A Thanksgiving meal is something I’ve appreciated much more often in theory than in execution. Coming from a Cuban family was more than a little weird because commonplace dishes always seemed to be replaced by those my relatives were more comfortable serving. The turkey had suddenly morphed into roasted pig, the stuffing looked a lot like rice and beans, the yams tasted more like sweet fried plantains and the gravy boat warmed the bench while the mojo got passed around to top everyone’s plate off.
Marrying into an Italian family, I soon learned, only helped the situation along moderately. (see last year’s post) Sure there was a Norman Rockwell-worthy turkey, accompanied by all the typical side dishes, but it was expected that the gigundous meal be prefaced with an equally gigundous antipasto. My understanding of Thanksgiving went further awry at that point (from mojo to mortadella) but it was all good because the celebration was about bounty—and about gratitude for that bounty.
Here’s the thing, though. At least when I was served a slice of mozzarella, I could be pretty damned sure the wet white stuff was, in fact, mozzarella. Or, if my aunt passed me the plate of plantains, there really wasn’t any telling me that they were anything other than actual plantains.
Lines get a little blurred, though, when you take a look at some of the ingredients that grace your average, American-as-apple-pie table. I kinda dig sitting at that table, acting as a sort of wiseass know it all, dispensing little-known bits of food facts, because it serves as a nice counterpoint to the usual mindless “how early are you getting up for Black Friday” conversation. Case in point: You know that cinnamon you use to flavor your pumpkin pie? Well it ain’t cinnamon—it’s called cassia. Real “Alba” cinnamon comes mostly from Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon) and it’s a far cry from the hard brittle sticks you throw into your mulled cider. Its aromas are much more delicate, with hints of orange blossoms and vanilla. Mexicans call it “canela”. I call it “not what you’re using.”
Then there’s the sweet potato/yam debacle. Lots of cooks use the two words interchangeably, while others know there’s a big difference. But what most people don’t know is that the sweet potatoes and yams we find here in the US are really all sweet potatoes. What we recognize as yams, aren’t. The Africans who were dragged here as slaves identified sweet potatoes as “nyami.” The name stuck and we’ve been eating a misnomer ever since. And just to fuck with you a little more, sweet potatoes aren’t really potatoes at all. They’re tubers, and not even distantly related to yams. There are about 200 varieties of true yams, none of which grow in the US.
No. I’m not done yet. This last one is a naturally occurring, misunderstood ingredient—tryptophan. Does turkey contain it? Yup. Is that what makes you sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal? Nope. Tryptophan is definitely a natural sedative, but truth is, it doesn’t act on the brain unless it’s taken on an empty stomach with no protein present. Not to mention that your average serving of chicken or ground beef contains about as much of the stuff as turkey does. So if tryptophan were truly the harbinger of sleep you’d just as likely doze off behind the wheel after peeling out of a KFC or Burger King parking lot. Let’s stop blaming the poor overcooked bird and put the sleepy blame squarely where it belongs—on the 4 filled-to-the-brim glasses of wine you tossed back, and the biscuit/mashed potato/stuffing carb overload you double-dosed on while your relatives were busy babbling about Uncle Mo’s new hybrid Toyota.