Thanksgiving potlucks: Pass the roles

November 10, 1993|By Suzanne Kimball and Kim Pierce | Suzanne Kimball and Kim Pierce,Contributing Writers Universal Press Syndicate

Americans like to believe the first Thanksgiving was a joint effort of Indians and Pilgrims, but that probably wasn't the case.

The notion of Thanksgiving as a potluck meal actually has its roots in the Depression, says Charles Camp, a folklorist with the Maryland Arts Council who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Potluck dinners were actively promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal relief agencies," he says, as a way to encourage the holiday celebration for households that could no longer afford the entire spread singlehandedly.

If that sounds familiar in these economically troubled times, it should come as no surprise that potluck Thanksgiving is thriving.

Increasingly the host cooks turkey and gravy and guests bring the fixings, according to dozens of people interviewed.

This is in contrast, many said, to their childhood memories of the traditional dinner, prepared by one person -- usually their mother or an aunt.

Randie Schwarz, who lives far from her family and hosts a small gathering of friends, learned how difficult preparing the feast alone can be.

"One year, I decided to do the whole meal myself, and it was a fiasco," the Dallas-area resident says. "It took a week, and I was in the grocery store several times in the middle of the night looking for forgotten ingredients. Never again."

Before the Depression -- and before Americans started moving around so much -- it wasn't strictly a one-cook affair, Mr. Camp says. More likely, it was a one-cook-in-charge affair -- not potluck, but still a group effort.

The family matriarch would call upon her daughters to peel potatoes, chop onions, roll the pastry dough -- while she determined the menu and supervised the entire operation, he says.

World War II and increased mobility changed that.

"The notion of family cooperation to produce a meal like this, under the control of a single woman, really makes practical sense only when families are relatively close to each other," Mr. Camp says.

Today, much about the holiday remains the same, he says, but the players have changed. Once strictly family affairs, Thanksgiving gatherings have grown to include friends whose families are distant.

The food and the way people celebrate are touchstones for a holiday that underscores the importance of families, Mr. Camp says.

Turkey, stuffing and potatoes still dominate the menu, according to those interviewed, who were about evenly divided on whether the potatoes should be white or sweet. The vegetable, they say, is inevitably green beans or broccoli.

Pecan pie was the leading choice for dessert, then pumpkin and apple.

But even people like Ms. Schwarz, who live far from relatives and invite only friends, are telling the world how much family means at Thanksgiving, Mr. Camp says.

Just look what happens when it comes time to carve the turkey. People create the absent relationships, he says, when they designate who does what.

Then there's the Thanksgiving moment, which is instantly recognizable no matter who's gathered for dinner. "When people are sitting around the tables, not eating, looking at it as a display of bounty . . . that's the moment of Thanksgiving," he says.

As for that first Thanksgiving in 1621, Mr. Camp scoffs at the notion that Pilgrims and Indians sat down at a table together admiring each other's food.

"That's a revisionist view," he says. "In fact, almost everything we know about the attitudes of American Indians and Pilgrims is [that] they viewed each other's diets with alarm and disgust.

"The idea of everyone's sitting down and trying the next person's casserole and saying, 'Mm, boy, that's good,' didn't happen."

Sausage-pecan corn bread stuffing

Makes 24 servings

1 pound breakfast sausage

1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter or margarine

2 medium onions, minced

1 to 2 cups pecans or walnuts, chopped

2 (1-pound) packages corn bread stuffing mix

2 1/2 to 5 cups water or water and chicken broth

Cook sausage in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring to break into small pieces. Pour off fat and drain sausage on paper towel. Add butter to pan and saute onions. Add nuts, stuffing mix and sausage; toss gently. Add water or broth a little at a time, tossing gently to moisten. If you are going to bake the stuffing apart from the bird, use more liquid and at least some broth for flavor. If stuffing the bird, leave the dressing relatively dry.

Turkey gravy

Makes 24 servings

4 to 6 tablespoons pan grease, oil or margarine

1 onion, minced

1 to 2 carrots, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

10 to 12 tablespoons flour

8 cups liquid (use pan juices plus chicken broth)

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon soy sauce

salt and pepper to taste

After removing turkey from the roasting pan to rest, pour the pan liquids into a large, heatproof bowl. Pour off the fat.

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