What Thanksgiving Means Beyond the Meal

Looking back on our #saveurtraditions

All month long, we've been sharing our #saveurtraditions, stories to show that Thanksgiving isn't just a meal and isn't just one kind of holiday. For all your last-minute fretting, be sure to visit our Thanksgiving survival guide, but once the turkey's in the oven and you're kicking back with family, give these stories a read and see just how diverse Thanksgiving can be.

Pork and Kimchi Potstickers
Pork and Kimchi Potstickers

Pork and Kimchi Potstickers

The first Thanksgiving my husband (then-boyfriend) and I ever spent together was in a tiny studio in Hong Kong. It was our final year of law school, and just after we started dating, I’d left to study abroad for a semester while he stayed in Boston. In a defiant stand against our extra long-distance status, he flew halfway around the world to celebrate the holiday with me. Most of the trip was devoted to exploring the rich, myriad foods that Hong Kong has to offer, from glistening, ruby-red char siu to fish ball skewers dipped in electric-yellow curry sauce. But for Thanksgiving itself, we thought it was only fitting to hunker down at “home,” in my little temporary apartment.

With an alcove of a kitchen that boasted one working burner and no oven, our Thanksgiving dinner was a funny one, cobbled together from takeout, instant noodles, and one gigantic bag of frozen dumplings. We dove into our feast sitting cross-legged on the floor, with pillows repurposed as chairs and my end table as our miniature dining table. But despite (or because of) its makeshift nature, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had—a celebration of our new relationship and a giving of thanks for new sights, travels, and experiences. And most importantly, it was totally delicious.

More from Why Thanksgiving Now Means Potstickers, by Cynthia Gee

Whether or not I end up making some sort of Thanksgiving meal, I do start to roll out my favorite festive cocktails by mid-November. One of my favorites is a very easy seasonal pomegranate drink. I first made it several years ago when my friend Mona Talbott was directing the Rome Sustainable Food Program at the American Academy in Rome. While they have a magnificent garden, one of my favorite trees is the massive pomegranate tree that grows right outside the kitchen, next to a Roman wall. In the fall, it’s a race to harvest the pomegranates as they ripen, before the parrots that have taken over the cities parks descend and peck their noisy way to the ruby fruit.

Mona was kind enough to gift me not only two kilos of the gorgeous fruits, but also a nifty way to juice them. She explained that I could just cut them in half and use a citrus juicer to squeeze the juice out. And that was the birth of my fresh pomegranate juice cocktail.

More from How an Expat Toasts Thanksgiving Without Turkey, by Elizabeth Minchilli

But even when the decor required sophisticated choreography, I've always kept the menu easy. My husband and I are more open to change than some; even so, there are a few dishes that stay the same from year to year. Pickled carrots, and maybe grapes, always make it to the appetizer tray. We make a rich turkey stock in the days before and turn it into a sublime turkey gravy. The bird itself is a heritage breed bathed in butter. The only divisive element is the cranberry sauce—I prefer a mouth puckering relish made with raw cranberries and a whole orange, while pretty much everyone else prefers a traditional sauce.

After dinner, there's never been any disagreement: We feast on kabocha pie. My take on the traditional pumpkin pie recipe is most notable for what's not in it—canned pumpkin and condensed milk. At a time when even the most delicate varieties of winter squash are available fresh, I find the combination of freshly roasted winter squash and real deal cream cooked carefully in a buttery pie shell is nothing short of sublime. And light, very-orange kabocha, a Japanese squash variety, makes the perfect not-pumpkin pie. It's silky with none of the grit or heaviness that can plague other kinds of winter squash.

Holidays are always a lot of family for me. Our typical Irish-Italian Thanksgiving is 20 people; my grandmother (a great baker) was one of 17. If we go to a family reunion, they need a crane to take a picture of everybody. That's why I look forward to Thanksgiving, because it's a time to sit back and enjoy quality time with your family. That's when everyone gets together. It's the time you don't mind traveling because you're so excited to everyone.

Early on, everyone had their opinions about Brussels sprouts in my family, and they weren't good ones. So the first time I made them at Thanksgiving I roasted them with bacon and butter. It was a sneak attack—we all know bacon makes everything better—and it worked. Everyone loved them. I've made them in some form every year since.

Turkey Congee
Turkey Congee

Turkey Congee

The work isn’t done when dinner’s over. Once we’ve all roused ourselves out of our food comas, we get to work on the leftovers. Putting any leftover morsels in the fridge for sandwiches the next day, everything goes into containers, save one thing: the turkey carcass.

That very night, we put the turkey carcass and any vegetables from the roasting pan into a big stockpot with water and rice, and bring everything to a glorious boil, which will eventually turn into one of the best things about Thanksgiving: leftover turkey congee. As we lounge in front of the TV watching Charlie Brown Thanksgiving specials, plotting our plan for Black Friday the next day, that pot is quietly bubbling on the stove. It’s like Thanksgiving Dinner 2.0, the aroma that wafts through the kitchen.

Discovering Foreign Flavor with Family

My first Thanksgiving was in Moscow, in a small, one-room apartment occupied by my future husband, Ben, who was far away from his own American family and happy to have the company of my Russian family.

I grew up in Russia, and I'd never eaten turkey before. It took a long walk around our neighborhood to even find one, and all we could dig up was drumsticks. We spent the whole afternoon in the kitchen, and when the sky had darkened and the comforting smell of meaty, roasted turkey legs rose through the apartment, a knock came at the door.

We lit candles and set up a table by the window overlooking the glimmering Moscow November. Wild lingonberry sauce replaced the traditional cranberry, and my parents treated us to their own foraged, home-pickled mushrooms. The whole room was filled with warmth, conversation in English and Russian, and rich, savory gravy with herbs. My grandma sat at the head of the table, pointing at the bowls and plates huddled in front of her, asking what this and that was. To my surprise, the stuffing disappeared first.

At the end of the meal, we sat around holding our full bellies. My brother watched carefully as Ben wrote down the stuffing recipe and my mama brainstormed other berries she could cook into sauce. I've celebrated more Thanksgivings since then, but this was how my family and I discovered it together.

Thanksgiving in Russia, by Katie Kosaya

The Once-a-Year White Russian

White Russian
White Russian

This smooth and sweet vintage cocktail is a cream-based variation on the vodka and coffee liqueur libation that became known as the Black Russian in the late ’40s. Some credit the White Russian’s resurgence in popularity to 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski, in which the lead character “The Dude” consumes little else.

Kahlua and vodka are always on the Thanksgiving grocery list. Half-and-half is too, but it’s on every grocery list, because my family drinks coffee year-round. White Russians, which explains the booze, are another story. We only drink those at Thanksgiving.

The White Russian became a Thanksgiving tradition a number of years ago. It was probably at my request, but I don't remember making it. It’s got nothing to do with The Big Lebowski though, I assure you. Because irony is not an ingredient in any of our White Russians. Thanksgiving is the only time of year any of us ever drink one. We each only have one, and it happens every year before after noon.

I don’t particularly love the creamy, coffee, punchy kick of a White Russian, and I’m not sure anyone in my family else does either. But there are no more teenagers at our Thanksgiving. Grandkids aren’t a thing yet. There hasn’t been a kids table for years. So we still share in the White Russian tradition.

Sometime after a breakfast of toast and coffee (there’s no room in the kitchen on Thanksgiving to cook anything else), someone’s hand flips the switch to ignite the flame in the glass fireplace. Between stuffing the turkey and mashing the potatoes, a count is made and a hodgepodge of infrequently used glassware clinks from cupboard to counter. I insist on using what used to be my grandpa's scotch glass. The freezer door feeds ice into the glasses. Vodka, Kahlua, and half & half follow. In that order. Cheers.

The Once-a-Year White Russian, by Craig Cavallo

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