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Make a Totally Different Menu Every Thanksgiving

Go ahead, free yourself from the predictable Thanksgiving meal

Illustration of the bird’s-eye view of a dinner table containing several different dishes like egg rolls, shrimp noodles, mashed potatoes, and squash. Heedayah Lockman/Eater

The first time my Thanksgiving menu went off the rails was unintentional. I was in college and decided to spend the holiday apart from my family for the first time ever, but on Thanksgiving day, my plans to join a friend’s gathering fell through. Thanksgiving dinner that year ended up being a big bag of buttered popcorn and shots of vodka (this was the pre-gig economy era, and everything in my sleepy suburban college town was closed, including Domino’s and the Thai place). There was nowhere for my Thanksgiving meals to go, except up.

In the years since, I still haven’t quite codified a personal Thanksgiving tradition, spending the holiday with my partner’s family some years, my own other years, and of course, there was the pre-vaccine year when it was just my partner and me. What this means is that my Thanksgiving menu has become as subject to change as my holiday plans. Instead of fighting it and trying to force some level of consistency — that no matter where I am, I make my mashed potatoes a certain way, for example — I’ve embraced the potential of each year to offer a different menu entirely.

There was the year my mom made a perfect duck, facing a fan on its skin the day before so the whole thing would be crisp. In 2020, I had just moved; the food — which was ordered from Whole Foods — was mediocre and, given the context, reminiscent of not yet being settled into a new home. I remember last year fondly because I made one of my best roast chickens to date. Slathered with sambal butter, it had shattering, red-tinged skin and moist meat that we dolloped with scallion-ginger sauce at the table and served with my mom’s lumpia and pancit palabok, a noodle dish with shrimp and crispy chicharron. Thanksgiving 2019 is less rosy in my memory: I took a risk on a deep-dish pie that proved to not be worth the work.

But overall, the approach of letting the meal go off the rails often allows for an exciting new path. Instead of the pressure to recreate the perfect dish of a previous year or a memory long-past, there is an opportunity to ignore expectations and make something new.

This Thanksgiving, I think I will forgo heavy vegetable dishes like casseroles in favor of fresher, snappier preparations, like the raw fennel salad that ended up being one of my most-craved and well-remembered bites when I made it a few Thanksgivings ago. With turkey shortages reportedly looming, I’m wondering if a few perfect chickens might be better than one mediocre, expensive turkey, and what types of flavors I want to propel the meal. I’ve learned to love this feeling that Thanksgiving can offer something newly memorable each year, as opposed to the feeling that it’s predetermined, with everyone slotting into their same roles and same spots at the table, eating the same dishes.

As many immigrants and diasporic people in this country have long known, the holiday table can look like so many things beyond the Norman Rockwell idea of the Thanksgiving meal; those conventions in themselves, of course, stem from colonialist traditions in the first place. Maybe my new tradition is, instead, to unstick myself from Thanksgiving’s predictable trappings, creating a holiday meal that acts as a time capsule of each year, as opposed to one that blends into those that have come before and will follow.

Heedayah Lockman is a Glasgow-based illustrator and designer.