YEARS AGO, when I was a wise and worldly college student, I remarked that the good thing about going home at Thanksgiving was that it reminded you of where you came from, and why you left.
Now that I am a parent of a college student, the situation has shifted. Now I am, in the eyes of my offspring, one of the old fogeys at home.
While I don't think there is much that can be done to change that assessment, there are steps that can be taken to ease the interaction between young and old, between white-meat lovers and dark-meat eaters, between the sweet-potato sorts and the creamed-onion contingent. In short, there are ways to dodge the trouble lurking in the wings of the Thanksgiving family gathering.
The first step to keeping harmony is keeping the turkey traditional. I have cooked turkeys on the barbecue grill. I have soaked the raw bird in salt water. I have eaten deep-fried turkey cooked by Willie P., West Baltimore's veteran fryer (Willie is booked for Thanksgiving but taking orders -- 410-542-7910 -- for Christmas).
Each of these unconventional turkeys has something to offer. Barbecuing a bird gives bland meat a sweet, smoky flavor. Brining the bird by soaking it in salt water draws the blood out and firms up the meat. Deep-frying produces moist meat and a crisp skin.
But in the end, I found each novel turkey treatment failed to deliver certain sentimental touches. When you barbecue or deep-fry a bird, you give up gravy. There are no juices in the bottom of the pan to make gravy with because there is no pan. In my one experience cooking a bird soaked in salt water, the gravy was too salty. The chance of giving up good gravy for the chance to use a novel cooking method seemed too risky for me.
There was also the aroma factor. If you put the bird on the barbecue grill, or deep-fry it, your house does not smell like it is "supposed to," awash with the perfume of roast turkey. Kids can be the strongest proponents of tradition. One year after I had cooked the bird outside in a kettle grill, one of my kids said he preferred the conventional, indoor smelly method. Or as he said, he liked his turkey "grandma-cooked."
Another tip for a congenial Thanksgiving meal is to go gaga for the vegetables. This is a feast celebrating excess, a good time to go overboard for the roots and the leaves. Just say "yes" to two kinds of potatoes, sweet and mashed. Say "yes" to creamed onions, to sauerkraut, or to any of those vegetables that some relative "requires" to be on the table. Moreover, you can experiment with vegetables and not rouse the wrath of the masses. For instance, I am experimenting with a Brussels sprouts recipe that makes the dreaded little green balls look like coleslaw.
My next tip is to be wary of anyone who mentions the "d" word (diet) during Thanksgiving. Talk about a killjoy. Moreover, don't trust him or her. If you leave one of those "d-word" people alone in the kitchen late at night, faster than you can say "clog my arteries," the leftover pie will be gone.
Finally, a little advice about what to do when you are not eating. Go for long walks. Offer lavish praise to the cooks. Do the dishes. But don't talk about politics. It never works out. The political "discussions" at our family Thanksgiving gatherings once grew so heated that our moms and aunts organized a mandatory participation pingpong tournament as a way to relieve tension. That was back in the late 1960s when the country had plenty of issues dividing us, but at least we could elect a president in one day. This year, I think we would all be wise to head straight to the pingpong table.