Thanksgiving means turkey in America. It’s so much a part of the Norman Rockwell vision of the holiday that millions of Americans, whatever their cultural origins, have come to accept it as an essential — like burgers and dogs on the Fourth of July and candy corn on Halloween. (Look at the cost of a Thanksgiving meal the year you were born.)
Our typical Thanksgiving menu today, turkey and all, is a fairly recent invention, though. The Pilgrims at that fabled “First Thanksgiving” back in 1621 probably ate fish and venison, among other things, but no turkey.
In her 1827 novel “Northwood,” New Hampshire-born writer Sarah Josepha Hale, known as “the Godmother of Thanksgiving,” offered what was probably the first detailed description of a Thanksgiving feast in something approximating the form we know it today. Her characters’ festive table was loaded with a leg of pork, a loin of mutton, a goose, a brace of ducklings, and a chicken pie, as well as “innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables.” But, she added, “The roasted turkey took precedence … being placed at the head of the table.”
Hale’s description is a good reminder that, as important as turkey may have become to Thanksgiving dinner, it is hardly the only celebratory main dish worth considering for the holiday table. For variety, or because you’re serving a particularly small (or particularly large) group, or even just for fun, it’s worth considering some delicious alternatives to the usual bird. (If you do decide to stick with tradition, however, here are 15 rules for thawing and roasting your Thanksgiving turkey.)
You won’t find recipes here, just photographs and brief descriptions, but an online search will return recipes galore.
> Average weight: 6-10 pounds
> Serves: 6-10
A capon is a kind of super-bird, typically larger than a roasting chicken and sometimes almost twice its size, with particularly delicious meat. Capon is a traditional centerpiece for Christmas feasts in Italy and France today, but would make a perfect Thanksgiving main dish here.
> Average weight: 4-7 pounds
> Serves: 2-5
Cooking for two or four and still want something festive? Duck is a good choice. There’s not as much meat on a duck, even proportionately, as there is on a turkey or plump chicken, but it’s red meat, with plenty of fat, and quite rich. Even a smaller duck can feed four if there are enough side dishes — and it would be more than enough for two. (If you have more guests coming, roast two or three ducks.)
> Average weight: 8-14 pounds
> Serves: 5-9
“Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,” goes a 19th-century English Christmas carol, and in many households in Europe and at least some in America, this bird has long been considered prime Yuletide fare. Its association with the later holiday aside, goose makes a good, if slightly offbeat, choice for the Thanksgiving table, too, because it’s big and rich and looks good roasted.
> Average weight: 1-1.25 pounds
> Serves: 1
A poussin is a small, young chicken, three to four weeks old. Less fatty than a full-grown chicken, it has mild, tender meat. One bird will feed one diner, so it’s a good choice for anyone who will be spending the holiday alone and who wants to put something festive on the table. For Thanksgiving dinners for two or more, roast as many poussins as you need, and think of all the big-bird carving that will be avoided.
> Average weight: 5-7 pounds
> Serves: 5-7
A roaster, or roasting chicken, is ideal â as its name indicates â for roasting. It’s smaller than a capon (and considerably cheaper, even pound for pound), but larger than the typical broiler or fryer, and looks nice as the centerpiece of a festive table. Roasters have more fat than smaller chickens, which helps keep them moist as they cook, and they usually have a bit more flavor.
Boneless ribeye roast
> Average weight: 6-16 pounds
> Serves: 8-32
A boneless ribeye roast is an impressive-looking and immensely satisfying choice for the Thanksgiving meal. How many people you can feed with this hefty cut of meat depends on how thick you slice it (it’s much easier to “carve” than any bird, of course). Most sources recommend allowing half to three-quarters of a pound of meat per person, though some guests might tackle a pound or more.
Crown roast of lamb
> Average weight: 4-6 pounds
> Serves: 4-8
This particularly festive-looking arrangement of meat is made by tying two or three racks of lamb — i.e., lamb chops still joined together — into a round shape with the bones protruding upwards so that the whole resembles a crown. (A typical lamb rack consists six to eight chops.) Ask your butcher to French the racks (removing meat and fat from the bone ends that will stick up) and to tie the racks together. The interior cavity of the “crown” calls for stuffing, though some cooks recommend adding it after the meat has been roasted. A crown roast looks beautiful in the middle of the table, and it’s very easy to carve (removing the string first).
> Average weight: 10-14 pounds (bone-in)
> Serves: 20-28
Ham is the traditional main course for Easter dinner but has also been showing up on Thanksgiving tables for a long time, especially in the South. A smoked, bone-in ham, glazed with something sweet — brown sugar, maple syrup, orange marmalade, pineapple sauce, etc. — and baked to a golden-brown is as imposing as a roast turkey. In fact, if you’re hosting a huge group, consider serving both turkey and ham in the interests of variety and abundance.
Roast rack of venison
> Average weight: 2.5-3 pounds
> Serves: 4-5
A Frenched venison rack, typically containing eight chops, is a handsome cut for the holiday table. Most of the venison sold in America today is farm-raised in New Zealand and, while rich in flavor, not as gamy as the wild-shot version.
> Average weight: 4-8 pounds
> Serves: 6-12
A whole roasted salmon, whether wild from the Pacific or farmed from the Atlantic (the latter tend to be larger) makes an unusual but impressive main dish for Thanksgiving — and while you probably won’t want cranberry sauce with it, most other traditional sides (mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, green bean casserole, etc.) match it well.
Baked stuffed whole fish
> Average weight 4-6 pounds
> Serves: 4-6
A good-sized whole fish — for instance, black sea bass or haddock — can be filled with a traditional Thanksgiving stuffing (just seasoned bread cubes; cornbread and bacon; oyster; etc.) and roasted. Unless they’re accomplished gourmets, some of your guests might be put off by a fish with the head and tail, though that makes for a more dramatic presentation.
> Average weight not applicable
> Serves: 2-12 depending on size
If you keep a vegetarian household or want to serve something special to the vegetarians at your Thanksgiving meal — or if you just want to add a flavorful vegetable option to the usual side dishes — a good option would be a savory pie with a vegetable-shortening crust, filled with winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, or other seasonal vegetables, alone or in combination.
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