Best thing about Thanksgiving? Leftovers. The day after

Illustration depicting Thanksgiving dinner becoming a breakfast of leftovers.
Leftovers might be the best thing about a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
(Camily Tsai / For The Times)

On Nov. 26, many of us will sit down to a meal that smells like tradition: turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes and pie. It’s a familiar, comforting menu. And if you’re lucky, the familiar will provide flavors that inspire a sense of gratitude from those who’ve mastered the role of arriving and eating and a sense of pride for anyone who baked, grilled, stuffed or basted.

In a year of upheaval and illness and stress, the familiar might be just what we need — unless you are someone who has raged against the Thanksgiving industrial complex for decades.

If you happen to be one of those people, the greatest triumph of the season arrives on the day after Thanksgiving, when your protein-induced drowsiness has dissipated and the leftovers are yours to play with in the manner you desire.

Perhaps a few details are in order:

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I grew up in a household in which cooking was the dominant family activity; more than an obligation, it was a way we communicated with one another and brought friends and extended family into our circle. I joined my parents in the kitchen at an early age, learning about knife skills and the proper look and feel of pie dough before I entered double digits.

Perhaps it’s not an accident that I married someone who has come to regard cooking as the ultimate form of self-expression and that one of my offspring is a sophisticated home cook (the other is an enthusiastic eater).

You might think they would be eager to use the luxury of a holiday to experiment. You would be wrong.

Most years — but not this one, of course — we share Thanksgiving with longtime friends and their offspring, all of whom possess that same sense of self-confidence about how a holiday meal should be prepared. There will be no deviations or experimentation. Ever.

We will not mix it up and bring to the table a platter of fennel-rubbed pork tenderloin or salmon flavored with brown butter. We will not substitute our traditional sides with curried chickpeas or bucatini tossed with sardines, pine nuts and currants.

None of which is to say that our traditional fare is somehow less than delicious. It’s all good.

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But after the meal starts to spiral into a debate over the merits of pumpkin versus pecan pie or whipped cream versus vanilla ice cream, I make my move, clearing the table, packing up the leftovers and keeping some for myself. It’s the turkey bits I really want — the skin and shards of meat, the fat, the carcass — because I’m dreaming of turkey gumbo — and quarts of turkey stock. I’m going to shred big chunks of turkey to use in tacos or enchiladas and scrape the marshmallows from the sweet potatoes that I hope to use in a savory gratin.

The next day. Friday. Because that is the day I get to play without any interference.

Leftovers might be the best thing about a traditional Thanksgiving meal, and The Times’ Food staff would like to help you explore their possibilities — and remind you of the emotional power of food and family.