A Comprehensive Guide To Cooking, Eating, & Building New Traditions This Thanksgiving

We’re now more than eight months into the pandemic, and still living (all together now) in unprecedented times. That means Thanksgiving is going to look a little different this year. Many of us may be braving our first Thanksgiving without the usual trappings; according to a survey by Morning Consult, 75% of people aren’t planning to travel for or around the holiday weekend. And in a year that has brought our country’s problematic history into sharper focus, we're likely to be feeling a bit more reflective. So, in the interest of reimagining this year's meal, especially for those who may be by themselves or cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for the first time, we enlisted the help of Dana Thompson, co-owner of The Sioux Chef and founder of NATIFS, and James Beard-nominated restaurateur Daniel Delaney, to help plan a delicious, meaningful, and stress-free day of thanks… at least by 2020 standards.

Respecting different Thanksgiving associations

In what is hopefully the oldest newsflash to us all, the sanitized version of the Thanksgiving story most of us were taught in school is about as historically accurate as the notion of Columbus “discovering” America. “The Thanksgiving myth is a painful lie for plenty of Indigenous people,” Thompson explains. The holiday is challenging because it’s a big part of mainstream American culture, but can feel like a bittersweet event that highlights the losses that native communities have experienced over the years. Mainstream culture is slowly beginning to refrain from perpetuating some myths around Thanksgiving, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, and it’s important to respect Indigenous communities by keeping appropriated Indigenous cultural touchstones, stereotypes, or costumes out of our celebrations.
But the non-profit founder also says many Indigenous people view the holiday as a chance to gather and share gratitude: “It’s an opportunity to share with whoever you can — even if it’s over FaceTime — a time when we’re able to thank our ancestors for the resiliency we have been granted.” Thompson also explains that the holiday can serve as a seasonal celebration, embracing traditional foods specific to each region. “We would always celebrate this time of year with different types of root vegetables, or wild rice, because the harvest just finished and there’s an abundance of it,” she recalls.

Let’s talk turkey

If you are choosing to observe Turkey Day by cooking the namesake bird itself, we’ve got good news. Time, something many of us have an abundance of these days, is going to be your best friend. “I would suggest doing things as far in advance as possible,” says Delaney, who reigned over the now-closed Delaney Chicken in New York and definitely knows his way around the perfect bird. Most of us probably will purchase a frozen turkey, and it’s imperative to leave enough time to thaw it completely based on its size. But the restaurateur shares that he also breaks down the turkey into different parts for easier cooking. But if you’re just cooking for a small group (or yourself, you deserve it), you could even pick up turkey breasts for a small but mighty feast.
As for achieving that platonic turkey ideal, Delaney insists that banishing moisture before cooking will ensure beautiful, crispy skin around delicious meat: “I would encourage people to rub salt on the inside and outside of the bird and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.” The salt will enhance the flavor of the meat, make it more moist, and dry out the surface so it can achieve that golden brown glow. Once it’s in the oven, he swears by a digital probe thermometer. "You can get one for $10 and it’s a surefire way to ensure it’ll come out perfectly."
But there’s also no need to emulate the classic Norman Rockwell vibe if turkey isn’t your thing. Delaney suggests preparing a chicken, which is smaller and much more forgiving in the oven, or even trying out prime rib or a nice pork loin.

The supporting acts

To avoid juggling too much on the day itself, Delaney advises spreading out the side dish cooking throughout the week and storing the fruits of your labors in the refrigerator until it’s time for their moment in the spotlight. Delaney is a classicist when it comes to the side dish lineup, but suggests jazzing up the veggies. “And with all the heavy, rich meat, try a bright, acidic, refreshing salad.”
We aren't about to let you take on this feat without a little liquid courage, either. “It’s always nice to have wine on the table with Thanksgiving,” adds Delaney, who enjoys sipping slowly and steadily throughout the day. “People will buy red wine for Thanksgiving, and I think really nice refreshing white wines are an even better match.” If you’re staying sober, a warming tea can be perfect for keeping it cozy. Thompson shares that she and her family go out and pick the boughs off the cedar, pine, and blue spruce trees. “It makes the most incredible tea to serve for Thanksgiving, and it’s actually packed with antioxidants.”

The last word on the cranberry sauce debate

To can or not to can? We’re not about to tell you how to live your best life. But Thompson recalls a favorite cranberry dish her family makes for celebratory meals around this time of year. After simmering the cranberries, she adds “a tiny bit of local maple syrup. It’s so delicious…you can make the cranberry dish with just these two ingredients and learn how to make something that is actually medicine. Delicious, beautiful, vibrant medicine.”
Delaney, on the other hand, has been swayed over to the canned camp in recent years. “In my adult life, I’ve come to really appreciate the nostalgia of the can,” he admits. The way he sees it, it’s an easy and cheap alternative to give yourself a break after spending so much time cooking the rest of your meal. If your table feels incomplete without the classic jelly log but you prefer the taste of homemade, Delaney proposes making your favorite recipe and storing it in a clean can ahead of time to achieve the “classic ribbed look.” We’re not judging if you can’t live without that shlooop as it plops onto the plate.

Sorry, I was on mute!

If you’re someone who’s always dreamed of hitting up multiple Thanksgiving dinners in one day, this could be your chance. Many gatherings will be happening virtually, making Zoom our best chance for connection. Since everyone has different comfort levels with technology, be sure to check in with folks to ensure they know how to sign on and join in the festivities. By designating one person to organize and host the virtual event (if you’re feeling heroic, by all means volunteer), it stands a good chance at running smoothly. Well, at least as smoothly as family gatherings can go.
Even if we can’t be physically together, we can still share some Thanksgiving traditions. In the days leading up to the fourth Thursday, Delaney recommends exchanging recipes with family or friends and spending each evening cooking one dish to be refrigerated for the big day. It’s a great way to cook along with your loved ones and share stories around the food, as well as get a jump on your cooking. If you’re trying to create an even more harmonious experience, it could be fun to send around the same background image for everyone to use. (This may be the closest many of us ever get to Thanksgiving in Tahiti.) The day also offers an excuse to give your usual quarantine outfit a break — at least from the waist up. If we’ve gained anything from quarantine, it’s the universal acceptance of stretchy pants.

Give thanks & give back

The holidays are always a good time for reflection, and Thanksgiving particularly is an opportunity to consider what we can be grateful for in a year that has been incredibly difficult for countless families and communities. For those of us fortunate enough to have good resources and health, there are a multitude of ways to celebrate our gratitude by giving back:
* Doing a grocery run? Lengthen your shopping list and support your local food bank.
* Volunteer to grocery shop for vulnerable populations in your neighborhood.
* Donate food to your local community fridge — just be sure to read the guidelines.
* Find volunteer opportunities in your local area with Meals on Wheels, which always needs additional support over the holidays.
Finally, remember that the Indigenous community has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Thompson shares that there’s currently a lot of work going on to support nutrition, early childhood nutrition, and education, but the needs vary in every tribal area. "It’s so important for people to just really look at what their passion is or where their focus lives and then spend time doing a little bit of research," she advises.

Clear your head

After much planning, cooking, and even more eating, we could all use some time to stretch our legs and replenish our energy. Many Turkey Trots are being canceled this year, but if you’re into that kind of thing, you can still throw on a mask and take a jog around the block. If your aspirations are a bit less athletic, a nice long socially-distanced walk could also help clear your head and allow the feast to digest. For those of us whose version of a marathon is horizontal, why not settle in for some movies and let the tryptophan work its magic?
The holiday is also a great opportunity to take time to learn about the Indigenous history right in your own city. “Wherever you are, there is Indigenous history,” Thompson reminds us. “Getting to know what’s happening in your own area is really important.” And if you find your balance and rejuvenation through meditation, a guided session centered around gratitude might just be the perfect thing. However you choose to spend the day, this could be your chance to explore your culinary creativity, mint your own traditions, and make this Thanksgiving your best one yet.

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