When the country was young, days of thanks were observed intermittently, sometimes in February, sometimes in October. George Washington, for example, called for a day of thanks on Thursday, November 26, 1789, and another in 1795.
Not until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in 1863 was the holiday institutionalized. This move was not greeted with universal warmth, inasmuch as the holiday celebrated Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and usurped the individual states' prerogative of setting their own holidays.
In the late 1800s, when Thanksgiving became an excuse for drinking and general rowdiness, the Daughters of the American Revolution revived the Pilgrim connection in an attempt to educate and uplift recent immigrants. And the mythical feast took off from there.
Today's Thanksgiving is devoted to family, food and football. Not necessarily in that order. And while we have no control over the quality on the gridiron or the appeal of the relatives, we can do something about the elements of the feast.
After the bird itself, there are only two critical elements to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner: the cranberry sauce and the pumpkin pie. Anything else -- mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, creamed onions, green beans or any other vegetable -- can be fudged. People put up with a lot of bad food over the holidays that would never be tolerated at any other time.
The appearance of cranberries and pumpkin pie, however, is almost exclusive to Thanksgiving dinner (unless you eat at my house, where they are likely to pop up at any time, even at breakfast), so it is imperative that they be special. Here are the recipes I have used for years. These can be prepared ahead of time, on Thanksgiving morning or the day before.
Ann and David's cranberry relishEven people who think they don't like cranberries will like this. Trust me.
In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup of superfine sugar with 1/4 cup of water and 3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. Boil over low heat until clear (about five minutes). Add 2 cups of cranberries; cook over moderately high heat until they've popped (you'll know what I mean when you hear it). Add 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind, then cool. This can be made a day or two ahead and refrigerated, but it's good at room temperature, too, so you can make it Thanksgiving morning as well.
This smells as good as it tastes, thanks to the cognac. Use the good stuff.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together 2 cups canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling!), 2/3 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, a pinch of ground nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup milk, 2 large eggs and 1/3 cup cognac. Pour into an unbaked pie shell and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes (metal pie plate) to 1 hour (ceramic or glass pie dish), or until a knife blade inserted in the center comes out clean. As the pie cools, cracks will appear in the surface. This is ugly but normal.
As a matter of principle, I shun prebasted turkeys. But whatever kind of turkey you are trying to roast, if you find yourself desperate on Thanksgiving morning, remember that the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which has fielded more than 2.4 million anxious phone calls since it set up shop in 1981, has a 48-member staff of professional home economists and nutritionists available at (800) 323-4848 to answer your questions. Holiday hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. CST, Monday-Friday before Thanksgiving; 8 a.m.-6 p.m. the weekend before Thanksgiving, Nov. 18-19; and 6 a.m.- 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Butterball also has a website, www.butterball.com, with recipes and tips. The site has served 5 million visitors since it launched in 1995. You can hear a real turkey gobbling online, too.