and comfort food sides. Others traded in the Norman Rockwell-worthy turkey and trimmings for a simpler, low-stress meal.

“I don’t spend all day preparing food. We have a much simpler meal that includes some food prepared by our wonderful local grocery store and some made by myself or other family members,” says Elizabeth Y., of Virginia Beach, Va. ”In addition, I am working at job where I don’t get the Friday after Thanksgiving off — so, the holiday is no longer a four-day schmooze fest. It’s a simple gathering with those I love.”

Susan B. of Hudson, Wisc., says: “I always felt compelled to cook dinner like my mother, which was everything traditional.  Now my children just make their favorite dishes. It is always enough.”

Switching to Healthier Dishes

Let’s be honest, the average Thanksgiving meal packs a lot of calories. While some are happy to treat Thanksgiving like a $12.99 all-you-can-eat buffet, others prefer to stay on track with their healthful ways. Cooks, in turn, are finding ways to cut calories and fat from the sugary, butter-drenched dishes they grew up with.

“I don’t make the big feast my grandparents and parents used to, with all the calorie-laden dishes and three different pies!” writes Judy B. from Escondido, Calif. ”Mashed potatoes are now cauliflower mashed ‘potatoes.’ I don’t make stuffing because no one liked it except me, and I don’t need the extra calories. During the football games, we have changed from chips and dip to veggies and hummus.”

Katherine C. of Grand Rapids, Mich., says: “Pecan pie is no longer served. It should be called sugar pie with nut topping.”

Tofurkey Roast and Gluten-Free Foods

No matter how small the gathering, many hosts will have one or two guests who cannot eat certain foods or who follow a special diet. In the past few years, a lot of us have added gluten-free stuffing, vegan gravy and sugar-free fruit pies to the standard menu.

While her tofurkey roast may not make the cover of Martha Stewart Living, reader Linda Gonzalez, of Philadephia, Pa., says she’s thrilled to have it on her table, since she doesn’t eat meat.

Barbara Hoskins of Mesa, Ariz., says: “We have had to change the recipes to accommodate food allergies. Our turkey has to be gluten-free with no additives … We have stopped using dairy products because of dairy allergies. We have experimented with dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, garlic-free, and many other options.”

Family Food Wars

Of course, at times you do not want to mess with tradition. Families get used to certain dishes, and you change the menu at your peril.

“Every year we argue about the corn,”  says Janet S. of New Athens, Ill. ”We had scalloped corn for many years and then along came the corn casserole, the one made with cornbread mix. The first year I brought the ‘new recipe,’ they had a fit. I was told to go back to the old recipe and leave it that way. We are so locked in our traditions.”

At least two readers confessed to liking the canned, jellied cranberry over the various homemade versions that adorn Thanksgiving tables (and tablecloths) this time of year.

In an attempt to peacefully resolve the great cranberry sauce debate, we’ve put together a user poll (below) to settle once and for all whether ’tis better to serve homemade relish or just ease it out of the can (ridges and all), hoping it doesn’t slide off the other side of plate.

For those who want to add homemade cranberry sauce and a little kick to the meal, reader Dot Dickinson shared her friend Sherry’s recipe for Bourbon Cranberry Relish. We didn’t have time to run it through the Next Avenue test kitchen (a.k.a. the breakroom), but it looks lovely. Dot adds this helpful hint for the Thanksgiving cook in need of a break: “This is best if you taste the bourbon before adding it to the saucepan. It may take a couple of sips to make sure it is okay to add it to the cranberries.”

For something more traditional, try Pamela Hastings’ cranberry sauce, adapted from a Country Living recipe.

Shifting the Calendar

Even if you are not hosting and cooking for a big family with different tastes for Thanksgiving, just getting there can be a stressful experience, as you try to not be trampled at the airport or tailgated on the highway.

Leah Antignas, of Oakland, Calif., figured out how to avoid the Wednesday evening turkey race a while ago. She says: “Instead of taking off work the day before to travel to family, we take off work the Monday after. My husband and I drive early Thanksgiving day from the Bay Area to L.A. so we can avoid the Wednesday traffic and arrive in time for the gathering. Long drive but little traffic — what a relief. We made this shift years ago and have never turned back.”

Meals With Special Guests

Some Next Avenue readers have decided to have their Thanksgiving meals with special people beyond their family members.

“Instead of inviting people to our home, we bring food to our church where we host a meal for those who have nowhere else to go. We serve and eat there, meeting many remarkable people,” Doroth Van Haaften of Idaho Falls, Idaho, wrote in to say.

Julie Tomlinson of Cary, N.C., says the traditional Thanksgiving family gathering is stressful and she winds up eating too much. Instead, she says, “I plan to create a family of my choosing, comprised of women in my age group, living with or near one another, helping and caring for each other. The Golden Girls dream of women across the country, and beyond. We will create new traditions. My contribution will be healthier meals.”

“It used to be all about the immediate family,” writes Susan H. of Mahopac, N.Y.  “However, with older parents (and) relatives passing away and some other family members who grow up and start their own family traditions, it’s more difficult to try to organize the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The last few years, we’ve spent Thanksgiving with our friends instead of family.”

New Families, New Traditions

As families grow and add new members, the menu has inevitably changed. “We try to incorporate a special dish that each guest remembers from her family’s tradition: e.g. kimchi for a Korean-American; Brussels sprouts for our New England friends; mince pie for our English guests, along with our own family recipes,”  says Lynnett Evans of San Francisco, Calif.

“Our son married a New England girl, so squash on our table is a must (though the marriage is over)! One daughter married a fellow from the South, so we added sweet potato casserole to the menu … he’s still with us!” says HelenMarie M. of Fort Washington, Penn.

Moving More, Sitting Less

Even with crustless pumpkin pies and cauliflower mashed potatoes on the menu, our tendency is to eat beyond our recommended daily calorie intake. Many readers say they have added nature walks and hikes to their Thanksgiving Day traditions, for exercise and to enjoy the outdoors together.

We always walk after the meal. Well, most of us!” writes Leanna from Lewes, Del.

What They’re Watching

Some traditions die hard: Many people wrote in to defend spending time on the couch watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, football and holiday movies. But Deborah R. of Churchville, Md., wrote poignantly of the change her family has made to make the day enjoyable for her mother-in-law who has dementia. “Instead of a more adult movie we might prefer, we watch ‘Peanuts’ cartoons she can understand and that we enjoy as well.”

Being Thankful

And lest the meaning of the day get lost under all that food, many readers said they take time to focus on giving thanks.

Claudia Skelton, of Seattle, Wash., says her family uses the holiday to recall happy memories thinking “about previous family Thanksgiving events and (writing) a few words about those memories. Those memories are what I am thankful for.”

“The one tradition we will never change is having each person at the table tell something he or she is especially thankful for,” says HelenMarie of Fort Washington, Penn. ”This will probably be my dad’s last Thanksgiving. He is 97 and is having more difficulty negotiating the travel from his personal care community. So it will be special in that way.  Future family celebrations will evolve.

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