If we imagine the Thanksgiving feast as a Broadway production, there's little question that the turkey commands lead billing. Crowd-pleasers like mashed potatoes and stuffing take the stage as veteran character actors, playing well-worn and familiar roles to dependable applause. Rich gravy becomes brilliant scenery, touching up everybody's performance. Pumpkin pie is the adorable child star stealing scenes from the grown-ups.
As we continue down our Thanksgiving playbill, we realize someone must be pumping the room full of nitrous oxide to get us so googley-eyed about a turkey dinner. Or worse, we've been transformed into a perky food writer eagerly assigning human traits (emotions, character flaws, presidential ambitions) to foods that people lose interest in mid-chew.
Which brings us to Thanksgiving vegetables. They seem perfect for Delivery Man No. 2 in our production, the bit player who moves the plot along but is easily replaced.
You don't skip breakfast on Thanksgiving to save room for peas, or grumble over your brother-in-law getting the biggest broccoli floret. Vegetables play one big role in the Thanksgiving meal: they take up valuable plate space that otherwise could be filled with stuffing. (Mom, it is a vegetable! There's celery in it!)
Yes, it is easy to bash vegetables at Thanksgiving, to say that if Thanksgiving were a family musical act, vegetables would be Tito, that if it were a presidential election, vegetables would be Orrin Hatch.
But Thanksgivings are actually defined by vegetables. In a holiday full of national traditions--turkey, mashed potatoes, gallons of leftover cranberry sauce--vegetables provide identity and uniqueness, something for families to call their own.
Drop in on any Thanksgiving: turkey is a sure bet, vegetables are a wild card. Some families cherish collard greens, others would picket the kitchen if candied yams weren't in the works. A must-have for one family is a punch line for others. ("Well, I ran into the Hendersons last night and they are having salad with Thanksgiving. Can you imagine?")
That is why vegetables are a leading cause of Thanksgiving-related broken wedding engagements, right behind screaming obscenities at the Chicago Bears just as Grandma Kanzler walks into the den, and forgetting never to mention Brit Hume, leaf blowers, the Netherlands, solar power or vinyl siding at the dinner table.
Fall in love, and you can count on sharing turkey every November for life. But lay out a Thanksgiving menu without someone's Old Faithful of a vegetable, and it's like you just helped a hooker haul an eight-foot-tall, blue-frosted aluminum Christmas tree into the living room. (During our first Thanksgiving together, my stepfather said this to my mom: "Hey, where's the sweet potato casserole with the miniature marshmallows on top?! . . . Oh, come on, everybody has that!")
Except for mashed potatoes, there's no real American standard for Thanksgiving vegetables. Don't look to the first Thanksgiving for inspiration. History records only a few vegetables there: peas, pumpkins, squash and a succotash of limas and corn hominy. (This comes from Utah State University professor Jay Anderson, a leading expert on the first Thanksgiving, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Pilgrim food. He pretty much spends all of November talking to reporters. Among his tidbits: scholars aren't convinced there was even a turkey at the first Thanksgiving because Pilgrim shotguns were too inaccurate to nail anything but, literally, sitting ducks. That's how Pilgrims got their meals: they'd open fire on a flock of ducks or geese resting in the water, and the scatter shot was bound to nail a few of them. But Indians were far more accurate with their bows and arrows; they might have brought some turkeys as a gift when they dropped by the big party in 1621. Anderson thinks there's a good chance Pilgrims did serve an old Plymouth, Mass., standby at the feast: smoked eels.)
Three hundred and seventy-six years later, and peas are still a big favorite. Zucchini doesn't have much of a following. That's probably because people fear even hinting that they don't mind occasionally nibbling on it. If word of that spread, gardeners from at least six adjoining area codes would descend on this person's home--some in rented moving vans--to unload all the zucchini that has been collecting, screaming about how good it is with spaghetti sauce as they rip through the driveway, their kids tossing produce out the back window.
Ris Lacoste, the chef at Georgetown's 1789 Restaurant, put a winter squash on this year's Thanksgiving menu. (Note to squash growers: I have her address. Let's negotiate.) To Lacoste, the butternut squash is part of an old-fashioned Thanksgiving. She's also serving creamed turnips and onions.
Try finding creamed turnips and onions in your favorite frozen-food aisle. That's the Thanksgiving way, though--providing the overlooked and the forgotten an annual 15 minutes of glory reclaimed: creamed things, olives, cranberry mold, Underdog. At Les Halles on Pennsylvania Avenue NW they reached way back and are serving chestnuts for Thanksgiving. "Very important," explains general manager Saeed Bennani.
Very important. Yes, we can say it now, vegetables are very important to Thanksgiving. Sometimes we forget this, especially when we are casting a Broadway play. But vegetarians don't forget this. It's hard to overstate the importance of vegetables to a vegetarian--even at Thanksgiving.
In fact some vegetarians are tired of being given side dishes to satiate them and don't want to have to nibble around the edges of the great American feast.
Can anything take the place of turkey for them? Can a vegetable sit smack dab in the middle of a platter and play the lead role, acting the equivalent of the carnivores' centerpiece?
Tofurky can. Tofurky ("America's #1 Turkey Alternative since 1995") is another soy clone of normal food that somehow evolved from beans to a meatlike entity. Tofurky comes as a "roast" designed to look like a turkey breast and four "drummettes," which look something like cooked Spam with raisins. The promotional materials describe it as "a pre-cooked vegetarian feast designed to be the delicious centerpiece of your holiday or everyday meal" (call Turtle Island Foods at 888-863-8759 or visit www.tofurkey.com or natural foods stores including Fresh Fields).
According to its manufacturer, Tofurky is famous for its "incredible turkeylike texture and flavor" and is created from a "tofu-vital wheat gluten mixture." It even comes with gravy. ("So close to homemade, but tofu-vital!") Perhaps that's the way for vegetables to make their way to the pewter platter: undercover, in the guise of meat.
With Tofurky, vegetables might hold the potential to triumph over Thanksgiving, to muscle meat off of center stage, to finally see their names in lights on Broadway. Right under Smoked Eels.
Douglas Hanks III is a reporter for the News Journal in New Castle, Del.