By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(This column originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Sensi magazine)
Back before football and Black Friday frenzy came to dominate the day, Thanksgiving was the stodgiest of the big American holidays. The national feast day was mostly a quiet family home meal with the same turkey, boxed stuffing and green bean casserole. It was traditional, but not necessarily that much fun.
I come from Massachusetts where Thanksgiving was always a big deal. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians got together for a three-day harvest feast in 1621 about 50 miles from where I grew up. More importantly, I was just down the turnpike from Stockbridge, the town where Arlo Guthrie and a friend dumped the garbage in 1965. That seminal moment sparked a folk song that would change Thanksgiving history.
“This song is called ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ and it’s about Alice, and the restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant”
When “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” debuted in 1967, the song immediately became an underground hit. For young males like me approaching the age when we could be drafted into the military to fight in Viet Nam, the song about questioning authority was a call to action as well as a cautionary tale. It was also about the communal nature of Thanksgiving.
“My friend and I went up to visit Alice at the Restaurant”
I grew up loving Thanksgiving with our large, overextended family of Austrian, Sicilian and Polish relatives who contributed ethnic side dishes. The bird was always filled with mashed potato and Italian sausage stuffing. However, the song describes a holiday with friends that sounded much more like a party than the sometimes nerve-wracking family feasts we knew at home. Because of the epic, 16-minute talking blues by Woody Guthrie’s son, nondenominational Thanksgiving Day soon became the hippies’ unofficial national holiday.
“Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago
I was an American student at McGill University in Montreal in the early 1970s when our household decided to host the hippest Thanksgiving ever. We recorded a soundtrack on a reel-to-reel tape deck of our favorite songs – some early Springsteen like “Rosalita,” lots of country rock including Emmylou’s “Bluebird Wine,” and, of course, “Alice’s Restaurant.” The tunes were supposed to fit the various stages of the festivities including digestive tunes for the aftermath. Some of the memories are a tad foggy but it was a great time.
“Had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat”
We were anti-establishment so we kept the parts of Thanksgiving we liked – the wine and the pies – and got rid of the parts we couldn’t stand like the need to dress up. Long before it caught on with mainstream, the counterculture hosted vegetarian Thanksgivings with a big tent approach the welcome side dishes of all denominations. What mattered was gathering like-minded members of your tribe.
Besides, Thanksgiving with friends was also the one holiday bash other than New Year’s Eve when we could enjoy highly illegal cannabis along with beer and wine.
“And everything was fine, we was smoking cigarettes and all kinds of things, until the Sargent came over”
Over the years I’ve hosted Thanksgiving or helped stage the feast dozens of times, but not without combating the prevailing paradigm. Magazine covers and TV shows show perfect birds, oh-so-easy side dishes and 126 things you can do to decorate your home for the happy feast day. You must remain the relaxed and gracious hostess or host.
It is a fairy tale feast complete with unreasonable expectations because stuff always happens. No wonder folks end up making reservations at a restaurant instead of hosting a feast. I feel their pain.
“I walked in, sat down, I was hung down, brung down, hung up, and all kinds o’ mean nasty ugly things”
Turkeys have been overcooked and undercooked when I’ve hosted. I’ve burned dishes that only needed to be warmed. Once the fridge was packed and I was tired on Thanksgiving night so I left the turkey carcass on the back porch on a near-freezing night. I awoke to a brutally attacked turkey scattered across the porch and back yard after an alley gang of obnoxious raccoons broke in. I mourned the lost meat and soup.
“You may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation”
Another year, I knew that slicing the turkey in the aluminum pan was a really bad idea but I went ahead anyway. I sliced through the pan and the hot, fatty, delicious pan juices started pouring out on the cutting board, counter and floor.
The thing is: We all get anxiety attacks over hosting Thanksgiving. I’m getting nervous even as I write this because this year everybody’s coming to eat at my house. I figure it’s worth it for the leftovers.
“KID, HAVE YOU REHABILITATED YOURSELF?”
In a recent feature on feast dishes for 50 states in the New York Times, Colorado got special attention. “It’s difficult to assess exactly how much the legalization of marijuana in Colorado may have changed the Thanksgiving menu. But it has indubitably increased the snacking that goes on afterward,” the esteemed publication noted.
We would remind the Times that cannabis and Turkey Day have been intersecting for many decades in many places, not just in Colorado.
I interpreted the wisecrack to mean that we love our leftovers in Colorado. If I’m going to bust my buns pulling off Thanksgiving, then I want enough goodies so I can relax and enjoy the meal in the days that follow.
“Had another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat”
I look forward to turkey breast BLT’s, dark meat turkey in french dip sandwiches with gravy replacing the au jus and turkey tacos in chocolate-chile mole sauce. I love making waffles out of leftover bread stuffing and serve latkes made from Italian sausage and potato stuffing topped with eggs.
I turn that precious turkey carcass into a hearty broth that will becomes frozen broth cubes that I will bag for later use in sauces, soups and such.
A month (or three) from now, I will dig into the freezer and smile when I find carefully packaged gravy, cranberry sauce, turkey and side dishes for a comforting, easy dinner.
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, excepting Alice“
Ironically, our anti-establishment counterculture ended up creating rituals that are followed annually. Many radio stations have made it traditional to play the 16-minute protest song on Thanksgiving Day, sometimes several times.
If Grandpa and Grandma get a silly gleam in his eye as “Alice’s Restaurant” plays, they may have been hippies. They challenging times chronicled in the song that they lived through in the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s. It wasn’t all peace and love, either.
“If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud”
Is it really worth the hours of prep – the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking and commotion of inviting others into your home for a dining experience fraught with so many possible disasters?
My answer is still “Yes.”
What I remember best about Thanksgiving Day dinners is not the food or the faux pas, the political tiffs or the football games. I am thankful for the funny, argumentative and heartwarming moments shared among the folks who filled the circle around the table on evenings in November.
John Lehndorff is the former Chief Judge at the National Pie Championships. He will answer last-minute cooking questions on Radio Nibbles, 8:30-9 a.m. Thanksgiving morning on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, streaming at kgnu.org).
John Lehndorff’s Thanksgiving Stuffing recipe: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com/2017/11/22/a-stuffing-tale-diversity-rules-the-side-dishes-on-our-feast-table
John Lehndorff’s Apple Pie recipe: