Thanksgiving Is Great If You Admit Turkey Is Bad

Nobody likes turkey, so just make the sides.
November 17, 2020, 4:15pm
Thanksgiving turkey and various Thanksgiving sides on a table
Image via Getty 

Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving celebrations tend to lean heavily on traditions, on doing everything exactly the same way you've always done it. And, perhaps more than any other American holiday, those traditions are mostly shit.

But some traditions are made to be upended, and this year—this most unnatural of years—is the perfect time to do that. This Thanksgiving doesn't deserve to be treated like a 'normal' holiday, not when you've had to choose between a three-person indoor meal that would still make Dr. Fauci sad, or wearing four jackets and sitting on your stepmother's patio, balancing paper plates on your laps and trying not to get cranberry sauce on your good mask. (I'm not doing either of those things: I'll most likely be spending the day alone, eating an entire box of Trader Joe's stuffing and watching that episode of Taskmaster where the contestants try to fill an egg cup with their own tears.) 

This is also a good time to acknowledge that turkey is nature's most underwhelming meat, and that any Thanksgiving meal is going to be better off without it. I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way: in one survey, 65 percent of participants said that they "would like an alternative to turkey" at Thanksgiving. In another—commissioned by that well-respected think-tank Hardee's—64 percent of respondents said they were willing to skip turkey, while 30 percent said that they'd already opted to de-turkey their tables. And in a Harris Poll conducted last year, 19 percent of those surveyed said they lowkey hated turkey but "eat it anyway because of tradition." 

Turkey is the weakest part of the entire spread, regardless of how you prepare it. It's the boring award-bait feature-film that you don't want to sit through, while the side dishes are previews for easygoing comedies where at least one grown man gets hit in the sack. They're not what you came for, but they're what you want.

My friends and I came to this realization several years ago and kicked the turkey off the menu entirely, opting to serve Sidesgiving instead, with stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, assorted casseroles and other carbs, and an obligatory plate of roasted vegetables. It's the absolute best, because nobody has to lie and tell the host that their turkey is "juicy" when it actually tastes like a mouthful of carpet remnants.

In addition to being weak, turkey isn't even canon. Although the Pilgrims and some members of the indigenous Wampanoag did seem to share an uncharacteristically large meal in 1621—mostly so the colonists could celebrate the fact that they all didn't die during the winter—there are few direct references to the menu. Edward Winslow, an author and three-time Plymouth Colony governor, described the feast in a letter to a friend: 

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.

The word 'fowl' doesn't necessarily mean turkey though, and even if it had been part of the meal, it wouldn't have been the centerpiece. "Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there," Kathleen Wall, a colonial foodways culinarian at the Plimoth Plantation museum, told Smithsonian. "Venison was there. These are absolutes." (Wall also believes that the wildfowl was most likely duck or goose, while swan and pigeon were possibilities too.) 

As years passed and turkey became more prevalent, it wasn't because it was a delicious, succulent protein-source: it was because the birds were there, one was big enough to feed an entire family, and they didn't lay eggs, provide milk, or serve any other real purpose. 

The real push for turkey to become A Thing at Thanksgiving came from Sarah Josepha Hale, who is probably also the reason why we still give a shit about a random Thursday in November at all. A self-taught poet and writer, her 1827 novel Northwood: Life North and South, spent three chapters talking about Thanksgiving, the meal that should be served, and the day after (which, surprisingly didn't involve beating the shit out of a stranger while they queued up for a bag of Black Friday squirrel pelts). 

Writing about the meal, she explained that the turkey "took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing," while the side dishes included beef sirloin, pork, mutton, "innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables," a goose, two ducklings, chicken pie, plates of pickles, preserves, and butter, wheat bread, pumpkin pie, plum pudding, custards, "several varieties of rich cake and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits." (Yeah. That's probably why her book has been filed to the Fiction category.)

Hale spent the next several decades as the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a widely-read publication that basically made her the Instagram influencer of her era. She also spent every year advocating for a national Thanksgiving holiday, writing an annual editorial trying to convince state- and federal-level politicians that it would be "a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness, such as the world has never yet witnessed."

She wrote directly to five presidents, and all of them passed until Abraham Lincoln realized that maybe a day of "joyful gratitude" would be something that all Americans could agree on, despite the lingering animosity of the Civil War. (She frequently wrote that, on her ideal Thanksgiving, "All elections, State and National, will be closed" and "Autumnal diseases have ceased," which both sound pretty fucking good about now.) 

Even though Lincoln issued back-to-back Thanksgiving proclamations in 1863-64, Hale still pushed Congress to recognize it too. And, through her cookbooks and that absolutely bonkers spread that she imagined in Northwood, she basically wrote a list of instructions for celebrating the new holiday too.

But let's be honest: none of us are living up to Hale's version of Thanksgiving, and her seven-meat fever dream wasn't based on what went down in 17th century Massachusetts. Our most enduring Thanksgiving tradition—that "lordly" turkey—was literally written by a novelist, not by historical record. So let's stop feeling obligated to spend the day stage-directing the meal and setting a timer so 12-pounds of bird meat are only kind of dry instead of really dry. This is the perfect year to start a new tradition, like serving a turkey-free meal. 

Oh, and club soda will get the cranberry stains out of your mask. Just FYI.