Pilgrim's Progress: Shaking Up the Turkey Dinner Tradition

Forget the obligatory Butterball. New trends are making Thanksgiving a movable feast

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Elinor Carucci for TIME

Molecular gastronomist Michael Cirino binds turkey, duck and chicken with meat glue, cooks it sous vide and serves it with skin crisps and a quail egg.

No matter your rank, region or level of luxury, Thanksgiving dinner is likely a stifling and tired occasion. Inevitably, it's redeemed more by friends and family than by the food. Why is that? We eat dry, bland birds surrounded by a constellation of equally stultifying side dishes, each one as predictable as the fate of a zombie in a sniper's crosshairs. And no amount of food-mag agitation against the status quo seems to do any good.

At least not until recently. Holidays are like any other part of our lives: they can thrive by changing with the times, or they can get worn imperceptibly away. (Just ask Flag Day.) Fortunately, Americans' growing interest in eating organic or local ingredients, broadening their culinary horizons and trying exotic new flavors and high-end cooking techniques has been making a dent in the Butterball dynasty.

Sure, thousands of defrosters still call Butterball's turkey hotline in a panic each November, and the nation's larders will no doubt continue to feature dusty cans of cranberry slime mold. Yet in much the same way that gelato, wood-oven pizza and artisanal bacon have made their way from gourmet stores to supermarkets, Thanksgiving no longer seems the dead end it once was. I'm not saying range-fed Bourbon Red turkeys are going to appear everywhere overnight. But I got a sneak peek at the menus of three cooks — a locavore in South Carolina, a self-taught molecular gastronomist in New York and a part-time vegetarian in New Hampshire — who are preparing three very different alternative Thanksgivings, and not one of them made me want to go watch college football in the other room.

Most Americans consider the Thanksgiving meal to be governed by tradition, but if that were the case, people might not be eating turkey at all. The first Thanksgiving featured "lobster, shellfish and deer," notes Michael Cirino, who runs an underground supper club in Brooklyn. Given his historical knowledge and love of liquid nitrogen, immersion circulators and other tricks of the molecular-gastronomy trade, he feels no compulsion to stick to the Norman Rockwell version of Thanksgiving. For this year's menu, Cirino and his culinary partner Daniel Castaño will be feeding their friends a high-tech twist on turducken, a turkey-duck-chicken combo in which the breast meats are bound together with transglutaminase, a.k.a. meat glue, then cooked sous vide and served with the pressed and fried skins of each bird. The main course takes about five hours to prepare and requires a good amount of specialty equipment and a generous budget; the meat glue alone costs more than $80 for a 2.2-lb. (1 kg) packet.

For Cirino and Castaño, it's all about creating excitement and food-crazed community. "The side dishes are really where the fun is," says Cirino. His brussels sprouts will be sautéed in duck fat and finished with a blue-cheese foam about as dense as shaving cream. The cranberry sauce will be cooked down with port wine and mulled spices and glazed into ruby-colored caviar that will baffle his guests until they try it. "We don't cook for the sake of tradition," he says of Thanksgiving. "For us, it's food that blows people's heads off."

Put the Stuffing on the Outside
For Maria Baldwin — a certified master gardener in McClellanville, S.C., with a degree in environmental science — it's all about food that's homegrown. In addition to transforming an idle 100-acre (40 hectare) farm into a hub of sustainable agriculture, complete with a program for developmentally disabled youth, she and her husband work 10 acres (4 hectares) of the land and raise most of what goes into their Thanksgiving meal, from the persimmons that sweeten the salad to Beauregard sweet potatoes and the green beans in the casserole.

What they don't raise — specifically, the bird — they get from a neighbor. Nearby Keegan-Filion Farm raises Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys, which Baldwin has been cooking for several years now. Anyone who has eaten one of these birds (or any heritage turkey) knows that they're a far cry from supermarket birds, with their smaller, leaner breasts and rich, gamy dark meat. You have to cook them carefully to keep them from drying out. Baldwin has an elaborate double-insulation system that involves putting stuffing on the outside of the turkey and then cooking the whole thing inside parchment paper.

As for her vegetables, Baldwin works very hard to grow them but doesn't use the holiday to show off a blue-ribbon turnip or, for that matter, a small carbon footprint. To her, Thanksgiving is feeling gratitude that something came out of the ground at all. "The piece of land that we are farming is really abundant, and I'm very thankful for that," she says. "It doesn't always go that way."

Baldwin is channeling the spirit of the original Thanksgiving, but judged strictly by the dishes she's cooking, her menu hasn't departed far from the 20th century conventions of the meal. Some families, however, are ditching the bird altogether — or at least trying to. J.M. Hirsch, a cookbook writer and food editor in Concord, N.H., hosts a vegan Thanksgiving every year. For Hirsch — unlike many recently converted vegetarians who have stopped eating meat as a response to animal cruelty — it's a legacy. "I grew up in a vegan family," he says, and though his job made him leave the faith, he returns to it at Thanksgiving by serving up a dairy-free spinach-and-cheese pie. "What's most important is to have a bountiful, beautiful centerpiece to a big communal meal," he says of the "massive lasagna pan" he fills with vegan spanakopita. "It's big, deep and satisfying," he insists.

Of course, his wife's family wants a real Thanksgiving, so he makes a full nonvegan dinner as well. He serves the two meals side by side, which, if you think about it, is the perfect image for the new Thanksgivings in America. "I've been doing the two traditions together so long," Hirsch says, "that they have become the tradition."

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 22, 2010 issue of TIME