Keeping Thanksgiving a local tradition

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 11/18/10]

Thanksgiving is not an Italian holiday. There are no recipes for turkey pizzaiola or sweet potato parmigiana (or at least there shouldn’t be).

Sure, you can tweak things here and there — add a little sweet Italian sausage to the stuffing, whip some mascarpone into the mashed potatoes, put garlic in everything — but for the most part, it’s a day grounded in American traditions.

Last year, I wrote about my family’s Christmas cooking traditions, which are deeply rooted in Italian customs — fish, eggplant, more fish, pasta, and various other delicacies created from parts of animals you probably would prefer remain a family secret.

This year, I wanted to do the same for Thanksgiving, but for the ‍Sabatasos, it’s a fairly mundane outing. Like everyone else, we do all the greatest hits: turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin pie — a starch-heavy grab bag of roasted, mashed and pureed Americana.

Mix that with the tryptophan from the turkey and some red wine, and it’s no wonder the living room looks like Jonestown by 5:15 p.m.

That’s not to say the food isn’t good — believe me, it is — it just lacks the flair of Christmas, and with the exception of my grandmother’s sage mashed potato stuffing, it’s also lacking in tradition.

So I decided to ask around.

It seems that for most families (at least the ones I spoke with), Thanksgiving is pretty much by the book — same menu, same routine right down to the post-feast comas.

One interesting tradition that popped up with people I spoke with was “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie’s talking blues opus, which details the events of a particularly comical Thanksgiving Day. I first encountered the song when I was a DJ at WEBK (the pre-Cat Country 105.3), where it was station tradition to play all 18 minutes 34 seconds of it every Thanksgiving afternoon.

In the past, my family has tried to create some traditions, but they’ve never taken hold. One year we attempted a Kennedy-style pre-meal football game replete with extra-stiff Bloody Marys. Things devolved quickly as the teams pitted family against in-laws and the Blood Marys got stiffer.

Another year, when I was much younger, we had a destination Thanksgiving in Hawaii. This was by far the most memorable one to date, but far too pricey to pull off annually. Plus, a Vermonter celebrating Thanksgiving in a warm climate just feels un-American somehow.

For the last couple years, I’ve been pushing my own tradition: a localvore Thanksgiving. It’s a project my organization, Sustainable Rutland, has been promoting for three years now.

The challenge is to source as many of the ingredients for your meal as possible from within 100 miles of where you live. Given all that is available here in the Rutland area, it’s hardly a challenge at all.

Fortunately, this doesn’t change the menu at all. And that’s a good thing because, despite being fairly run-of-the-mill, our Turkey Day dishes have become sacrosanct — a lesson my mother learned one year when, in an effort to provide a lighter offering, she went rogue and left some of the starchier sides off the table.

True, my new tradition is a little self-serving, but even if it weren’t my job to get people to take the challenge , I really do love the idea.

Thanksgiving should be localvore. Certainly, the first one was. But beyond the popular myth, Thanksgiving should be localvore. Certainly, the first one was. But beyond the popular myth, Thanksgiving is a celebration of the harvest, of the bounty of the land. S o it makes sense that we should eat what is produced on the land beneath our feet, not the land 2,000 miles away.

So as I prepare for another Turkey Day, I actually do find myself getting excited about the meal.

The challenge of sourcing locally makes it more interesting. Trips to the Winter Farmers’ Market now become scavenger hunts for ingredients.

And beyond the thrill of the hunt, a localvore Thanksgiving also gives a boost to the local economy by supporting local farmers, growers and producers.

It’s another way of giving thanks and showing appreciation for the bounty we have right in our back yard.

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