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Thanksgiving Dinner

The American feast of Thanksgiving Day (held the fourth Thursday of November) varies little from region to region or from year to year. While the Thanksgiving custom has religious roots and is given religious significance by many Americans, it is technically an official secular holiday, as it is not associated with any one particular religious group.

Since Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, the holiday creates a four-day weekend for many. The day after Thanksgiving, unofficially termed “Black Friday,” is considered the start of the Christmas selling season; the day’s special sales create shopping frenzy, and traffic gridlock.

In American slang, Thanksgiving is often called “Turkey Day;” it is not difficult to understand why, since turkey is almost universally served, with gravy, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie as the most typical side dishes. Most of these foods are of New World origin. Regional differences and family traditions determine the numerous additional dishes that may be served, though for many Americans it all swirls together into one massive cornucopia of food. Not every American overeats on Thanksgiving, but the tendency to stuff oneself to the point of physical pain is common enough to have meaningful cultural significance. Hospital emergency rooms tend to be busy on Thanksgiving night.

Because of the physics of turkey, it is a difficult bird to prepare well. American turkeys are bred to be so plump that they can hardly walk. The tendency is to stuff them with a fragrant mixture of herbs like sage, spices, and bread pieces (cornbread in the south). This means that by the time the stuffed center of the roasted bird has come to a temperature high enough to kill salmonella bacteria, the outsides of the turkey are dried out and have to be soaked in gravy to be barely palatable. The wise cook makes the stuffing separately, yielding greater heat surfaces, shorter cooking time, and hence less drying. Soaking the turkey for a day in a spiced brine solution before roasting is also wise.

Another problem with the family turkey is the unfortunate practice of basting. Turkey skin is waterproof. The basting juice just runs back down into the bottom of the pan. Elementary physics tells us that every time we open the oven door to baste, we heat the kitchen at the expense of the oven. The result is longer roasting time and hence longer drying-out time.

A trend lately is to fry the turkey in a specially built fryer; for most proponents, turkey frying is one of those “once you try it, you’ll never go back” issues. It isn’t yet a crime to order a good turkey from a professional caterer. Few Americans, however, can conceive of having a Thanksgiving Dinner with any other main dish.

Thanksgiving is a day of festive parades in many cities; the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, featuring its characteristic immense cartoon balloons, is a child’s delight. American professional football games are usually played on Sundays and Mondays, but an exception is made on Thanksgiving, where the game may be heard in the background at dinner.

Thanksgiving, above all, is a family holiday. Nearly all colleges and universities take a full week break so students can be with their families. Air and road travel may be delayed and difficult during the period, especially if bad weather sets in. Single people and couples without children may decide to attend an organized Thanksgiving event at a restaurant or hotel; community organizations put on Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless and needy.

Americans often associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim Fathers who landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1620; after surviving a harsh winter with the help of local natives, the Pilgrims declared a day of Thanksgiving, though this was not necessarily a feast. Most European immigrant groups brought some form of autumn harvest festival with them to America. Individual days of National Thanksgiving were proclaimed from time to time; George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in 1789, the year he took office. The true origin of the organized holiday, however, came much later, during the country’s greatest crisis, the Civil War; in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a November Thanksgiving Day, and one has been held annually ever since.

Not every turkey produced by the nation’s poultry industry ends up on the holiday table. No one knows exactly when the custom began, but every year the President of the United States is presented with a live turkey by an industry association; in front of press cameras and with much fanfare, the President “pardons” the turkey, which spends the rest of its life doing publicity appearances. The “First Family” then gets to dine on one of the spared turkey’s not so lucky associates.