Every year, on a Monday in late November, the Houston Chronicle publishes its annual pre-Thanksgiving Food section and in doing so, unleashes some of the year's worst recipes on unsuspecting, holiday-addled readers. Last year the atrocities included a microwaved whole turkey; two different green-bean casseroles made with cans of cream of mushroom soup; a cake that required two bottles of red food coloring; and three -- count 'em, three! -- "salads," or molded concoctions that involve fruit-flavored gelatin.
I read the Watergate Salad recipe to a friend: Mix a box of pistachio pudding mix with a can of pineapple, then stir in pecans, miniature marshmallows and a thawed container of whipped topping. "Watergate," he cracked. "Is that because it's a crime?"
I haven't yet seen the 1999 edition -- my deadline fell too early -- so I can't be absolutely sure that it'll contain as many appalling recipes. But it seems a safe bet.
Since 1986 or so, Food editor Ann Criswell has run the same Thanksgiving food-editor's-favorites column, with only the tiniest of changes made in the last decade. According to the Chronicle's on-line archives, from 1988 through '91, the column ran with an editor's note explaining that it was reprinted by request. But since then -- shades of Ann Landers! -- it's run without a note, presented as if it were brand-new.
The weird thing is, the column was awful the first time around. It begins, dully, "The food editor's favorite Thanksgiving dinner is a two-day project that blends some convenience foods and some foods made from scratch." Two paragraphs later, Criswell shifts abruptly into first person and seems to contradict that first statement: "My favorite holiday dinner is a potluck Thanksgiving buffet -- it's a great way to enjoy the company of friends and family without exhausting the hostess of the feast."
She writes that she sticks mostly to the holiday dishes of her East Texas childhood, adding "new traditions" such as (argh!) Stouffer's frozen spinach soufflé, and dumping "dishes that fell from favor because of changing lifestyles." Among the dishes fallen from grace, she lists cranberry sauce and pecan pies -- news, no doubt, to many Texas foodies.
Most amazing of all, though, Criswell writes: "I refuse to give up gelatin salad at Thanksgiving -- even if I and my geriatric friends are the only ones who eat it." The sentence shows a glimmer of self-awareness: When she first wrote that sentence nearly a decade ago, she knew that Jell-O salads were even then food for fogies, wiggling, jiggling material for jokes, the dessert of choice in fictional towns-that-time-forgot like Lake Wobegone and Greater Tuna.
In fact, in 1990 she even wrote a story headlined "Tuna Christmas dinner familiar," in which she gleefully recounted the play's broad jokes: the Peace on Earth weapons sale at Didi's Used Guns and Weapons Shop; the polyester outfits, the orthopedic shoes, the bouffant hairdos; the admiration inspired by a particularly ornate church-supper Jell-O mold. "Oh, look at that one," says a character. "Isn't that pretty? Shaped like a Longhorn steer -- now what did she use to make the hoofs?" At the end of that story, Criswell offered recipes for precisely the kind of food you'd find at that church supper. Cherry Coke Salad started out preposterous -- a mix, as the name implies, of Coca-Cola and Jell-O; but Criswell offered an even funnier variation that included canned pineapple, flaked coconut and -- drum roll, please -- diced celery.
Last Thanksgiving that variation, complete with celery, was the very first recipe printed in the section. Only this time, it didn't seem to be a joke. Criswell actually likes the stuff -- and she's urging us all to make it at home.
Maybe, like me, you're all too familiar with Jell-O salads and that green-bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup. When this kind of food is produced by your well-meaning grandma or ditzy great aunt, you eat it politely, in the spirit in which it's offered, and maybe even enjoy it. Love is a wonderful thing.
But Thanksgiving food is supposed to be a labor of love, not a test of it. Of all holidays, this one offers a cook a chance to shine, a chance to feed loved ones the best food of the year. And likewise, it offers food writers a chance to take center stage, to strut their best stuff before their most rapt audience of the year.
Obviously, though, that's not how Criswell sees the holiday. In that endlessly repeated essay, perhaps the most revealing line isn't the one about the gelatin salads, but the one about the Thanksgiving potluck. They key phrase in her ode to the putluck is "without exhausting the hostess." Cooking, to Criswell, is a tiresome activity forced upon an unwilling woman -- and Stouffer's frozen soufflé offers our heroine an escape from that bondage.
That worldview would have seemed more apt in 1966, when Criswell began editing the Chronicle's food section. Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique three years before, but the feminist movement hadn't yet gotten off the ground. TV and print ads still showed homemakers delighted by the latest scientific breakthroughs in vacuuming, or by the most effective product to remove ring around the collar. Housewives (they weren't yet "homemakers") were a captive consumer audience, and newspapers' "women's pages" overflowed not only with ads, but with thinly disguised advice and recipes from companies with products to sell.
Obviously the world has changed, and cooking along with it. For the generations of women who followed Criswell into the workplace, cooking is a choice -- and it's a choice available now to men. Some of us never do more than nuke a Lean Cuisine. Others, male and female, enjoy piddling with knives and cutting boards; we're the ones who own lemon zesters and can happily debate the theologies of gumbo (filé or roux?), pie crust (lard or Crisco?) and popovers (preheat or cold oven?).
Other newspapers have managed to keep their food offerings current, to imagine their readers as something more than female consumers of grocery products. These papers serve both men and women, both cooks and those who only read about cooking. Food coverage stops being a lame-brained, product-driven ghetto and becomes, instead, a place for cultural reporting -- with recipes.
Last week, for instance, The New York Times described a Thanksgiving dinner prepared by Alice Waters, the culinary saint who in the '70s led California to embrace fresh, organic produce. The meal's many highlights included wine made by Waters's friends in Napa; four kinds of West Coast oysters; a tray of gorgeous raw vegetables; chanterelle stuffing; and a free-range turkey, soaked in brine, then spit-roasted over an open flame. Dessert was a cranberry upside-down cake. Everything, including the cranberries, was organic.
Whether you cook or not, it's interesting to read about that meal, and to consider the careful way that it combines pleasure and cooking skills, ideology and nutrition. Home cooks might try to reproduce that mixture, even if they're intimidated by Waters's demanding turkey recipe. (Her stewed fennel, at least, looks easy.)
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The Chronicle Food section, on the other hand, does little to attract either cooks or non-cooks. Ideology in food? Never heard of it. The science behind a technique, say, how flour binds a white sauce? You won't see it here. A passionate embrace of whole grains and local produce? The issues raised by genetically engineered tomatoes? The cultural significance of Indian spices? The sad state of grocery-store lettuce?
You won't read about it in the Chronicle. What you will read about are products: at best, authors promoting their cookbooks; at worst, a celebration of something like Canned Food Month. That's a real example from February. In her story, Criswell relayed the Canned Food Alliance's praise of food in you-know-whats, and even promoted the marketing group's recipe contest. Among the recipes that followed the story was one called "Food Editor's Ten-Can Soup," created by Criswell herself.
By offering recipes full of prepackaged shortcuts -- boxes and cans and mixes, rather than flour and salt and fresh vegetables -- Criswell does little to help home cooks improve their skills. Often, those shortcuts don't even save much time. Why use Pioneer mix to make the cornbread for your stuffing, as Criswell suggests year after year, when it's child's play to make cornbread from scratch? I understand why Pioneer would recommend its product; I don't understand why Criswell does.
Every Monday before Thanksgiving, it has become my own, private tradition to grow furious with the Chronicle, to meditate on the ways that it lets us Food readers down. We turn to the section hoping to learn to produce good home-cooked food; Criswell teaches us, instead, to consume highly processed grocery-store products. We seek sustenance. She gives us Jell-O.