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A critic's Thanksgiving

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Using the tools of the cultural critic during the holiday

Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching. It's that wonderful time of year when family and friends gather together in an effort to celebrate one another and express our respective gratitude for the good things in our lives.

But while there are a lot of wonderful things about this holiday, there are also plenty of potential pitfalls lurking in every nook and cranberry. Thanksgiving is a time when our emotions can run high and things can sometimes spiral in directions we don't expect.

So what to do when some aspect of Thanksgiving surprises you in a less than ideal manner? View it with a critic's eye.

That might sound counterproductive; isn't criticism the last thing you want to dish out as you're dishing out the mashed potatoes? But this isn't about being critical (although that's part of it); rather, it's about finding ways to use the language of the critic to navigate your way through any and all tricky Thanksgiving terrain.


Settling in

So you're showing up to wherever it is that Thanksgiving is happening. Maybe you're traveling a distance to get together with family, maybe you're just meeting up with a few friends for a Friendsgiving celebration heck, maybe you're hosting.

Regardless, the odds are good that you're going to be part of a group that doesn't necessarily assemble in quite this form very often. This means that you're going to find yourself searching for topics of conversation. And while chatting about the weather is usually pretty easy, once that 30-second stretch is over, you're left with a whole lot of nothing.

The key to critic-style small talk is to allow for a degree of ambiguity. If you review a movie, you're obviously not going to spoil important plot points; instead, you're going to keep it vague. You can make your feelings clear without delving into too much specificity.

For instance, there's a good chance that at least one person is going to use sports as their small talk comfort zone. Sports are a cultural universal; they've become a shorthand for talking without REALLY talking. Of course, this is no problem if you're a sports fan, but even if you're not, you can still engage. Genial agreement works best; if you can express feelings about a particular sport or player even brief and undefined ones you'll be good.

Seriously just toss out the occasional 'How about those Patriots?' or 'That Tom Brady is something, huh?' and you'll be good. Make it a question and your cousin or uncle or niece or whoever can pontificate for a while, carrying the conversational load while still allowing you to appear interested.

This is a tactic that will work with just about any topic at hand. Even if you don't know, if you let others be knowledgeable, your small talk will be successful. Obviously, if you're feeling ebullient or effusive in any way, don't be afraid to help out your fellow celebrants by shouldering the load yourself every once in a while.

(Note: This does not apply to political discussion. All you can reasonably hope for there is a degree of civility unless you can avoid it altogether, but we all know how holiday gatherings work.)


So you've managed to have at least a brief snippet of conversation with everyone and largely avoided coming off as a jerk. Congratulations!

However, now we're arriving at dinner. This can be tricky too, albeit in a very different way.

See, honesty is not always the best policy when it comes to talking about Thanksgiving dinner. Your default setting should be squarely on 'Nice.' Someone has likely invested a lot of their time and effort into putting this meal together everything you say should be aimed at expressing your gratitude for that time and effort spent.

Unfortunately, time and effort do not always equal good. There's a very real chance that your family/friends/whoever are not actually good at cooking particularly foods that they have relatively little experience with outside the holiday season. You might well find yourself faced with food that is not only not-good, but perhaps even actively bad.

What do you do?

Again this is where the language of the critic comes in very handy. Lies can be easily detectable in circumstances like this; when it comes to food, most of us are fairly transparent with regards to our true feelings. However, there are ways to express your thoughts that are honest without being hurtful. Is it disingenuous? Perhaps, but there's a time for harshness and a time for couching Thanksgiving is the latter in all senses of the word.

We'll start with the weird stuff. You all know what I mean unless this is the same exact group with whom you've been Thanksgivinging for years, there's going to be something unexpected included among the foodstuffs. Every family has their own traditional dish, one that seems perfectly natural to them but seems borderline bizarre to an outsider.

Try it. Whatever it is. Take a piece or a scoopful or whatever and put it on your plate. Don't feel obligated to take a lot, but take some. Give it a shot. Odds are that it's going to be a bit off-putting at best and outright unpleasant at worst, but you need to give it a go. When asked and you WILL be asked you're going to want to use words like 'interesting' and 'surprising.' Make it clear that you've never had it before but welcome the new experience. Express your pleasure in the notion of participating in this culinary tradition.

But even the classics can go awry. Be ready to accentuate the positive if something isn't quite up to snuff. The squash isn't over-buttered; it's rich. The mashed potatoes aren't lumpy; they're rustic. The green beans aren't stringy, they're robust. The peas aren't bland, they're traditional. The cranberries aren'tah, who are we kidding? Cranberry sauce, fresh or canned, whatever - it doesn't matter what you say about cranberries. Cranberries are tough and they don't give a crap what you have to say about them.

And then there's the turkey. There are a LOT of things that can go wrong with a turkey; there's a reason that Butterball sets up a literal hotline every year to walk people through their turkey experience. Still, no matter how much advice you might get from some turkey tech in a headset, there's always a chance that things go sideways on you. It's a kajillion-hour process where any tiny deviation could make the difference between deliciousness and disaster.

For you, however, there's no such thing as a disaster. You are going to make clear how much you enjoyed that turkey. Undercooked, overcooked, frozen solid you WILL make your host and/or hostess feel good about the bird that they have laid before you.

A quick primer:

Overdone; dry = Comment on the quality of the cook on the bird; compare it to a past meal. Mention your dislike for an underdone bird.

Underdone = Hunt up a non-pink piece, then compliment the juiciness of the meat. Mention your dislike for an overdone bird.

Bland = Talk about how refreshing it is for someone to let the flavor of the bird speak for itself. Ask where the turkey came from and respond accordingly. If it came from the supermarket, say you couldn't even tell. If it came from a farm/farmers market, say you totally could tell.

Over-seasoned = Ask questions about herbs and spices; be specific. Say things like 'Do I taste X?' Even if you don't actually taste X. They'll tell you what you do taste.

And of course, dessert. This is likely your free pass if you're put off by your options, you can simply claim that you overdid during the meal proper. Warm fuzzies for the chef AND you don't have to eat a slice of that thing whose claim of pumpkin pie status is suspect at best.


There are a number of ways to handle this. Ideally, you've got enough people in your cohort who agree on what happens now, whether it's falling asleep in front of a football game or falling asleep in front of a holiday movie or falling asleep in front ofsomething. Easy enough to handle even if you aren't the least bit interested in what you're looking at it's sleepytime, after all. Mutter the occasional gleaned observation and you'll be fine.

But there are plenty of folks out there with post-dinner traditions as well. Unless you've thought ahead and planted the seed of the idea that you have to go at a certain time, you're probably going to have to participate in whatever that tradition might be. Just grin and bear it. If it's your tradition, wellyou know the drill. If you're a relatively new addition to the fold, the best move is to play the surprise card again your family never does stuff like this at their Thanksgiving celebrations and isn't it fun to take part in someone else's holiday tradition and jump in.

(Note: Try not to be overly enthusiastic if you're not feeling it. Forced joviality is the worst and everyone is going to know that you're faking it. Charmingly befuddled is a good look think mid-1990s Hugh Grant without the accent and you're in the neighborhood. Keep any exasperation under wraps and you'll be fine.)

Goodbyes can be short and sweet. If you're offered a plate of leftovers, take it. Pick a dish that you genuinely liked there will assuredly be at least one and compliment it one more time. Offer the sports-minded folks one more 'Go [insert sports team here]!' for good measure.

Don't forget to say thank you. And keep saying it. It might feel like too much, but don't be afraid to go one or two beyond the line where it starts to seem weird. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, and whether you're at the home of your parents, your friends, the family of a significant other or whatever, you need to appreciate the efforts that have been put forth.

If you're the host, take each goodbye graciously; try to remember to mention what each guest might have brought (but don't feel like you have to be effusive in your praise; just remembering their dish will be enough at this point in the festivities).

Seriously be thankful above all else.


The language and the attitude of the critic can go a long way toward ensuring that no matter how weird or disaster-laden this Thanksgiving experience might be, you will help those around you have the best possible time.


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