Year after year, the glossy food magazines scream that you have to tart up your turkey and pimp out your pumpkin pie. But the truth is, when it comes to Thanksgiving, most of us don't want exciting, new-fangled dishes. We want classic, comforting food, the stuff of Norman Rockwell.
"All that malarkey gets in the way of making a good Thanksgiving," says Sam Sifton, author of "Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well" (Random House, 2012). "Just make a good bird. How about we start with excellence on the basics and move beyond there? You can probably improve on a classic Thanksgiving, but why?"
Thanksgiving exists as much in our minds as our stomachs, say cookbook authors and food experts, and it's not the day to mess with people's expectations. Remember the year you departed from family tradition by putting walnuts in the stuffing? Or the time you skipped Grandma's Jell-O mould? Didn't go so well, did it?
But traditional doesn't have to mean boring. As with any good meal, experts say start with excellent ingredients and treat them well. Vary flavours, textures and colours. And perhaps most important, know your limits.
"I suggest to people that they need to be honest with themselves about what they can really accomplish," says Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, publisher of Cook's Illustrated magazine. "You can have this fantasy, but if the reality does not line up, then you've just created a nightmare moment rather than a comforting moment."
If you've only got a day to shop and prepare, Bishop offers, don't make pies. Buy them, or have a guest bring them. If you've got one oven, do your mashed sweet potatoes in the slow cooker, and maybe grill or deep fry the turkey to free up the oven for other things. Do as much as you can — the soup, the cranberry sauce — beforehand.
Use your time — and your money — wisely by investing in the best possible ingredients. If you buy a pie, buy a good pie. If you make one, use European butter and the crispest apples you can find. Make your cornbread stuffing with real eggs and butter and get the andouille from the local specialty shop. And remember that the absolute last place to cut back is the turkey.
"The turkey has to be the star of the show," says Rick Rodgers, author of "Thanksgiving 101" (William Morrow, 2007) and most recently the editor of "The Essential James Beard Cookbook" (St. Martin's Press, 2012). "That means choose it carefully. That means a fresh turkey. I never use a frozen turkey. The cost of a fresh turkey has come way down. Once a year you're going to roast a turkey. Would it kill you to buy a nice one?"
And remember that little things — things that take no time at all — can make the meal exciting and special.
"Fresh out of the oven rolls. Really good local butter. A wine that you would never serve unless it's a holiday," Rodgers says. "Homemade cranberry sauce. I repeat, homemade. It's so easy to make and it's delicious. One day out of the year, why open a can when it takes you 5 minutes to make it? It's just little things like that that make it a special meal."
Plan the menu well, anticipating how all the dishes go together so that the meal doesn't run together into one bland sensation. "You don't want to make three potato dishes," Bishop says. "You need to think about how the flavours and colours and textures are going to work on the plate. You don't want four starchy, creamy, buttery things, as delicious as that sounds."
But don't skip the starchy, creamy, buttery things, they all agree. Thanksgiving is a day of indulgence, a national day of dietary absolution. So use real cream and real butter. Forget about Uncle Morty's high blood pressure and salt the food until it tastes good. Use real sugar in the desserts.
"It's Thanksgiving," Sifton says. "You can have a salad tomorrow."