Gobble, Gobble Up Thanksgiving

Courtesy: Rodnay Productions

Every second Monday in October, we celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada.  It’s a time for family and friends to get together and enjoy an abundance of delicious foods.  In my family, we take turns hosting this celebration, and this year it was mine.  In other words, I’ve been up to my neck in turkey.  Pre-event and post-event, Thanksgiving is a lot of work.  It is, however, worth it – good food, good company, and good times.

Thanksgiving is celebrated as a statutory holiday in all provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  Compared to our southern neighbors, it is a low-key celebration.  Canadians, however, are slowly starting to embrace the Thanksgiving bug.  According to the Turkey Farmers of Canada, Canadians bought 3.1 million whole turkeys for Thanksgiving last year.  I am, I admit, one of those 3.1 million.

Courtesy: Ivan Pais

An Interesting History

It might be surprising to hear that the origins of Thanksgiving come from Ancient Greece. Ancient Greeks celebrated Thesmophoria – a celebration dedicated to giving thanks for a bountiful harvest in honor of the Goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. When Hades, the God of the Underworld, abducted Persephone, her mother Demeter was upset and brought about winter and no crops. When Persephone returned, Demeter gave the gift of agriculture to the people.  The Ancient Greeks, believing that Demeter provided the harvests, honored her with offerings and ceremonies to guarantee a bountiful harvest every year in the autumn in late October. (Funny enough, Greeks no longer celebrate Thanksgiving.)

Following the Greeks’ footsteps, many European peasant societies celebrated fall harvests. With exploration, settlers from these societies brought these harvest celebrations with them. The most famous, of course, is the first American Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in 1621. Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast of thanks that set the stage for one of America’s most popular holidays.  

For Canadians, however, the history of Thanksgiving is a little different. Originally it was less about celebrating the harvest and more to thank God for keeping the early explorers safe. Historians believe that Martin Frobisher hosted the first Canadian Thanksgiving in 1578.  Following a strenuous journey through the Northwest Passage, Frobisher and his fellow mates celebrated to thank God for making it alive. Canada has never been as obsessed with the holidays as our American friends, and the holiday was not celebrated nationally until 1879. Since this official celebration, the actual date has moved several times. In 1957, the Canadian government officially declared it would occur on the second Monday in October, ensuring that it would not overlap with Remembrance Day on November 11th. 

The uniquely North American turkey, squash, and pumpkin – current Thanksgiving staples – were introduced in Nova Scotia in the 1750s and did not become common across Canada until the 1870s. Today, differences in the meal occur across Canada. In Newfoundland, the meal includes Jiggs’ dinner – a stew composed of salt meat, cabbage, turnips, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and split yellow peas. Nanaimo bars in British Columbia and butter tarts in Ontario are common dessert choices.

Food Makes Thanksgiving

No Thanksgiving would be complete without the food, regardless of the fare.  Top dishes for a traditional North American celebration include mashed potatoes, stuffing, bread rolls, cranberry sauce, and turkey.  Favorite sides include green beans, carrots, Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes (yams), squash, and corn.  Each of us probably has a family recipe handed down over the years for stuffing (I make my father’s chestnut stuffing) and a preferred method to prepare the turkey.  We also have our go-to choices for the sides we choose. 

For some variety, you can add some Thanksgiving foods from around the world.  How about some Thai turkey meatballs, or Swedish Hasselback potatoes?  Mexican mole chili?  Maybe take a more traditional English route and make turkey meatloaf with gravy?

If you are hosting the get-together, deciding what to make can be a little overwhelming.  Make your life easier with just a bit of planning – write down what you want for appetizers, the main dish, the sides, and desserts.  Then start preparing what you can a day or so ahead.

Remember, Thanksgiving is a day of thanks. Thanks for the food, for family and friends, and for the fun times together.  (But not thanks for all the work!)

It’s Turkey Time

Speaking of turkey, some argue that brining is the only way to make a turkey.  Not only does it keep the bird juicy as it absorbs extra moisture, but the salt also breaks down some of the turkey’s proteins, making it more tender.  Health advocates are a little less eager as the turkey is usually soaked in a salt-water solution leading to absorption of a lot of unnecessary sodium. (High sodium intake leads to high blood pressure and heart complications).  To them, I say, gobble-gobble.  Health guidelines recommend no more than 2300 mg (1 teaspoon) of salt a day.  Tests have found that brined poultry absorbs up to 1600 mg of sodium per pound – that’s only 0.32 teaspoons (Study: American Test Kitchen).  Unless you are planning to eat the whole bird, you are not at much risk. 

If you are a briner, it should be done the day before for at least 8 hours and up to 18 hours.  Longer brining may lead to a spongy texture.  For the brine solution, the salt-to-liquid ratio should be 1:16 (one cup of salt to 16 cups of liquid).  Added herbs and spices infuse additional flavors into the turkey.  Some argue to rinse the bird after brining, while others say resist the temptation as rinsing makes the skin less prone to browning.  Whether you rinse or not, it is most important to pat dry the turkey.  Drying ensures the classic, crispy crust.

When selecting the size of a turkey, a quick rule of thumb is one pound of meat for every adult (1½ if you want leftovers).  Do not overfill the cavity with stuffing.  Loosely packing it will allow the bird’s juices to work their magic and make an exceptional stuffing.

Courtesy: F. Tanuki

Around the World

Seventeen countries currently celebrate some form of Thanksgiving around the world. The United States is, of course, the biggest believer. Parades, football games, fireworks, and the world-famous Black Friday (and Cyber Monday) are an integral part of their Thanksgiving season. Canada celebrates much like the United States (we have even adopted their famous sales). There are, however, so many other notable celebrations around the world.

In China, they celebrate the Chung Chiu Moon Festival for three days. This celebration symbolizes the harmony between man and nature. A popular dish served during the festival is a sweet delicacy called the mooncake. In Vietnam, they also give thanks and honor their families on the same day with a celebration called Trung-Thu. South Korea’s Thanksgiving holiday is known as Chuseok. One of the most prominent foods served is songpyeon – a rice cake dough made from finely ground rice filled with sesame seeds, chestnuts, or red beans and shaped into a small ball. For South Korean people this holiday includes gift-giving. One of the most popular gifts – spam (yes, that meat in a can)!

Germans celebrate Erntedankfest or harvest thanksgiving festival. Their holiday does not have an official date and falls at different times across the country with no specific dish (but you can bet beer is on every menu).   Granada, a small island nation, has celebrated since 1983 on October 25th to commemorate the American intervention in Grenada.

Japan may be the second-largest fan of Thanksgiving. Their holiday is held on November 23rd and dates back to the seventh century (the first record found was from 678 AD). Originally called Niinamesai, it celebrated the welcome of the harvest season. Over time, the celebration switched to honoring workers rather than farmers. Today the celebration includes multiple festivities across the country. One such festivity is the Nagano Labor Festival which celebrates human rights, environment, and peace. Another is the Nagano Ebisuko Fireworks Festival, regarded as one of the most stunning fireworks displays drawing in over 400,000 visitors every year. 

Other countries have adopted the US version of Thanksgiving, including Norfolk Island. This island was popular with whaling ships from the United States. Some of these traders settled on the island in the late 1800s and celebrated Thanksgiving. The tradition focused on giving thanks to God.  

Liberia’s celebrations also stem directly from American customs. Founded as a colony of and for freed American slaves in 1822, Liberia celebrates Thanksgiving the first Thursday in November. Families got together and served poultry, green bean casseroles, and cassavas (a vegetable similar to potatoes) but with a spicier twist. 

The Netherlands celebrate Thanksgiving in much the same way as we do here in Canada and the United States. That makes sense as the Dutch pilgrims were also settlers of the new world. Same with the United Kingdom, although they have unofficially called their celebrations “Brits-giving”. Finally, Brazil adopted the celebration sometime in the 1940s when their ambassador visited the United States and witnessed the American celebrations. He came back and proposed Brazil create their version of the holiday called the Dia de Ação de Graças – a day of thanks with a religious element. They also substituted the cranberry sauce with jaboticaba, a grape tree fruit sauce.

Interesting Facts You May Not Know About Thanksgiving

Did you know that in 2020 the United States consumed 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving? They also generated $293 million worth of food waste during this holiday. Perhaps it’s time for them to start eating less – but that’s a conversation for another blog.

The heaviest turkey ever raised weighed 86 pounds – about the size of a large dog. The average size purchased is 15 pounds. Our fine feathered friends have been around for quite some time. Turkeys lived almost ten million years ago. They can also see in color, but not so well at night.

Did you know wild turkeys spend the night in trees, preferably oak trees? How about the five most popular ways to eat leftover turkey? If you are curious, they are in sandwiches, stews, chili, soups, or casseroles.

Whatever you did on Thanksgiving, I hope it was a happy one! I hope you enjoyed the day with family and friends. I hope you enjoyed some great food and fun times. We certainly have not had much to celebrate since the pandemic has started. So, let’s take a moment to give thanks for even the little things giving us joy every day – even if that is simply a stuffed turkey.

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