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Thanksgiving : Following a Trail of Bread Stuffing Crumbs

November 15, 1990|RUTH REICHL

Once I began telling people about Dengler's Thanksgiving research, I found that they wanted to tell me what they ate for Thanksgiving dinner. "Oh no," I'd protest, "I don't know how to do it right." But some people were very insistent, and I soon found myself doing amateur analyses. I actually thought I was pretty good at it--at least until I told Dengler what my thinking was. He invariably told me that I was wrong, meticulously pointing out all the details I had missed. The following Thanksgiving dinner is that of a friend whom Dengler placed--without ever meeting or talking with him--within 100 miles of his home.

Bill Farley's Thanksgiving Dinner

Turkey: "It was cooked properly."

Whipped potatoes: "Made with real potatoes, real milk and real butter."

Mashed turnips.

Mashed squash: "These were both plain. Everybody helped himself and then added as much butter as he wanted. There was always plenty of butter on the table."

Boiled onions: no sauce.

Bread stuffing.

Gravy: "Of course."

Squash pie: "The crust was always a little undercooked."

Pineapple pie: "My aunt always brought that."

Milk and tonic to drink. ("Tonic?" I asked. "You mean like Schweppes?" "No," said Bill, "you know--tonic, like Pepsi and ginger ale.")

Coffee.

Sweet potatoes: Bill forgot to mention these, but when I asked if they had them, he said, "Oh yes, of course."

My comments:

Anybody would know that this was an Irish family. The second thing Bill mentioned were potatoes, and then he went on with all those root vegetables.

Dengler's comments:

"No, this is not a typically Irish dinner at all. What this is is a typical New England dinner. In New England, plain mashed vegetables are typically served, and spice is scarcely used. And look at the lack of green vegetables!

"I'd know right off that this dinner belonged to an easily identified region--listen to all of those 'of courses,' 'cooked properlys' and 'naturallys.' He's told you what's wrong with the food, or what's not wrong with it, but not once has he told you that anything was delicious, delightful or wonderful. It is typical of the region that nobody gives you the quality of personal taste.

"From the nomenclature I'd say that this was rural, not urban New England, because that is the one area of the country where there is no standard nomenclature. In that part of the country they even name dishes after members of the family. The point is not that the terms 'tonic' or 'squash pie' or 'whipped potatoes' are standard in New England--they're not--but neither is anything else.

"There's nothing elegant about the meal, but it's a good, standard, lower-middle-class Thanksgiving dinner from rural New England. I'd say that your friend is from somewhere around the northern border of Massachusetts, and I'd say that his family has enough of a tradition to be fairly well established in this country.

"But why didn't you ask him about those pineapple pies?"

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