Turkey With a Side of Kasha Varnishkes
Of all the holidays — Jewish and otherwise — Thanksgiving is our hands-down favorite. It’s all about food and family. We’re thankful that it’s not about synagogue attendance, atonement or plagues.
You could call Thanksgiving a pilgrimage festival. After all, in 1620 the Pilgrims sailed to their new home in America on the Mayflower. This Thanksgiving, 50 million people will travel home. We’re thankful that some of these people are ours. They’ll brave the lines at the train station and we’ll buy their tickets.
Pilgrimage festivals are nothing new to Jews. In ancient days the Israelites would make the journey to the Temple in Jerusalem with gifts of first fruits. Our children will make the journey home with gifts of dirty laundry and empty checkbooks.
Even if we are hosting, Thanksgiving Day is relaxing. No waking up early, putting on a skirt, and sitting through services. Once the turkey is in the oven and the table is set, we can put on sweatpants, sit on the couch and watch Netflix with the kids. On this holiday, it’s kosher to watch TV — to check football scores and see who’s riding by on a float in the parade.
Unlike the wandering Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday. There are no holiday restrictions about what can and can’t be done. Our observant sister and her family can drive to our house, peek in the refrigerator for a nosh and not worry about getting home before sundown.
After we finalize our guest list, we debate whether the turkey should be fresh, frozen, pre-brined or free range. We go to the online turkey calculator to determine how big a bird we need. Yes, we checked the box next to “We’re big eaters” and “We want leftovers.” (On Thanksgiving Day, we’ll be back to check the “Do I really have to put this bird in the oven at 11 a.m.?” chart.)
We can even get a kosher bird. We just have to spell our name three times for the butcher and swear to him that we’ll be back on Monday at 1 p.m. to pick it up. We’re grateful that the traditional dinner choice for this holiday is not a spiral-cut honey-glazed ham.
On Rosh Hashanah, when we serve brisket and chicken, kugel, asparagus, roasted potatoes and three desserts, our family accuses us of overdoing it. But on Thanksgiving, overdoing it is expected. No one complains when we present a dessert buffet. They ask for “just a little sliver” of the coconut custard and pumpkin pies. They must taste Aunt Sylvia’s rugelach; after all, she made it just for them.
As the hosts, we reserve the right to cook our favorites, and we like to be responsible for what we really care about. How could we outsource the cranberry relish? We wouldn’t trust a guest to execute Mom’s beloved cranberry cake recipe correctly. So two days before the dinner, when someone texts, “What can I bring?” we already have everything covered. We can honestly say, “Bring whatever you want.” We don’t care if they bring their vegan broccoli quinoa bake.
When searching for holiday recipes, we came across a website that offered Jewish takes on Thanksgiving favorites. It recommended serving chopped liver pie with cranberry topping. Our family hates the green bean casserole; what would they think of this?
The site also suggested stuffing the turkey with matzo instead of delicious, fluffy bread. Anyone who has kept Passover knows that this is a bad idea. Why would we eat the bread of affliction when we don’t have to?
Some Jewish foods are welcome on the Thanksgiving table. When Aunt Ellie offered to contribute, we had to tell her that someone else had dibs on the sweet potato casserole. Without a pause, she volunteered to bring “my kasha varnishkes.” We don’t think Miles Standish served kasha varnishkes to Squanto, but we were happy to eat it, smothered in turkey gravy.
Jews are not the only ethnic group to sneak its favorites onto the crowded Thanksgiving table. Our Italian-American friend always puts a bowl of meatballs and a lasagne alongside her butternut squash and mashed potatoes. Some African-American families like to serve soul food favorites like collard greens and cornbread.
Like the Pilgrims, we are all immigrants, too. Thanksgiving is the ideal holiday to celebrate the melting pot that is America. After we go around the table and everyone names something they’re thankful for, we say the Shehecheyanu together.
Ellen Scolnic and Joyce Eisenberg, also known as the Word Mavens, are the authors of the They can be reached via www.thewordmavens.com