Thanksgiving (Part 1)

When it comes to holiday cooking, I am admittedly one of those chefs who anticipates the challenge. Thanksgiving, in particular, is not only an occasion to come together around food, but it is an opportunity to make old traditions new. Of course, there is a certain degree of comfort with the customary Thanksgiving fare – turkey, stuffing/dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, etc.

My style, however, is to make a tradition of customizing the Thanksgiving dinner based on where I am and who I am inviting to my table. And why not? What better way to be thankful for what and who we have in our lives, than to demonstrate via a creatively curated menu?

Quintessentially American

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. For readers who not familiar with this American past time, Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1870, although its origins date back to 1621, when Plymouth Colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared the autumn harvest.

Historians suggest that rather than turkey, it was more likely that the first Thanksgiving meal consisted of ducks or geese. There was no flour, and likely their sugar supply had waned; hence, no pies or cakes. So, unlike our modern spread, it seems that the first meal was simply fowl, corn and pumpkin – a simple harvest.

Over time the holiday garnered a reputation as “turkey day.” However, to truly understand how the traditional American Thanksgiving meal was curated, be sure to read Meet the Woman who Invented your Thanksgiving Meal.

thanksgiving-turkey
The classic turkey. (Photo by Monstera)

We have come a long way from those days. Our culinary options are seemingly endless and choices abound. And my approach each year was to adapt to my surroundings, as I grew in my knowledge and love for this celebration.

In Hong Kong, where I grew up, Thanksgiving was a new concept for both my family and friends. As a member of the American Women’s’ Association, I gladly volunteered when the women launched a “meal-for-Marines” during the holiday. My role was to prepare meals and take it to the members’ homes, hosting Marines on leave. But I never had the opportunity to do Thanksgiving in my own home.

Adapting the Thanksgiving Meal

After marrying Sean (an American), it was time to better understand Thanksgiving and put this into practice in our home. I researched the recipes and tweaked all of them to suit our Asian taste buds. And it was a good thing I did.

In the early 90s, after several years of building my catering business, I landed a contract with Seibu (a premium food outlet), as a Food Futurist. I would develop and promote new global cuisine concepts, artisanal breads and seasonal menus primarily catering to expatriates. This included a re-design of their holiday “turkey menus.”

During the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, I found myself up to my elbows (literally) stuffing turkeys with aromatics around the clock just to keep up with demand. After preparing dozens and dozens of turkeys with my small team, I vowed never to touch another one! And I stayed true to my resolution (almost).

low-cut-flower-arrangement
Freshly cut, low floral arrangement.

As much as I was grateful for the business, the most rewarding experiences  were preparing this holiday meal in my own kitchen. We always invited family and friends for this special event. My planning would start early (often in October), to ensure I could source all of the ingredients needed for one of the biggest dinners on the calendar.

One of the most memorable menu I designed was in 1992. Some of the dishes are classic, but hopefully these will inspire you to fashion your own menu.

Thanksgiving Menu (Hong Kong, November, 1992)

Starter: Crudité Platter with Pimento Cheese Dip, known as the caviar of the south (my mother-in-law’s recipe)

Appetizer: Puff Pastry Pillows with Chanterelles & Chervil

Bird of the Day: Lacquered Cornish Game Hens with Fig Chutney Glaze

Green & Orange Sides: Sweet Potato Casserole, Roasted Broccolini

Red & Green Dressing: Toasted Brown Rice with Tarragon, Cranberries & Pecans

Rich Dark Brown Gravy: Essence of Creminis

Dessert: Bread Pudding with Vanilla Bean Crème Anglaise (my father-in-law’s fave.)

How I Decorate for Thanksgiving

My preferred table-scape: centered around the garden crop with an addition of fresh flowers such as yellow peonies or roses, green herbs and white miniature pumpkins. I love monochromatic, save for the usage of foliage, which I don’t consider as an additional color. I start with posies of sage, eucalyptus, thyme and rosemary tied with raffia. Laying these lengthwise in the center of the table like a runner, giving an illusion of long clean lines and symmetry. Then I place white mini pumpkins sporadically on the herbaceous runner.

Next, I pull out my white votives and clear glass holders. For a formal meal, I would consider making small, fresh cut low floral arrangements or a single stem cut in a low bud vase, rather than one large centerpiece (which you would end up moving when your guests are seated at the table for dinner). I choose to keep the tall arrangements for a buffet table. This lends height, drama, and can remain at the buffet through dessert service as well.

thanksgiving-cornucopia
Harvest cornucopia connotes abundance.

When I am decorating for a large event, I usually opt for a huge cornucopia (a symbol of abundance, and a perfect table centerpiece). I fill this with leather leaves, orange and yellow autumnal leaves, wheat, corn husks, branches, pumpkins, gourds, persimmons, oranges, apples, pears, baby artichokes, grapes, walnuts, pecans, and strings of dried cranberries. The best part of the cornucopia centerpiece is to be able to share this gift with your favorite charity after the event.

In my next post, I will share more about how my Thanksgiving menus evolved over the years.

What is your traditional Thanksgiving Menu? (Please comment below.)

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