Happy Thanksgiving! Douglas Coupland on enjoying the fun or the family freak-fest

Celebrate Thanksgiving with Douglas Coupland’s wry take on the festivities from the Wallpaper* archives, plus our recipes for success, from turkey to pumpkin pie

Thanksgiving dinner and recipes
Our article from 1998, complete with Douglas Copeland’s essay, which you can re-read below, and a feast devised by Wallpaper’s Melina Keays
(Image credit: Photographer: Lasse Kärkkäinen Food editor: Melina Keays. Interiors stylist: Cilla Göthlinder)

To mark Thanksgiving, we revisit Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland’s take on the celebrations, first featured in a special edition of Wallpaper* in 1998.

Back in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin wanted the official bird of the United States to be the turkey, not the bald eagle. Back then, turkeys were not only juicy and delicious, but smart, too – justifiably wary of hunters and excellent flyers – whereas the bald eagle was, and remains, essentially a seagull with a good hairdo. The mutation of the turkey across three centuries, however, from smart to dumb (over-hybridized turkeys are now well known for drowning on rainy days by raising their heads to the sky and then forgetting to lower them) also provides rich symbolism for the 200-year devolution of Thanksgiving.

This American-born holiday has been transformed from a dour, reflective time for meditation (and, yes, the giving of thanks) into a flat-out behavioural dumbfest – an annual ripping of the national emotional fabric around a table laden with turkey, stuffing and far too many mashed root vegetables. One might ask, 'How can such an enormous blow-out coexist with Christmas being barely a month away?' One might also ask, 'And frankly, how much rich, delicious food can a person take in the course of a few weeks?'

Well, to start with, the US Thanksgiving and the US Christmas use two different parts of the brain. Thus, there is no overlap of brain function, and there is no emotional competition between the two. Christmas has become a near-pagan celebration of shopping and uses the brain's cash codes; whereas Thanksgiving is a celebration of guilt and familial dysfunction, which uses almost exclusively one's primitive, reptile brain cells.

Thanksgiving dinner and recipes

(Image credit: Photographer: Lasse Kärkkäinen Food editor: Melina Keays. Interiors stylist: Cilla Göthlinder)

Countless Americans commonly endure epic amounts of pain, discomfort, expense and misery to travel across continents just so that they can be there in the dining room on Sunday to have a conversation not dissimilar to the following:

Son: Hey, Mom, these whipped yams are really good. 

Mom: Why do you always have to patronise me?

Dad: Look what you've done to your mother! 

Sis: You always give him more attention than you do me! 

Son:That's not what I meant. 

Aunty/Uncle: I suppose we're all too dumb for you. 

Dad: You keep out of this.

Mom: Don't talk to my brother/sister that way. 

Sis: I can't eat. The meal's wrecked again. 

Son: Why can't we ever have a normal meal like a normal family?

And therein lies the essence of the Thanksgiving holiday: the friction created by the difference between what a family is commonly held up to be (cheerful, giving, clever and full of amusing banter) versus what we all know it to be in our bowels (petty, vain, easily bored, easily insulted and possessing an almost infinite catalogue of endlessly nursed grudges).

The arena for the family's psychic gameplay is, of course, the dinner table. This is the only part of the holiday that really counts, and the rules of dining attendance are rigidly codified. Essentially, as long as you arrive five minutes beforehand, bleeding and exhausted from canoeing in from Antarctica , you're OK. And likewise, you can bolt for the car five minutes after the pumpkin pie has been served and still be said to have fully participated in Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving dinner and recipes

(Image credit: Photographer: Lasse Kärkkäinen Food editor: Melina Keays. Interiors stylist: Cilla Göthlinder)

Importantly, there also exists another Thanksgiving clause – one which dictates that in your lifetime you will be allowed exactly three Thanksgiving meals away from your family. Use them wisely. On these three occasions you can choose your friends, deviate from the traditional menu, listen to your own music (instead of the requisite football game droning in from the TV room) and make the meal last as long as you wish. Just remember that your family will never let you forget you chose to stray on these three instances.

Dad: What year was it that Uncle Merv lost his index finger in the thresher? 

Sis: It was the year Ryan had Thanksgiving in Boston, not here. 

Mom: Oh, that year.


Mom( on the phone): Shall I bother setting a place for you this year or are you going to ignore us the way you did in 1986?

Thanksgiving, it must be said, has some bonuses over Christmas. It's secular, so everybody can participate without any sense of exclusion. Also, there are no gifts to buy, and the cooking is almost invariably left to Mom or the most nurturing soul in the vicinity. It's also a good time to see how Aunt Lisa's drinking problem is evolving, as well as an excellent opportunity to hear vivid details of your brother-in-law's business failure or to see if Grandma's colon operation has improved the odour of her breath.

Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October as opposed to America's late-November time-slot, but the same US dining rules apply and the centrepiece is still the turkey. In both countries, Christmas is the occasion on which other meats are explored. The Thanksgiving palate is quite uniform and allows for little variance. Deviation is permitted, nay encouraged, only in the area of side dishes. It is in the side dishes, a form of ritualised cyclical evil, that Aunt Louise can force an entire family to partake of a plate of Marshmallow-Parsnip Fluffies or squash chunks in a maple reduction.

Mom: Don't be difficult, dear. Just try some. Aunt Louise puts so much love into it. 

Son: Mom, it's been 30 years and I still can't eat it. 

Aunt: Oh, I hope you're going to have some of my annual lime jell-o whip!

Son: You know how much I love it!

Thanksgiving dinner and recipes

(Image credit: Photographer: Lasse Kärkkäinen Food editor: Melina Keays. Interiors stylist: Cilla Göthlinder)

Yet for all its ups and downs, there are few souls who would wish Thanksgiving away from our collective experience. For all its dysfunction it remains, despite any efforts toward modification, utterly unmodifiable. It is a constant in a world of variables. It is as unavoidable as the tides, and we like it that way.

Mom: Did you save any room for pumpkin pie? 

You: I'm stuffed.

Mom: Is that a yes – you saved some room?

You: Hey, Mom – I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Mom: And don't forget the turkey sandwiches tomorrow!

Wallpaper’s Thanksgiving recipes

Roast turkey

1 fresh turkey
110g softened butter
2 bay leaves
1 lemon, halved
1 small onion, halved

Rub the bird with butter, season inside and out, and place the bay leaves, onion, and lemon on the inside. Place on a rack in a large roasting tin and cook in a preheated oven for 20 minutes a pound, at 220°C Gas Mark 7 for the first 30 minutes, and then 170°C/ Gas Mark 3 for the remaining time, basting every hour. If you stuff your turkey, increase cooking time accordingly by weight.

Cranberry relish

450g whole cranberries fresh or frozen 
juice and rind of 1 large orange 
75g caster sugar
4cm piece of cinnamon
4 cloves
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
3 tbsp port

Put all the ingredients except the port into a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 mins, and remove from the heat. Stir in the port. Cool and remove the cinnamon and cloves before serving.

Cornbread stuffing

50g butter
2 tbsp olive oil
450g sausage meat
225g onion, chopped
4 sticks celery finely chopped
175g day-old cornbread, crumbled
3 tbsp dried cherries or cranberries
zest of 1 lemon
1 large handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp of fresh thyme 
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
250ml stock 
salt and pepper

Melt butter and oil in a heavy pan, and fry the sausage meat, onion, and celery over a medium heat until soft and golden, breaking up the meat as you cook. Add the cornbread, dried fruit, zest, and herbs, and cook for another 5 minutes. Moisten with stock, season, then stuff bird (adjust cooking times accordingly) or cook separately in an oven-proof dish for 20-25 minutes.

Christmas uses the brain’s cash nodes; Thanksgiving is a celebration of guilt and familial dysfunction

Douglas Coupland

Whipped sweet potatoes with marshmallow

1.5kg sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
450g carrots, peeled and cubed
175g unsalted butter
40g light brown sugar
3 tbsp orange juice
2 tsp ground nutmeg
zest of ½ an orange
mini marshmallows
salt to taste

Place the potatoes and carrots in a large heavy pot, cover with boiling water, bring back to the boil, reduce and simmer for 20 minutes until vegetables are tender. Reserve 4 tbsp of cooking liquid, then mash the potatoes and carrots with the remaining ingredients, except the marshmallows. Place in an ovenproof baking dish, cover with marshmallows and bake in a preheated oven at 190 °C / Gas Mark 5, until the topping is melting and golden.  

Brussels sprouts

Remove the outer leaves, trim and cut a small cross into the base of each sprout to help them cook evenly. Place in a pot, sprinkle with salt and cover with boiling water, return to boil, turn down the heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until tender.

In your lifetime you will be allowed three Thanksgiving meals away from your family. Use them wisely

Douglas Coupland

Maple pecan pie

For the pastry 
210g plain flour
110g cold unsalted butter
60ml iced water
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt

Stir the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, cut in the butter and crumble in until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Gradually add the water, mixing as you go until the dough comes together. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least half an hour, then roll out the pastry and line a 9-inch pie dish. Prick with a fork and set aside.

For the filling
125ml golden syrup
125ml maple syrup
75g brown sugar
3 large eggs
110g unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla essence
juice and zest of 1 lemon
150g pecans halved

Beat the syrups, sugar, and eggs together, then the butter, vanilla, juice and zest. Fold in the pecans, tip the filling into the dish and bake in a preheated oven at 190 °C/ Gas Mark 5 for about 40 minutes, until the filling is set and brown. Cool. Serve with whipped cream.

Pumpkin pie

425g tin of solid-pack pumpkin
275ml of evaporated milk 
150g light brown sugar
2 large eggs lightly beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cloves

Make the pastry as for the pecan pie (above). Line the pie dish with pastry, chill, cover with foil and baking beans and blind-bake for 15 minutes at 220 °C/ Gas Mark 7. Remove foil. In a large bowl whisk the filling ingredients together and pour into the case. Bake at 180 degrees °C/ Gas Mark 4 for 40-50 minutes until the filling is set and golden. Served with whipped cream.

This article first appeared in a special edition of Wallpaper* in 1998.