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Turkey to go: a new trend to be thankful for?

About one-third of Americans buy - instead of cook - the holiday feast

By Elizabeth ArmstrongSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2002

Chef Laurent Poulain of the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston savors every minute of Thanksgiving Day. When he talks of the smell of turkey roasting in the oven, or the fiery reds of raspberry chutney glowing in a crystal bowl, he leans forward until the thermometer in his white shirt pocket nearly slips out, and he clasps his hands until his knuckles go white.

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Aside from preparing meals for hundreds of guests in the Oak Room and Copley's Grand Cafe throughout Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Poulain roasts an extra 80 to 100 turkeys. In addition, he prepares giblet stuffing, herb gravy, mashed potatoes, butternut squash, green beans, carrots, cranberry chutney, baked rolls, corn muffins, and pumpkin and apple pies.

These dinners, called "turkeys-to-go," are packaged into one gigantic box. Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving, families who prefer to leave the cooking to Poulain pick up the box at their designated time and hurry home to reheat the feast. The cost of an eight-person meal is $230.

According to a National Restaurant Association survey on holiday dining, about one-third of Americans get all or part of their Thanksgiving dinners "to go." This means that they rely either on a chef at a restaurant or on prepared foods from a grocery store, such as cooked turkeys or frozen pies.

Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant in New York, says that the popularity of turkeys-to-go and similar pickup Thanksgiving dinners represents a refocusing of the ways Americans want to spend their holiday. "It's kind of a return to something," he says. "Since 9/11 ... our time and energy now have real value to us, and the family table does, too. It's a really fun kind of blessing. Happily, the foods of our favorite American holiday are warm-up foods. And grandma isn't going to have to slave away all day in the kitchen."

"It's clear that the trend is very real," says K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation Trust in Boston, which promotes traditional foods and cooking techniques. Practically every supermarket in the country now has an extensive line of prepared foods.

But he isn't so sure that growing dependence on takeout is a great idea. These foods are very convenient, but he also sees - especially with holiday meals - a loss of tradition, culture, and skills when people have someone else cook for them.

Is Thanksgiving just about food?

Mary Clingman, director of Butterball Turkey Talk-Line in Chicago, fields calls from befuddled cooks across the country. She says the tradition of cooking for Thanksgiving is as much about being in the kitchen with loved ones as it is about sharing a meal at the table with them.

Mr. Gifford agrees. "The hanging around the kitchen and cooking together, and making the sauce and tasting it ... there was always a togetherness about it," he says.

"This is my favorite holiday of the year," Poulain says. "It's not just eating - it's an interaction, a meeting. It's where you talk about what happened during the day or the week or the year, and you really look at each other."

For those who prefer to emphasize the togetherness of the holiday, ordering out is a convenient option. Still, two-thirds of Americans continue to do the cooking themselves.