There are things about Thanksgiving on which we can all agree. There will be turkey, and it will be roasted a burnished color. There will be pies, two kinds, and we will exercise the day's only shred of self-discipline when we insist on only a sliver of each.
It's the side dishes that stir the pot.
In these uncertain, mobile times, with tradition devalued like the American dollar, and easy access to foodie mags side dishes have gotten out of hand. They've become excuses for untrammeled creativity, sibling one-upmanship, artistic expression.
When it comes to side dishes, it's personal now.
Regular mashed potatoes don't cut it anymore. Now you have to make sure the potatoes are Yukon golds, the pepper is white and a dash of freshly grated nutmeg is subtle but detectable. As the culinary possibilities soar, the chances of pleasing everyone plummets.
Every standard holiday accompaniment has received a makeover. Canned cranberry is met with panic. Where's the orange zest, the whole cloves? Was the supermarket out of cinnamon sticks? our pampered palates cry out.
Just try to bring some plain-Jane family favorite to the Thanksgiving table. Your green bean casserole will be greeted with horror, like you just set down a platter of Alpo.
There is barely any humble vegetable that can't be goosed up with someone's personal stamp. At an urban tribe Thanksgiving gathering one year, the host made Brussels sprouts. But fearing a pat of butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper would come off as lazy, he went to much trouble to make a maple-walnut topping. Sure, it was tasty. But it looked awful. Really awful.
What ever happened to tried-and-true family recipes? Why must every holiday be preceded with a debate over which new stuffing recipe to try, the gravy seasonings and how to upscale the potatoes?
I ooohed politely the year I sat down to potato-celery root pure. The mass in the dish was faintly green and stuck to the serving spoon. I put a tablespoon of it on my plate and rationalized that this was a good thing it kept me from scarfing down a pound of creamy, buttery spuds.
I drew the line when it came to horseradish, however. One year my brother asked if he could put some in the mashers, and let's just say I answered him honestly. What followed was a litany of every transgression I had commited since I was 11.
He wasn't the only one to have his feelings hurt by a needy episode of "love me, love my side dish." My poor grandmother brought a lime jello mold to our house last year. With her kin divorcing, remarrying and all over the map, it's the little things that bring her comfort during the holidays. But I had planned the menu for weeks, and nowhere did mini-marshmallows fit in. It was more than a bit Freudian, I'm sure, when I forgot to put it on the table.
That's nothing compared to the side dish brouhaha brewing for later this month, however. I'll be spending my first Thanksgiving in the South, where I just found out mashed potatoes aren't even part of the tableau. No, this year we'll be eating macaroni and cheese with our beautiful bird. Because the Pilgrims celebrated a successful harvest by boiling elbow macaroni and then baking it in a cheddar-flavored bechamel! Right!
It's enough to make me thankful for potato-celery root pure.