Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tired of Turkey

Posted By on 11.22.06 at 11:55 AM

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One thing I've always liked about Thanksgiving is its relative simplicity. One day, in/out. Always a Thursday, so if you're lucky there's a long weekend after. Also, all things considered, it's a fairly EOE occasion, and stays so without a lot of ratcheting up or down of nearby religious holidays to make things "fair" (q.v. the Christmasification of the relatively minor holiday of Hanukkah). Overall, it seems to cross more economic, racial, and cultural boundaries than any other holiday I can think of. OK, there is always unwieldy large-scale cultural guilt about Native Americans--but we make that manageable by ignoring it.

I also like--or used to--that it's short and focused. Despite America's recent embrace of brined turkeys (salty!), which dictates an even earlier start time for poultry prep, you really can't stretch the festivities that far in either direction. There's basically one main activity, not counting football or doing the dishes. You might call big-haul grocery shopping or last-minute convenience store shopping for cut flowers and more marshmallows part of it. But that's it. There's really only cooking and eating.

With the recent boom in food media, this formerly self-contained holiday has been tediously dragged out, like "Jingle Bells" in July, like Hallowe'en candy in the summer. All of the major cooking magazines, not to mention all the major women's magazines, specialize in glamorous cover shots of turkey this time of year. We've been looking at them in the checkout line since last month in many cases. Newspapers. Sunday sections, food sections, Web boards, mailing lists. Food Network, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, will have run two straight weeks of Thanksgiving food-oriented programming -- and while I'm endlessly fascinated by anybody doing anything to food on my TV, if I hear one more perky suggestion about how to make cranberries/stuffing/green beans delicious, "but with a twist," I will be officially off my turkey. Which would be sad. I like turkey.

And although I'm not (exactly) a reactionary who wants nothing but Pepperidge Farm cubes for her stuffing, the virtue to be found in the predictability of a Thanksgiving menu makes all this seem that much more pointless. The constant pressure to serve food that's the same but different--a byproduct of the pressure felt by the food media to fill up so many programming hours and sell us stuff without alienating tradition--in turn means that you often wind up picking some really gnarly objects out of your stuffing, usually there for "texture."

The worst part is the unfun cultural pressure the onslaught of Thanksgiving-themed media produces: there's more of that Norman Rockwell ideal held up for everyone who has to work Thursday for the eighth year in a row, or is estranged from their family, or just lost a loved one, or isn't quite sure whom their special people are to spend the day with. It's easy to end up feeling like the only one jousting the swirling pit of pity that is the turkey dinner for one, no matter how bravely or cheerfully one tackles it.

Thanksgiving dinner is in the end just a meal, no matter how you slice it with your electric knife. But because it doesn't reach as far as the media needs it to, they wind up trying to sell the whole unsellable idea of friends, family, and companionship as well. It doesn't really matter if the cooking show segment you're watching was shot in high summer with a table of strangers, it's hard to keep your defenses up. And that can be a burden, especially with Christmas bombardment right around the corner. The whole thing might be a little easier if we hadn't found this way to celebrate turkey cooking for longer than we celebrate the actual holiday.

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