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In Defense of a Bland Thanksgiving

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I look forward to the monotony of the traditional Thanksgiving menu every year

Illustration of turkey, mashed potatoes, and a casserole all the same yellow-beige color, plated on blue plateware. Heedayah Lockman/Eater

The American Thanksgiving menu is irredeemably boring. Roast turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and vegetable casseroles all strike the same note of soft, fatty, carby blandness, with cranberry sauce offering the meal’s only hope of zing. Abundance is the whole point of the holiday, so this tedious dinner results in mountains of monotone leftovers. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I look forward to it every year.

Plenty of people aren’t beholden to Thanksgiving cliches — families pick and choose the classics, zhuzh them up considerably, and serve other celebration foods that honestly taste much better — but my family hews pretty close. My maternal grandmother’s menu has been our standard since I was born, and has persisted long since her passing. She was born somewhere in the middle of 16 children, and cooked for her siblings during the Depression. When I was a little kid, I found my grandmother’s cooking unremarkable, but now I understand she was a master of workhorse cooking, that canon of 20th-century American dishes, some learned from the backs of cans, that keep lots of people fed. The only slightly unusual dish on her Thanksgiving table was cole slaw; her recipe involves shaving cabbage on a mandoline and adding in mayonnaise and one green pepper. My mother’s big menu innovation (or was it rebellion?) was to add a sweet potato casserole alongside regular mashed. It’s now many people’s favorite dish because even after 15 years, it counts as something new.

Back when I traveled home for Thanksgiving, I used to fantasize about the improvements I would make if I were in charge. Food magazine Thanksgiving spreads tempted me to a land of milk and honey and wet-brined turkey. I can’t remember the exact dishes I coveted, but I’m pretty sure they were similar to this radicchio-squash salad or hasselback potato gratin — I dreamed of complex flavors, sophisticated technique, and, honestly, some crunch.

But when I started hosting Thanksgiving with friends, I didn’t amp up the meals’ challenge rating, for me or my guests. I tinkered at the classic menu’s edges, making a green bean casserole from scratch, or serving some sourdough bread I’d made, but that was it. I didn’t want to disappoint everyone else, or seem pretentious; if I’d been cooking for myself, I was sure, I would have done something much more exciting. Then, in the nihilistic freedom of Thanksgiving 2020, my partner and I consciously chose to make my family’s traditional menu, including an entire turkey, for the two of us. Over Zoom, my mother taught me to make my grandmother’s cole slaw, which I happily ate on top of turkey and stuffing sandwiches for days. Much to my chagrin, even when I was cooking for myself, what I wanted was the formula. Our Thanksgiving plans since have been even simpler.

In my earlier longings for a “different Thanksgiving,” I see a genuine desire for newness, but also anxiety over what the meal said about me and my family. A more interesting family, a more sophisticated family, maybe even a more high-class family would enjoy radicchio. Instead, I was stuck with cabbage. If my grandmother was a master of the workhorse school, I was — and still am — a student of the food magazine school of cooking. Hell, I’m a contributor. For 364 days a year, I aspire to our industry’s layering of texture, acid, and a bit of fussy technique, even if too often the actual execution exhausts me and I get takeout instead.

My grandmother cooked three meals a day, every day, and made all the family’s birthday cakes from scratch. Instead of longing for her cooking to have been different, I realize now she could teach me a thing or two. I love that she was “stuck” with cabbage — and her mandoline technique finally showed me how to give the slaw a perfect texture. No wonder that once a year, the only thing that feels right is her simple, satisfying, staggeringly competent approach, and its (very) simple pleasures.

Heedayah Lockman is a Glasgow-based illustrator and designer.