Berger’s Burg: Why must the Thanksgiving meal revolve around a turkey?

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The year has turned its circle,/The seasons come and go./The harvest is all gathered in/And chilly north winds blow./Orchards have shared their treasures,/The fields their yellow grain,/So open wide the doorway —/Thanksgiv­ing comes again! — Anonymous

Thanksgiving will soon be gastronomically upon us. It is the time for families to gather, eat and give thanks. “What thanks?” you ask. Well, for one, be thankful you are not a turkey. Two, be thankful the Indians — oops, Native Americans — brought the Pilgrims turkey for dinner and not groundhogs. Three, be thankful there is Pepto-Bismol around.

For Thanksgiving dinners, many first-generation Americans create their own traditions by first adopting and then adapting ours.

Do not get me wrong. I am grateful for this holiday, but as long as the Pilgrims were making a big deal of it, why did the main course have to be turkey? Why not instead lamb chops, corned beef sandwiches or sushi?

But it was turkey back then and it is turkey today because a non-meat eating pilgrim, Miles Standish, wanted all Americans to carry on this tradition forever.

Cuban Americans marinate their turkeys with cumin and lime juice; German Americans add applesauce.

While we are on the subject of Thanksgiving dinners, let us discuss my lovable cook, Gloria. Whenever she sits down to the holiday meal, she dresses to kill and cooks the same way. I pleaded with her not to make turkey this year, since we have leftovers from last year, but she threatened to hit me with a drumstick.

Jewish Americans serve chopped liver; Asian Americans replace turkey with duck.

Gloria runs our kitchen — the only one in the world where flies come to commit suicide. To improve her culinary skills, she once went to cooking school and was a straight-A student until she burned her school. I once timed her cooking Minute Rice: It took four hours. Whenever our sons, Jon and Vance, were naughty, I told them, “Either you behave or you’ll both go to bed with dinner!”

With the turkey Caribbean Americans serve rice and beans; Italian Americans ravioli.

During our holiday meal, Gloria passed me one of her homemade biscuits. I questioned, “Where’s the saw to eat it with?”

She asked our granddaughter, Keri, 9, whether she would like more stuffing.

“Nope, and I don’t know why turkeys eat it either.”

I broke a tooth drinking Gloria’s after-dinner demitasse, but being a sensitive soul, at the end of the meal I stroked her with a reassuring gesture. I kept quiet.

English Americans serve trifle; Africans serve cassava mash.

But in fairness, I must say a few words about the bird for which Benjamin Franklin once nominated to be America’s national bird. He pointed out it was a patriotic bird because of its red, white and blue plumage. But it lost out to the bald eagle, despite the fact Benjy pleaded the eagle “possessed bad moral character.” Given the way people devour food on Thanksgiving, our national bird should be the vulture.

Mexican Americans serve tamales; Russian Americans serve stuffed cabbage.

Readers, when Thanksgiving is over and I recover from Gloria’s cooking, I will take her out for real American food: pizza.

We’ve eaten all our dinner, prayed our prayers, wished our wishes./Now it’s time to get to work and wash up all these dishes! — L.B. Hopkins

Every Thanksgiving, I recall when I lived with my parents, seven brothers and sisters and a boarder in a small tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For us, Thanksgiving meant being thankful to be in America, since turkey dinners were a luxury we could not afford. Our holiday meal meant an extra potato tossed into our daily pot of soup Mama prepared.

Jack, the oldest brother at 18, had a job paying $8 per week from which he contributed $7.50 to the family coffers. On this particular Thanksgiving, he watched Mama preparing holiday dinner.

“Cabbage soup is good, Mama,” he said, “but we need something special and American for this Thanksgivi­ng.”

With 50 cents in hand, he raced to the vegetable market where he bought plump chestnuts and sweet potatoes and raced home with them. Following a grand fanfare, the family feasted on a real American Thanksgiving dinner minus the turkey. I have enjoyed many a Thanksgiving dinner since then, but none tasted as sweet as the meal we shared that day.

Jack — brother, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and patriarch of the extended family — died April 3. Thanksgiving will never be the same without him.

Contact Alex Berger at

Posted 6:29 pm, October 10, 2011
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