The High & the Low

Beyond the Butterball

An argument for ditching the Turkey Day turkey

Illustration: Illustration by Michael Witte

One of my more memorable Thanksgiving midday meals was eaten in my parents’ kitchen, standing up. I’d cooked hamburgers for my father, my husband, and me, and we ate them hanging over the counter because the juices from the meat had mingled (in an entirely delicious way) with the homemade mayo I’d spread on the toasted buns (actually English muffins) and were dripping (not unpleasantly) down our chins. It was memorable mainly because it did not involve turkey, or even turkey burgers, but also because the whole enterprise took less than fifteen minutes and did not require a single Pyrex dish. I should admit, here, that we’d been invited to a festive sit-down Thanksgiving dinner at someone else’s house, which freed us up to invent our own lunch, so we didn’t actually boycott the whole turkey-and-dressing-and-sweet-potato extravaganza. But I’ve thought more than once about how great it would be if, at least occasionally, on the fourth Thursday of November I could ditch the turkey altogether and give thanks that the pilgrims came to America so that the whole nation could later savor something as fine as a perfectly cooked burger on a bun (preferably accompanied by a nice red burgundy).

That kitchen lunch was an accident of sorts, but a couple of years ago I purposely veered off the well-trodden Turkey Day path, at least a little, at an outdoor Thanksgiving lunch on my former New Orleans lawn. Inspired by a piece I’d researched about the origins of the Pilgrims’ first feast back in 1621, I decided to stage one based—very loosely, as it turns out—on their menu. This is not easy. The Plymouth settlers had no flour, very little sugar, and no potatoes. We know from a couple of surviving accounts that they did have five deer, given to them by the very nice Wampanoag Indians who also joined them at the table (this was clearly before our native hosts knew what really, really bad guests—Thanksgiving or otherwise—future waves of settlers would turn out to be), the corn the Indians taught them to grow, and “the excellent seafish” that abounded in the nearby waters, including clams, cod, and lobster. The governor had sent a small party out “fowling” for the occasion, so there were ducks to be sure, but there is no evidence a turkey was actually served.

For our feast, we caved and had two turkeys, both wild and domestic, just in case, but we also grilled some oysters along with sausages made of both venison and duck. We put more oysters in the cornbread dressing and had another dressing made of shrimp and mirlitons, but then, you know, various guests insisted on bringing staples like yeast rolls and jellied cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes with the dread marshmallows on top and pies, including pumpkin, which I hate more than pretty much anything in the world. This is always a problem—at one point in the menu planning, no matter how inventive you try to get, Thanksgiving ends up being a forced march down the assorted memory lanes of way too many people. Fortunately, we had some more useful stuff the pilgrims didn’t have, such as my friend Elizabeth’s frozen Red Roosters (our very own Thanksgiving tradition composed of cranberry juice, orange juice, and vodka). Plus, we were dressed, nominally, in costume, which tends to lighten things up. I had on a full-blown Indian headdress, made of the lovely brown and white feathers from the underbelly of a peacock, and my friend Joan Griswold, the talented painter, whipped up an entire black-and-white pilgrim’s getup with her trusty sewing machine. Her husband (and my colleague), Roy Blount, Jr., looked extremely fetching in a headpiece he made by tying a fake cornucopia found at the grocery store to an ancient Saints visor with scruffy artificial white hair on the top.

I love a theme, and I like turkey just fine. But you do have to wonder why the pilgrims’ immediate descendants didn’t pick up on the yummy lobster aspect of the proceedings, say, or at least the duck. (I once served Scott Peacock’s duck stuffed with red rice and oyster dressing, which seems to me a slightly more realistic homage.) I also started wondering what would have happened if the first settlers had landed somewhere else. If they’d somehow made it up the mouth of the Mississippi to the Delta, where I was born, for example, we might well be eating bear on our national holiday. Well into the nineteenth century, the still sparsely inhabited Delta was so chock-full of the furry creatures that the famed African American hunting guide Holt Collier was said to have shot three thousand alone. Collier served as Theodore Roosevelt’s guide when the president came for the hunt of 1902—a now famous trip that resulted in the “teddy bear.” Roosevelt was on a lunch break and unable to take the shot when Collier ran the bear across the clearing. So to protect his dogs the guide was forced to tie the bear to a tree. When the president returned, he refused to shoot the tethered animal, an act that was later captured in a cartoon, which in turn led to the stuffed toy. Determined to get a legitimate bear, Roosevelt came back five years later, a trip that resulted (according to Collier’s biographer, Minor Buchanan) in “three bears, six deer, one wild turkey, twelve squirrels, one duck, one opossum, and one wildcat.” The party ate everything but the wildcat, and I guess we should all be grateful that the pilgrims didn’t manage to run across a possum or some squirrels.

Bears are currently endangered in Mississippi but they still find their way to the Delta. Last spring when the river was in flood stage a rather large specimen was found up a tree in downtown Greenville. I’ve not had the pleasure of dining on one, but apparently they were once a sought-after food source. In a piece he wrote on bear hunting for Delta Magazine, my friend Hank Burdine reported that Collier got twenty-three dollars for a dressed deer, but up to sixty dollars for a bear. His clientele primarily consisted of men in frontier camps who’d turned up to build the levees or railroads or both, but plenty of other folks were on the bears’ trail. After a Confederate colonel named Robert Bobo rebuilt his farm near Clarksdale, he still managed to spend most of his time in the swamps, where during a three-month period in 1887 he reported killing 304 bears, 54 deer, and 9 panthers. Burdine cites a journal written by Bobo’s daughter-in-law in which she recalls the “festive mood in their setting out for the wild country, with the string of four-mule wagons, the dozens of dogs racing here and there, and the hunters themselves, mounted on their fine-spirited horses. The men were gone for weeks and lived on bear steaks and stew.”

The meat itself, she says, was “quite coarse and tough, but good.” I’m not convinced, but either way, that expedition sounds like a hell of a lot more fun than the exploits of the long-suffering pilgrims. But then they were not a people known for their fun-loving ways or for their way around a kitchen either, even when they had a bit more to work with. In David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, a terrific account of the folkways of four groups that came over from England, he writes: “Among both high-born and humble folk, eating was a more sensual experience in Virginia than in Massachusetts. There was nothing in the Chesapeake colonies to equal the relentless austerity of New England’s ‘canonical dish’ of cold baked beans.” No kidding. By that time (the eighteenth century), we were busy munching on far more lavish renditions of that first Thanksgiving fowl. Recipes from the era include one for a duck fricassee made with pickled oysters, a bottle of claret, copious amounts of butter and egg yolks, and a quarter pound of bacon. I might well make that this year. Or maybe some dark venison chili followed by a big plate of fried catfish and hush puppies. We should be most thankful for the bounty just outside our door, after all, and when Roosevelt made yet another visit to Mississippi, in 1911, the local folks were smart enough to know that. The luncheon in honor of the former president kicked off with mint juleps and included okra gumbo with beaten biscuits, deviled crab, and “Fried Milk Fed Chicken, Southern Style” with grilled sweet potatoes.

Man. Mint juleps and fried chicken. That’s a Thanksgiving menu that might distract even the most devout turkey diehards.