Tradition is as important to Thanksgiving as the turkey. But, despite the fact that Thanksgiving is an American tradition commemorating those hungry Pilgrims up at Plymouth Rock, the elements of the meal beyond the turkey are unique to each family.
For some families, Thanksgiving means cornbread stuffing, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, turnips, creamed onions and Jell-O fruit mold. In my Italian family, none of those foods ever appeared on our table. Instead, our food represents our Italian heritage. We start with an Italian antipasto, followed by a pasta course (called 'macaroni' in our house), turkey, stuffed artichokes, sautéed mushrooms, vegetable and bread stuffing, and sweet potato pie. There are usually several other side dishes to make sure no one goes home hungry! There are at least a half dozen desserts including pumpkin pie, Italian cheesecake, and pecan pie in the assortment.
Thanksgiving is a large family affair held at my parents' house with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My mother cooks the turkey and stuffing, and everyone else brings over the other dishes. By sharing the cooking, everyone gets to contribute their own individual touch, and no one works so hard they can't enjoy the day. Going to my parents' home to share in these traditions mean so much to me, that I am willing to endure creeping up the congested New Jersey Turnpike with two kids fidgeting in the backseat and a husband muttering behind the steering wheel.
One year I called my mother eager to find out which course I had been assigned to prepare. "Well, we've decided to break with tradition, skip the antipasto and serve a light appetizer this year," she said, "so would you be willing to bring a fruit salad?" Of course I agreed since my objective is to be helpful, but when I hung up the phone I incredulously reported my assignment to my husband. "Fruit salad, fruit salad," I grumbled, shaking my head. My mother knows I love to cook creative, fun side dishes, appetizers and desserts, but I had been assigned fruit salad. I'm the Entertaining Guide and I'm going to bring fruit salad?! It's unchallenging, and not creative. It's also untraditional. Thanksgiving has always been about eating abundantly, not about planning a menu that's light and healthy. It's un-American and un-Italian! I decided to make the best of this very unsettling situation, and consider all of my options.