Serving up Thanksgiving

It's round about now that cooks on both sides of the Atlantic start to regard the fate of their patron saint on the gridiron as an easy way to spend an afternoon.

Serving up Thanksgiving America is warming its ovens for the colossal national blowout that is Thanksgiving and we Brits are beginning early strategic manoeuvring for Christmas dinner.

Only a curmudgeon could think that Thanksgiving and Christmas, the great festivals of clan gathering and family warmth, are in any way onerous - a curmudgeon or a cook. Because truth be told, once you've factored in the "special" dishes, without which, for each individual, it simply "wouldn't be" Christmas or Thanksgiving, you have a menu so complex it would take a full brigade to execute.

My first marriage was into a large family in rural North Carolina who could, with minimal effort, assemble 30 people to the Thanksgiving table. There was, of course, turkey with the full set of trimmings but also a sort of passive-aggressive "pot luck" element whereby certain members would bring their own versions of dishes, just to make sure they didn't have to eat the wrong interpretation of a classic. There were, as I remember, two ferocious aunts, Tutu and Buss, whose versions of collard greens would have been indistinguishable to the most refined palate but who swore up and down they wouldn't eat each other's.

America seems to relish deranged side dishes. Most Brits would balk at the very idea of sweet potato mash with a marshmallow topping or chopped green beans in a "sauce" of canned cream of mushroom soup but these are minor eccentricities compared to some of the stuff being dished up this weekend.

The "suntanned turkey" and the "moose turd cookie" are, one devoutly hopes, offered in a spirit of humour, gags that might distract from the tension of a family meal, but some seem entirely serious. This delightful "macaroon sweet potato bake" should ensure that no-one leaves the table without feeling bewildered. "Prune stuffed squash baked in diet Dr Pepper" offers the kind of intellectual and gustatory challenge which used to involve a booking at El Bulli.

While our chums across the pond are giving thanks, most of us are starting to think about planning Christmas. In December I'll be doing two Christmas dinners, on the 25th and the 26th to meet the labyrinthine diary commitments of our two families. Turkey and beef have been requested on one day, turkey and "something fishy" on the second, plus bread sauce, sprouts with butter, sprouts with bacon, clear gravy, thickened gravy, angels-on-horseback, boiled, roast and mashed potatoes, parsnips, "definitely no parsnips" and mashed swede. These are to satisfy the needs of the living members of the clans. The pot of mushy peas is in honour of Nan, who's no longer with us.

To be fair, I'm not sure I'd have it any other way. Families are what they are - little storm systems of unresolved tension - and bringing them around a table and cooking to please them is one of the few things I do in a year that seem genuinely worthwhile. Besides which, I'm not sure that some of these Thanksgiving monstrosities, at which it's so easy to chuckle, don't go one better. Aren't they direct descendants of the great table entertainments of culinary history - flaming stuffed peacocks or four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? Surreal and often inedible they may be, but they bring a welcome sense of occasion to a very special meal.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Tim Hayward, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 25th November 2010 17.00 Europe/London

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