Ah, Thanksgiving! That paean to overindulgence and football, long-ago pilgrims and yams and best of all, turkey. The Great Bird. Did you know Benjamin Franklin, in addition to inventing bi-focals and the rocking chair and electrocution via kite flying, also suggested the turkey be our national bird, over the superficially flashier Bald Eagle?
As Franklin put it, "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him."
Over a half century of gustatory adventuring, I have indulged in as many variations of this (cooked) noble bird as I could discover: baking it, deep frying it, steaming it then baking it, smoking it and even brining it to make it more tender.
Tradition aside, of course, Thanksgiving need not be ALL about the turkey. My first wife came from an Italian family, and their idea of Thanksgiving dinner expanded both my consciousness of what makes a good Turkey Day spread and my waistline. Although it has been twenty years, I remember a smoked salmon the size of my arm, three kinds of spaghetti, home-made lasagna, and a corn/oyster casserole prepared by my grandmother-in-law that I've never tasted since. The memory of it remains with me still, as does the "chores" list she kept on the fridge for whenever any of us young lads came around.
My own grandmother was both a hunter and an angler (pond perch, fried delectably). One notable Thanksgiving, as she prepared the other dishes for the eventual consumption by her, her husband and three sons, their wives, eight grandchildren and whoever else showed up, she spotted a wild turkey in the pasture out back of the house.
She went in the bedroom and got the shotgun, went outside and popped it in mid-flight, plucked and cleaned and put it in the oven. That's how grandmas roll up in Onia, Arkansas.
For those of us lucky enough to have experienced holidays with large family gatherings like this, Thanksgiving and Christmas bookend our winter memories, and eating forms the core of both events -- that and love.
If one of our tasks in life is to create happy memories for ourselves and others, then we are entering one of those times that pop up through the year and offer us the opportunity to do just that: spend time with people we care about, engage in common activities, and take time off from the daily grind of everyday life to pause and enjoy ourselves.
In the Middle Ages, dozens more holidays were celebrated (and enforced, being Saints Days) than in our modern custom, which is to our discredit. So make the best of the ones you have.
By the way, here is a recipe, if not the exact one, used by my grandmother-in-law for that corn and oyster casserole.
Grandmother-in-law's corn oyster casserole
1/2 cup chopped onions, sauteed
1 cup milk
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 (15 to 16 oz.) can creamed corn
1 (10 oz.) box frozen corn
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/3 to 1/2 sm. can green chilies, chopped or sliced in slivers
1 jar oysters, drained & halved
Mix all the ingredients except for the oysters. Fold the oysters in, but take it easy -- they're delicate. Pour it all into a greased casserole dish. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until golden. Let it set. Bon appetit!