A successful meal should not end with indigestion. And a well planned meal doesn’t end up looking like a cow-patty by the time it reaches the plate. And yet, every Thanksgiving meal I have ever eaten has ended up as a big glob of mush distinguished strands of meat, sweat/sour fruit, and a sluicing of gravy.
That is not to say that the individual dishes were not good on their own, by and large they were. And that is the problem.
In the old days, when mustard was bright yellow, wine came in jugs, exotic beer was from Canada, and pretty much everything tasted like bread stuffing, it didn’t much matter that the Thanksgiving meal was like a smoothie on an over-loaded plate.
Times have changed and now people feel compelled to cook like they are in a restaurant–or on a cooking show. Thus every season we are bombarded with recipes purported to be superlative, definitive, innovative, and authoritative. But restaurant portions are smaller and the food is (meant) to be eaten more slowly. So, whereas a restaurant might serve three baby carrots that have been lovingly soaked in fresh butter, we at home tend to shovel a pile of cut carrots on the plate and be done with it.
Lost on the American press and the American public is that some elements of a meal are meant to play a supporting role (i.e., bland), like a baked potato that accompanies a steak. Would you accompany a steak with a chili-cheese baked potato? Would you serve jambalaya with pot roast? (Incidentally this is how most American eat at Chinese restaurants.)
A good meal should be something like a symphony where several elements receive their turn but others exist only to provide basis or texture. However, most every Thanksgiving ends up like an orchestra where all order is lost and the first chair, the trumpet, and the base drum furiously try to outdo each other with virtuosic performances while the conductor lounges off to the side and burps.
I’m not telling you to eat like a Puritan but simplicity has its merits and gravy and cranberry sauce add plenty of savor to bland dishes.
Fortunately, making a simple Thanksgiving meal is, well, simple; as it mainly consists of controlling the impulse to out do oneself. But just remember that in addition to saving time and money you will eat better.
One year at our Thanksgiving we decided to just bake the sweet potatoes whole. People loved them, they were hot sweet, had great interior texture, took to condiments, and had a delightful skin; no one asked for a marshmallow to make it “better.” And, the other day I boiled up some good farm stand parsnips and white sweet potatoes, not only was it done in 15 minutes, but the texture had some crunch and the added moisture added to the rich earthy flavors. These days boiling (or poaching) is akin to a sin but poached foods take well to sauces and are often great on there own for their straightforwardness.
At most meals there is someone in charge who does the bulk of the cooking and the planning, if that person is you, prepare your dishes as simply as possible; concentrate on the condiments and the turkey; and let your guests bring in the elaborate dishes (as they will inevitably will), this is very gracious hosting as it allows your guest’s to shine.
On the other hand, if you are a guest and you suspect that the host is trying to wow everyone, just bring a simple dish and sit back and watch your host bask in the praise.
On the other hand, if your meal is does end up a battle of intense flavors each trying to claw their way to the top; take solace, because what is more American than that?