Much of the stress and anxiety that accompanies Thanksgiving preparations can be eased if you just pause for a moment in your hectic holiday schedule to appreciate your blessings, relax your shoulders and take a deep, deep breath to ... What’s that burning smell? Oh, my God! How high did you set the oven?
Stress is hardly a recent manifestation of the American Thanksgiving celebration. Just as modern families vex themselves over questions of "How long should the turkey thaw?" and "Is there enough seating?" and "Do we have to invite your mother?" the early Pilgrims of Plymouth faced their own bothersome issues, such as "Are we all going to die?"
Know your history
Perhaps a historical refresher might put the holiday back in perspective. In 1620 a group of colonists known as the Pilgrims arrived in the New World aboard their sturdy ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Space Shuttle. A dour, stern and taciturn people, they sought a land where they could worship as they chose with no one to poke fun at their uncomfortable ruffled collars.
A deadly winter took more than half of the colonists that first year, and they might all have been lost but for the generous help of the natives, later known as Indians, then American Indians and finally Native Americans.
The natives taught the colonists to hunt and fish, how to grow crops in that unfamiliar land and introduced them to corn, or "maize." The next year produced a bumper crop of plenty and the grateful Pilgrims invited their native friends to join them in a harvest feast, provided they, too, wore uncomfortable ruffled collars.
Yet preparations for that festive occasion were not without their strains on these early American families.
Pilgrim Father: "Honey … I mean prithee, Honey? This may sound dour, stern and taciturn, but is there seating for everyone who’s coming? There don’t seem to be enough stumps."
Pilgrim Mother: "Jonathan, go and help your father fell some more trees, split the logs, plane them smooth and set them as benches. Hurry up! Our guests will be here at noon."
Pilgrim Kid: "Aw, Ma!"
Pilgrim Father: "Don’t talk back to your mother, Jonathan, or they’ll be no maize for you!"
Pilgrim Kid: "Huh?"
Pilgrim Mother: "Corn. They’ll be no corn."
Pilgrim Kid: "Oh."
Pilgrim Father: "Now listen everyone, we have much to give thanks for: a thriving colony, a bountiful harvest, good friends and, above all, freedom from religious persecution. So when our guests arrive let’s not refer to them as ‘ungodly blasphemous heathens,’ OK? Just for tonight."
Pilgrim Kid: "Gotcha, Pa!"
Pilgrim Mother: "Let’s see, have I forgotten anything? Fish, plums, berries, dried fruit, squash, squash, squash, venison, squash, squash cakes and that strange native wild fowl that is neither duck nor goose, but requires 24 hours to thaw before being placed in a 325 degree preheated oven."
Pilgrim Father: "Sometimes you speak most strangely, my dear prithee."
Know your turkey
While the Thanksgiving feast originated with these Pilgrims, it was George Washington who in 1789 proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving. Yet it wasn’t until 1863, at the end of a terrible civil war, that Thanksgiving was established on the last Thursday in November by a weary President Abraham Lincoln, eager to mend a nation and accommodate the National Football League schedule.
Now with a clearer historical understanding of the difficulties and obstacles that have accompanied this holiday, are you really surprised that no one likes your pie crust? The point is that proper planning is the key to a stress-free Thanksgiving. And it’s never too early to begin planning your turkey, unless, of course, you’re reading this article now. Then it’s far too late.
Turkey is arguably the most well-known symbol of Thanksgiving, rivaled closely by pumpkin pie, stuffing and that hideous "peeing boy" gravy boat your brother brings year after year.
Poultry farms and butcher shops offer a wide variety of turkeys, although the best ones are, for the most part, bird shaped. Knowing such "turkey facts" can save you time, money and the disappointment of inadvertently cooking some small mammal. For example:
• Male turkeys, or "toms," boast a brightly colored fold of neck skin, or "wattle," that can be reduced or virtually eliminated with proper medical treatment.
• Most Americans prefer the meat of younger female turkeys to older ones, which can be tough, but prefer older male turkeys to younger males, which can be stern, dour and taciturn.
• Only male turkeys gobble. Female turkeys use air horns.
The safe handling and cooking of a turkey worries many a holiday host and hostess, for who hasn’t read disturbing news accounts of entire nations wiped out by an improperly prepared slice of thigh meat? The fact is, as any registered dietician or United Nations emergency disaster worker will tell you, there is absolutely no safe way to handle or cook turkey. The best you can hope for is to contain the damage to your immediate family, preferably your in-laws.
Ha-ha! What an easy way to work in an in-law dig. Still, it’s important to follow proper food safety guidelines to ensure, if nothing else, a short wait at the bathroom.
• Prevent raw turkey juices from contacting other foods, except by e-mail.
• Turkey is done cooking when the temperature deep in the thigh reaches 180 degrees, juices run clear, not reddish pink, and background radiation levels have dropped below 800 millirads.
• To check internal temperature insert a meat thermometer, or "wattle," in the thigh muscle just above and past the lower part of the thigh bone. Ow! Not my thighbone, you fool!
Dave Jaffe, the father of two boys, is Chicago Parent’s special correspondent, emphasis on "special," not correspondent. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.