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A Thanksgiving conundrum: choosing between tradition and evolution

Melissa Yu prepares a Thanksgiving dinner that’s equal parts traditional and modern. Melissa K. Yu prepares pies at her home in the Bloor-Dovercourt area in Toronto, Ontario Friday, October 11, 2013. She adapts Thanksgiving through both Chinese traditions and broader multicultural and culinary options. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Gratitude is one of the simplest and noblest of human expressions. But Thanksgiving is complicated – at least at the table.

We don't have the Pilgrims who gave the United States its founding feast. Yet we've ended up with their menu, brought here in part by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, in part by 1950s American marketing campaigns that spilled across the unguarded culinary border.

It's a festive rulebook menu full of fixed obligations, a conservative approach to dinner that fits a definitive American moment.

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And that's where we're torn in our understanding of Thanksgiving's meaning. Can we update this feast to suit Canada's more flexible approach to diversity? Or is there something to be prized in the strictures of a turkey-powered holiday where mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce represent an almost spiritual understanding of community?

Melissa Yu considers Thanksgiving her favourite holiday, thanks in part to parents who came from Hong Kong and were determined that their children acquire Canadian holiday values – it didn't hurt that Thanksgiving's family-centred harvest feast resembled the Chinese mid-autumn lunar festival. "For me, being a first-generation Canadian, doing all the traditions right has been extremely important," says the 27-year-old project manager for the Evergreen environmental agency.

But what does it mean to be a traditionalist around Thanksgiving, a secular rite that in certain hands can seem more rule-bound than many old-time religions? "It's rigorous in one sense," says Ms. Yu, "but always open to change and reinterpretation."

She insists on cooking turkey for her Sunday family meal, a monstrous bird far from her parents' Cantonese culinary origins. But she marinates it with soy sauce. There's no cranberry sauce because her father finds it too tart. Steamed rice is an essential, but she also makes mashed potatoes, roast potatoes and sweet potatoes, with Chinese greens and curried butternut squash on the side. Pie is her favourite part of the meal – not just pumpkin but apple and pecan.

This year she bought an extra-large turkey so there would be abundant leftovers in the best Canadian Thanksgiving spirit. But instead of filling lunchtime sandwiches for the next week or two, her remains are dedicated to congee, the long-cooked Cantonese rice porridge that turns turkey into a ginger-flavoured breakfast treat. Meanwhile, she's also preparing a second dinner as part of the Share Thanksgiving program for newly arrived Canadians – centred on a vegetable pot pie, she says, if her guests turn out to be vegetarian.

Are our rituals more meaningful when we observe them in exactly the same way, or when they're allowed to evolve and adapt?

"We don't have a lot of set meals that resonate with a fairly broad community in Canada," says Elizabeth Baird, author of Classic Canadian Cooking. "Set ideas are important in maintaining a tradition. But then Thanksgiving is more adoptable than a very religious holiday because you can have a turkey and all the accoutrements without embracing Christianity. And then you can add your own personal touches to the stuffing."

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Autumn harvest festivals are grounded in the land more than in a faith. Thanksgiving has now become a way of withstanding modernity's rootlessness. "One of the strands of tradition is that we do it because we've always done it," says Michel Desjardins, a professor of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University. "It's human nature to want to feel a part of something bigger."

But sometimes by demanding the set Thanksgiving menu, we lose the feast's inclusiveness: Some people just don't like turkey.

"I find we get stuck in tradition and it ends up being an all-or-nothing thing," says Brett Plager, an artist, dancer and hair-colourist who's planned a weekend-long Thanksgiving feast with two friends at their Magog, Que., farmhouse. "Everyone gets stressed out because they feel they have to do too many things in a certain way. But if you go back in history, the reason people ate turkey and potatoes and corn at the first Thanksgiving is because that's all they had. They didn't have lasagna."

Mr. Plager's Thanksgiving weekend will be an all-Italian affair, because "for Italians, every dinner is like Thanksgiving." There will be lasagna and it will be filled with moose meat.

The most rigorous traditions rest on shaky foundations if you look closely enough. Both the date for the Canadian observance of Thanksgiving and the reasons for the celebration (cessation of cholera, King's coronation, First World War armistice) have varied over the years. When Parliament finally proclaimed a set date for Thanksgiving in 1957, thanks were officially expressed to "Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada is blessed." So this all-comers secular feast is more sacred than it lets on.

But even the Pilgrim survival menu that we appropriated as our feast is "a bizarre story," says Prof. Desjardins. "The Pilgrims hated feast days. They were persecuted in England because they felt set feasts weren't Christian. They'd be rolling in their graves with what we've done to their meal. We've reconstructed these origins so that they suit the point we're at now, and everyone's happy."

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Well, not everyone. Food writer Jennifer McLagan finds it easier to disappear to France, a place that will never comprehend our monster-sized turkeys and dessert pies made from spiced pumpkin. As a native Australian, she grew up with harvest festivals, but the duties of traditional Canadian Thanksgiving make no sense to her. "I feel like I can't get out of this tight triangle of turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie."

The simple French way of honouring a saint's day with a single cake pleases her immensely – she got married on the feast of St. Honoré so she could enjoy a connubial Gâteau St. Honoré. But she finds the full Thanksgiving menu excessive in its demands. "A meal is a good way to bring friends and family together around the table, but it's not good if there's a cook who's totally stressed out."

So instead she's spending this weekend with friends in a Provence farmhouse, "buying some paté here, some tapenade there, throwing a couple of chickens in the oven, breaking bread and enjoying it."

It sounds suspiciously like a reinvented Thanksgiving holiday – in all but name.

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