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

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

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.

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.

Ms. Clingman has answered turkey-related questions on the telephone for 18 years. She says the nearly 200,000 phone calls she and her staff of 45 receive each autumn lead her to believe that many Americans are spending almost as much time in the kitchen now as ever.

Her callers range from experienced cooks who want to know the latest basting trends to a widower who wanted to prove to his family that, since the recent passing of his wife, he could take her place and cook the whole meal.

"He called four times, and then the next day, to let us know how it went," Clingman recalls.

Regional specialities

But one thing that's new, she says, is that more effort is being devoted to regional or nontraditional foods from other cultures that have made their way to the Thanksgiving table.

"Often the dinners are being melded together with different generations, traditions, and backgrounds," Clingman says. "When people can bring something they remember from their past, it makes them more comfortable."

But when the Thanksgiving dinner is ordered from a grocery store or restaurant, "... it brings people further and further away from an understanding of where the food actually comes from," points out Gifford.

"It's not even in a vegetable bin or a bread rack; it's in a can, a takeout package, and you warm it up and eat it. The family is still together, but what's missing is the connection to food, the human bond from earth to table."

This is a connection that Poulain learned much about in his native France. There, he says, the social aspect of lingering over a meal together is so important - and not just on holidays."

Despite long work hours, he tries to maintain this tradition at home with his American wife and children. On Thanksgiving, after he has provided dinner for hundreds of Bostonians, he grabs his coat and heads home to a feast with his family.

After all, this is his favorite holiday, replete with the special joy of those many Sundays he so loved in France - eating for hours in the company of family.

Cranberry Relish
With Ginger

Tempted by the takeout option, but feel a bit as though you're cheating? Go ahead and order out, but also give your Thanksgiving feast a homemade touch with this tangy relish. It's seasonal and so simple - you don't even have to peel the orange!

1 orange, unpeeled and scrubbed
2 bags (12 ounces each) fresh cranberries
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger

Cut the orange (with its peel on) into 16 slices and discard any seeds. Working in batches, combine the orange slices, cranberries, sugar, and ginger in a food processor. Pulse to chop finely and evenly, stopping once or twice with each batch to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Transfer to a storage container, cover, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours to develop the flavors. Bring to room temperature and stir well before serving.

Make-ahead tip: This relish improves when made in advance, since the flavors have more time to marry. Prepare it up to 3 days before serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

- From 'Thanksgiving,' a cookbook in the Williams-Sonoma Collection (Simon & Schuster, $16.95).

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