Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Visitor's Guide to Holiday Meals in America

We travel to see the world, but whether in spirit or in person, we also export our own stamp upon those people we visit. It's easy to forget that our hosts in different places may be just as interested in us as we are in them. Perhaps the best window into the soul of a community is through its food, and festive occasions bring out the best in a national cuisine (or the worst). And what I know best is the American standard. The five-week holiday season--Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah through to New Year's day--is a triumvirate of opportunity for large family gatherings. So may this serve as an introduction to traditional American holiday fare for those five or seven people who haven't yet been overexposed to U.S. culture outside of North Korea, who probably don't have the internet or satellite television and won't read this anyway.

First, there is the pre-meal abundance that seems always ready at hand, frequently placed within a wicker cornucopia. Antipasto, cheeses and olives are popular. I am particularly fond of table grapes and of stuffed celery, if only to scrape the filling out and just eat the celery. Then there are the mixed nuts, a very American snack. Americans normally eat nuts out of a can or a bag, where assuredly they must come from. But for five weeks a year we suddenly have the need to work for our reward and eat roasted nuts in the shell. I still remember the male members of my grandparent's generation solving the world's problems around the kitchen table, long after Christmas dinner, each with a towering pile of nutshells pushing the limits of an unfolded napkin. Ironically, the most American of nuts, the peanut, is largely ignored throughout the holidays.

Most importantly, there is the choice of main course. Tofu loaf formed to look like a roast is just communist and isn't worth further mention. Goose is too English. Our patriot instincts tell us its adherents are closet royalists pining over generations of married cousins in People magazine.

Turkey is the overwhelming holiday choice. It's the quintessentially American bird, grown tremendously overweight from a poor diet and sustained with heavy doses of medication. And it has distinct neighborhoods of white and dark meat, with devotees strictly biased towards one or the other. The barely recognizable, native wild variety original to the continent has come back from the brink of extinction, but is largely still shot at when it gets too uppity. Every year the President "pardons" a domesticated turkey just before Thanksgiving, though I suspect this Barabbas is only given a short reprieve and is butchered with virtually all his cousins next year or come Christmas. It's a sacred annual tradition wherein the loyal opposition can skewer the Commander-in-Chief for wasting taxpayer dollars on trivialities and look forward to their own candidate's opportunity after the next election.

There are many ways to cook a turkey, most of which involve some indignity for the bird. Old-fashioned roasting is the standard, though lately smoking and deep-fat frying have become popular. In a country where fried, mediocre chocolate bars are considered a delicacy, the national game bird was a natural outcome. Fusion cuisine is the new thing in America. How else to explain turducken, a deboned chicken stuffed in a deboned duck, stuffed in the body cavity of a turkey. One initially wonders what was the inspiration for such interspecies indecency in our rural heritage. A little research shows it was the French. An alternative is stuffing the turkey cavity with a mixture of bread crumbs, herbs and celery that hides the mixed-in offal before cooking, which is really just another invasion of the bird's privacy.

Our own family has followed the natural evolutionary arc of turkey preparation from sponging off family and friends, through primitive attempts at roasting, and more recently to successfully smoking on the grill when we lived in a warmer climate. I would still opt to smoke the turkey through indirect grilling, but Minnesota cold is such that cracking open my barbecue to check for done-ness might flash-freeze the bird. And I tire of chipping icicles off the flames. Instead we are now ready to try maple-basted, bacon-wrapped turkey with a sage butter rub. Nothing speaks to American subtlety like 20 pounds of roasted fowl wrapped in bacon, unless it's deep-fried. I've known bacon to cause more than one less-orthodox descendant of Abraham to stray from the kosher path.

However it's prepared, the secret to a truly well-dressed turkey is getting flavor beneath the skin, which is impermeable. Some vendors solve this by "flavor injection" of a briny solution comprising several weight-percent of the bird, then charge by weight for that couple pounds of salt water. A more natural way is getting a seasoning rub under a fresh turkey's skin, which entails getting to know the bird in an almost biblical way as you push your fingers ever deeper under the fatty folds of skin, There is much ceremonial washing of hands after this exercise.

For the turkey, it's a bit like something out of Alien.

Some American families do opt for ham, probably spiral cut with a maple glaze. It always looks like a better option after another two weeks of turkey leftovers extending into the new year. But for a long while there were more practicing Jews living in the U.S. than Israel, and the domestic Muslim population is growing, so ham is still a distant second second in popularity. In America, there is much that believers of different denominations can agree on. Besides, our domestic conflicts are fought on television by proxy combatants battling over a symbolic pig skin. We save the remote-control bombs for anonymous foreigners, who have no similarly enlightened method for settling differences. When we shoot our neighbors, it's usually not over religion.

Beverages with the main meal are the standard fare, just more of it. How better to show love for our children than a bottomless well of Coca Cola or Pepsi products. There are also some seasonal choices, including apple cider, cold pressed or hot mulled, and punch. A medieval protein drink, eggnog, is possibly the beverage most associated with Christmas. According to the carton in  my refrigerator, "traditional" eggnog consists of milk, high-fructose corn syrup, "egg yolk solids," guar gum, corn starch, monoglycerides, diglycerides, carrageenan, artificial flavors...and nutmeg. Spiking with whisky, rum or another liquor ups the percentage of ingredients you can safely pronounce.

Then there are the sides--too numerous to mention all the possible combinations--which are largely dictated by regional preference and family tradition. Standard favorites include mashed potatoes and/or candied sweet potatoes with cinnamon, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, corn, and corn bread (or dinner rolls). Television on the side is optional. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream is the nearly universal dessert; ironic, as for much of the world pumpkin is a savoury, yet in the United States--perhaps the country most associated with pumpkins--it is only consumed in pie and as an artificial flavoring in coffee. Fruitcake is another holiday dessert. I have nothing to say about fruitcake; there are no new jokes.

Whatever the menu, coma-inducing levels of carbohydrates are a signature theme. The solemn feasts of Thanksgiving and Christmas day are followed by the two busiest shopping days of the year. Gluttonous excess is necessary to provide the energy required to avoid trampling feet of crushing masses of fellow humanity rushing to get more unnecessary stuff to be thankful for next year.

Over all there is the gravy, where the melted juices of the individual parts are mixed together for a delicious sauce that covers the whole. A nation acts like a family, and there are a few special times in the year that bring this family together in spite of its differences. No matter the faults of our annual homage to excess, what could be more American than that.

Ultimately, American holiday meals are about family spending time together, something in common with the rest of the world..