Turkey is normal; these dishes aren’t

by | Nov 21, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It emerges every November. From an oven. From a mold. From a casserole dish. It is lime green or beet red or marshmallow white. It has olives or bananas or diced pimentos. It elicits cheers or boos, “mmm” or “yechh,” but no one is neutral.

It’s the Thing You Eat Only On Thanksgiving.

Can you smell it?

“Oh, no, not the carrot loaf!” someone will yell, and someone else will say, “Oh, yes, the carrot loaf!” and someone else will say, “Every year it’s the same thing, the stupid carrot loaf!”

And every year it is. There is something about Thanksgiving that elicits the weirdly edible, strangely constructed food. It is oval-shaped. Or deep-dished. Or in mini logs. Or the size of large marbles. For a holiday where the menu is supposed to be the same, there’s a rash of one-of-a-kind dishes.

And one-of-a-kind for a reason.

“Here comes the green stuff!” someone yells. That’s a refrain in our home – my wife’s side. Lemon-lime Jell-O, cottage cheese, walnuts and fruit cocktail from a can. The Green Stuff. Don’t ask me. It came with the marriage.

“I can’t believe you eat that!” someone says.

“That’s my favorite!” someone says.

“I can’t believe you eat that!” someone says.

Every family has one.

Here a yam, there a yam …

A quick Internet search on the topic “weird Thanksgiving food” reveals a cornucopia of dishes apparently invented in finger-painting class.

Cranberry Fluff – using cranberry sauce, cranberry Jell-O, whipped cream and crushed pineapple.

Oyster casserole – canned oysters, hardtack, cream and butter.

Yam patties. Speaks for itself.

Many of the oddball dishes seem to involve, for some reason, sweet potatoes. Or cream cheese. Or olives.

Or Jell-O.

Before the Green Stuff, my family had “the mold.” It mixes raspberry Jell-O, big round cherries and some kind of sherbet. It’s actually pretty good. It moves on your plate like a live squid, but it’s pretty good.

What I want to know is what the Pilgrims would think. According to history books, the original Thanksgiving meal probably consisted of, in part, cornmeal, fish, wild fowl and turkey. There was likely some rabbit, deer, squash, beans, nuts, onions and eggs.

No mention of a pimento loaf.

Or celery/raisin/cottage cheese bars.

Or cranberry sour cream.

Or yam patties. (I know we used that one already. I just like saying it.)

Real meaning of the holiday

So the question is, with no apparent link to the Pilgrims and Indians, where did the Thing You Eat Only On Thanksgiving come from?

Well, I have a theory. When we were kids, my grandmother made a dish at the holidays – including Thanksgiving – and she called it tzimmes. I have no idea if I’m spelling that right, but what could it matter? We had no idea what was in it. Some kind of sweet potato, prunes, carrots, cinnamon. Or maybe dried wood chips and dandelions? Who knows?

The point was that my uncle, her son, hated it. Hated it. Every time it was served, he went ballistic. “Not the tzimmes again! It’s awful! Get it away from me! Bleep!”

And we all cracked up.

She made it every year. Nobody objected – even though hardly anyone ate it. Here’s my theory: We all wanted to hear my uncle complain. What curse words would he use this time? It was funny. An expected highlight.

A tradition.

He would die of cancer, my uncle, much too young, in his early 40s. One of the last big family meals he attended, my grandmother made the tzimmes again. He was already sick. Not his old vibrant self. But when he saw that stuff, like a comic with a lobbed punch line, he rallied.

“Bleep! Not the bleepin’ tzimmes.”

We still laugh and cry at that story.

So celebrate your olives. Your yams. Your carrot loaves. Thanksgiving is about bringing us together in whatever way we can cherish each other.

Nobody said you have to swallow.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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