Dear Food Police: Lay Off Thanksgiving!

I have a message for all those magazines and web sites pedaling "healthy" Thanksgiving recipes: Stuff it

The radio station B101 launched its annual seasonal switch to all Christmas music (and yes, it’s Christmas music, not holiday music, so don’t even start with me on all of that nonsense) last week, and like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the lamentations began: Why was Thanksgiving once again being short-shifted? Where was the veneration due the holiday dedicated to a national pause for gratitude and reflection? Why do we always have to have mistletoe and holly shoved down our throats starting at Halloween?

It’s pointless, of course—as long as American commerce relies on seasonal shopping, there will be a forceful segment of American commerce that will continue to push the boundary of when that season kicks off—but it got me thinking about Thanksgiving and all it is due. It may, in fact, be the most uniquely American holiday we have (other nations set aside days for remembering their war dead and their past leaders, but few set aside a day for the lone purpose of saying “thanks”), a much-needed reminder that people with far harsher lives than ours somehow managed to forge a national identity together. It’s nice to remember that.

But truly, Thanksgiving has devolved a bit from that lofty ideal. While it’s still about being thankful and surrounded by family and friends, at its core it’s now about food (and, to a lesser extent, football). Being Americans, a people who love to constantly reinvent themselves and their traditions, turkey is no longer the only game in town when it comes to the holiday feast (one of my closest friends is having a pork roast), but the one constant in Thanksgivings going back and back and back is that it’s really the one day of the year when you’re supposed to get a free pass to stuff yourself silly and not feel guilty about it.

Sigh. Until now, of course. It was, perhaps, inevitable that the fitness craze would forcibly encroach upon Thanksgiving, steadily chipping away at all the trimmings until, presumably, we’re all left eating tofurkey (is that even a real thing? And if it is, can someone please make sure I never see it?) with a side of wet sand. Magazines and web sites (including, ahem, Philly Mag’s own BeWellPhilly) are now rife with “healthy Thanksgiving meals” they promise are just as yummy as the ones of old, but so much better for you. After all, who needs grandma’s doughy stuffing when you can have apple salad with figs and almonds (the Mayo Clinic) or vegan pear tart (Food Network)?

I do. Look, as someone who has struggled with his weight since turning 30 (it literally all went downhill from there), no one knows better that one cannot exist on comfort food alone. But must we now relegate every single day of our lives to the relentless pursuit of low cholesterol and preparation for the local marathon? Can we not have one day when we all agree that a big, gravy-laden meal is fun, delicious, and, in fact, warranted, and that eating a carbohydrate should not be grounds for social shunning?

Like most of us, my best Thanksgiving memories revolve around the food. When I was a child we almost always went to my grandmother’s in Mayfair for Thanksgiving, a suitably noisy and clustered affair where she got out the good china and proceeded to make such a disaster of her tiny kitchen (she was a wonderful cook, but an ungodly messy one) that over time the clean-up became as legendary as her succulent birds. But I clearly remember the smell of the sizzling turkey coming out of the oven, the whir of the mixer whipping the potatoes, the steam rising off the mound of stuffing as it was brought to the center of the table. I don’t ever remember anyone asking if the dinner rolls were gluten-free.

Yes, obesity is a national problem, particularly among young people. And God knows, like most middle-aged boomers, I need to be vigilant about how much salt I sprinkle, how much wine I drink, and how many Christmas cookies make it onto my plate at the office party. But for God’s sake, can I just have one day when I don’t have to think about any of it? Where I get to simply eat what I want—and as much of it as I want—without having the health police issuing demerits for the second helping? Where my biggest agenda item is seeing how quickly I can get into my sweatpants after dinner? I promise to dutifully return to the treadmill (figuratively and literally) once it’s over.

Or at least once all the leftovers are gone.