The week before Thanksgiving, I made a Thanksgiving dinner for my coworkers and used it as a small housewarming event. The menu was traditional and mostly new for me, especially the turkey. The only large piece of meat I cooked before was corned beef slowly on my stove, so I consulted various sources in advance. The expected cooking surprise came when I discovered that my cooking thermometer was dead, so I didn’t know how well the turkey was cooked. It turns out that it was overcooked, but expectations are low, and people are generally so gracious about a home-cooked meal that it doesn’t really matter.
Then came the leftovers filling my fridge. I knew to save the turkey carcass for some purpose, and a few days later, I made rice porridge (congee) with it. That also required a phone call home, and although my result was much thicker than anything my mom ever made, I thought it turned out quite well. I also threw together a breakfast hash with potatoes, brussels sprouts, turkey, and more. There were the beloved turkey sandwiches, and the plates of reheated Thanksgiving meals as a whole as well.
The porridge remains the most remarkable leftover, however, because I now realize why my family always ate it the day after Thanksgiving: there’s a carcass to use as a base. My mom would likely make some vaguely patronizing sound were I to mention this directly to her, but I’m still impressed by the pragmatism of this tradition that I didn’t realize was a tradition. Every Thankgiving, there is a turkey. Every turkey will leave behind a carcass. Every carcass can make porridge. Tradition established.
A few years ago, my then-roommate Ben and I were talking, and I said, “Tradition and convention could just be the wisdom of many generations, refined towards best practices.” This gave Ben pause, since I think he bucks convention as he sees fit, and it gave me pause, because I was really thinking about what I was saying.
At least as often as we honor tradition, we also make light of it, like methods of courtship or the number of candles on a birthday cake. Traditional foods, particularly, get a lot of attention, like lutefisk or mooncake. Some traditions do start on a whim and perhaps don’t deserve any special respect.
Other traditions perhaps do have more to them to have lasted so long. For example, turkey is a common target for traditional foods: cooks claim it’s bland and dry and only remains on the menu in place of better meats because of Thanksgiving traditions. What’s best about a turkey, however, is its size and value. For a holiday meant to bring families and friends together, we just want a lot of food, and a turkey can serve much more than a chicken. Without breaking the bank on steak for 20, turkey is easy to do as a home-cooked meal to share with others. And when we’re stuck with a 12 pound turkey and not enough people around, it encourages us to reach out to fill seats.
So maybe it seems odd that Thanksgiving should lead to a full table with a not-so-beloved bird in the middle, but at least there’s a full table. Even the biggest turkey-haters (or vegetarians) can’t dislike a gathering. In fact, maybe the biggest turkey-lovers just have positive associations about the company, not the bird. Either way, enjoy the turkey, porridge, or whatever else and believe in the old ways.