Even the Best

You have all heard the story of the first Thanksgiving, so there is, thankfully, no reason to go into it here. It was a great story once – maybe it still is – but we have heard it and its reiterations again and again. There is the Religious Version, blessing following tribulation and thanksgiving to God; there is the Patriotic Version, in which the founding of our national holiday entwines with the founding of America itself.

There is the Cheery Version, such as you might read in a brightly-colored children’s book, and the Downer Version, emphasizing that half of them were dead already and there were still hard winters to come. There are those who paint the Pilgrims as brave refugees of persecution, bequeathing a godly heritage, and those who paint them as incipient witch-burners and Indian-killers, and then along come the Fact-checkers to point out the Pilgrims didn’t really wear those hats, or eat pumpkin pie, and Thanksgiving began with Abraham Lincoln, you know …

… and finally you just want to eat your turkey without worrying about what the Pilgrims ate, or even why they ate it.

Even the best stories, with an expansive range of interpretations and a multiplicity of retellings, can grow stale. In fiction, what recurs are not whole stories but certain elements – the romance, the quest, the tropeschosen hero, the mentor, rags-to-riches and David against Goliath. In a good mood, we call these tropes or archetypes; in a less generous mood, stereotypes or cliches.

Although I know how sheer repetition can wear a thing down to banality and even irritation, I tend to be sympathetic toward books accused of cliched plots or overdone tropes. When the critics say, with worldly ennui, “It’s been done before,” I think: Of course it’s been done before. Everything’s been done before. All the original stories were discovered by Adam and Eve, and the rest of us just experiment with variations on a theme.

In the matter of tropes, readers must again mark the line between “a bad book” and “a book I dislike.” Most tropes – even most cliches – are perfectly decent in themselves. A portal into another world is a wonderful idea; if I’m tired of it, that probably says more about me than about the trope. I’ve complained about the predictability of romance novels (Are they going to fall in love even though they seem to hate each other? Yes, they are! And now they have problems? Didn’t see that one coming). But humanity must tell love stories, and the characters will fall in love and they will have problems, and I have no quarrel with the genre. I just pass by.

The ridiculed tropes of speculative fiction, such as the world-saving quest and the chosen hero, have – even as romance does – deep roots in the real experiences and even realer dreams of humanity. Tropes do as a rule. Often, tropes are not enjoyed, whether because the reader has lost (or never acquired) the taste for it or because the writer has forgotten that even when it is the same theme, it should still be a different variation. But the mere presence of a trope is rarely to be criticized.

So remember that, for all the times it’s been told, the story of the first Thanksgiving truly is a good one. And if anyone tells you that the Pilgrims didn’t have potatoes, tell them that what really matters is that the Pilgrims didn’t have Black Friday sales, either.

From the Army Manual to the Gilded Age

While looking for old Thanksgiving recipes, I came across a page of Thanksgiving Recipes From America’s Past. There are forty-one recipes in all; here’s the highlight reel.

The Manual for Army Cooks, published in 1916 by the Government Printing Office, contained a recipe for pumpkin pie – or, rather, 12-15 pumpkin pies. (First ingredient: 25 pounds pumpkin.) In 1941 the Manual of Mess Management had a recipe for cooking 70 pounds of turkey.

There are several “Recipes From a ‘Gilded Age’.” The most eye-catching of these is called Terrapin, a la Gastronome. If you are like me, you would suspect that a “terrapin” is some sort of animal. This is immediately confirmed by the recipe, which begins, “Take live terrapin, and blanch them in boiling water for two minutes. Remove the skin from the feet …”

Terrapin, I find in the Dictionary, is a kind of turtle. Yes, they ate turtles for Thanksgiving, garnished with Espagnole sauce, consommĂ©, Parisian sauce, half a glassful of Maderia wine, and a “good bouquet”. And that is why they called it the Gilded Age.

Another recipe from the Gilded Age is Lalla Rookh Punch. Initially it looks good, but it goes on through sieves and ice cream tubs and broken ice mixed with rock-salt, and in the end you should not attempt it unless you have a kitchen staff and only scant mercy on them.

In 1883 Practical Housekeeping published a recipe for English Roast Turkey, which would be an ironic dish for Thanksgiving Day. But the herbs suggested for it are appealing, and I’m with them until this sentence: “Garnish with fried oysters, and serve with celery-sauce and stewed gooseberries.”

Fried oysters are probably good, but celery is a purposeless vegetable not meant for humans to eat, except in extreme circumstances such as famines or diets. And I don’t really know what stewed gooseberries are.

There is also a recipe for a French-style turkey – which may be more ironic yet. It begins: “Choose a small fat turkey; draw, singe and clean it well, extracting all the pin feathers; break the breast-bone, remove it and fill the breast with a bread dressing; sew up with the skin underneath.”

This year, I am thankful for supermarkets.

A recipe for Cranberry Tart, dated 1796, shows touching faith in humanity by giving these instructions: “Stewed, strained and sweetened, put into paste No. 9, and baked gently.”

Then they describe “paste No. 9”. And that’s it.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may God give you even more to be thankful for.

And please, leave the poor terrapin alone.