If you've been following the media recently, you may have noticed a certain lack of consensus on many things, including what an ideal Thanksgiving dinner might be.
There have been instructions on how to spatchcock a turkey; how to slow-roast it; and how to bone it out, form it into a jelly roll around fennel sausage, and serve it in neat slices as kind of a turkey porchetta. My favorite butcher decided not to stock turkey at all this season. There is nothing like a Turkey of the Year.
Even some usually happy cooks seem to be limping toward this holiday, wondering if anyone will notice if we substitute bottled chestnuts for fresh in the stuffing or canned squash for pumpkin in the pie.
Thanksgiving is the happiest day of the year for passionate home cooks. This year, we are seeing a little less joy.
Instead, more people may be gathering at Friendsgiving parties, at which the guest list is determined by compatibility rather than by accident of birth. A lot of publications, including this one, have been suggesting neat bourbon instead of wine as the proper Thanksgiving drink.
But even in this year, when events have pushed us apart, where slights suffered in April still smart in the fall, when half of your crowd isn't talking to the other half and the weekly poker game hasn't convened since August, nothing has quite as much power to bring us together as an hour or two at the table — an hour or two devoted to family and friends, grace and gratitude for the blessings of America. We eat together and talk together as people with a single purpose. We are happy together at least until the bowl of cranberry sauce runs low.
It was this idea of reconciliation, the idea of a single America, that led Abraham Lincoln to establish the first national Thanksgiving in 1863, at the height of the Civil War.
"In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,'' he wrote, " … order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.''
At the moment of the nation's deepest despair, Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a "day of Thanksgiving and Praise.''
So in this difficult year we may need Thanksgiving more than ever — even if you rarely tackle anything more taxing than a stir-fry or a grain bowl the rest of the year, even if you have yet to decide whether to truss the legs, make giblet gravy, or roast the bird on a bed of carrots instead of on a rack.
Guests who wonder how they are going to react if Uncle Morris gets into one of his moods need Thanksgiving. So do people whom Cousin Rose hasn't acknowledged since November 1980.
It doesn't matter whether you're dining on turkey biryani, turkey adobo, Persian turkey with barberries or clay-roasted Chinese beggars' turkey stuffed with black mushrooms and mustard greens. Or turkey made with the classical technique and stupendous amounts of butter; or the turkey that your mother learned how to make from Betty Crocker.
Is crisp, brittle skin worth slightly dry meat? Is Deb going to show up with that big bowl of ambrosia again? Is a heritage bird worth the extra four dollars a pound? If your oldest friend and your sister-in-law decide to bring pecan pies, which of the pies are you going to serve first?
If all else fails, Salt and Straw is offering ice cream spiked with turkey-skin brittle; the Dog Haus, turducken sausages with gravy; and Trader Joe's, turkey-flavored potato chips. But you are going to be at the table this afternoon, and so am I.