The dinner table is where many of us learn good manners, also known as lying. I doubt that I’m the only one whose early Thanksgivings were full of fulsome, false compliments. “This turkey is so moist! You know, sometimes turkey can be dry, but not this turkey!” Those words were uttered by someone in my family every year, in what became both a solemn ritual and a running joke. The turkey was moist in comparison to particle board. The way to acknowledge this was to insist otherwise. You could praise the food and complain about it at the same time.
On one memorable occasion in the mid-1970s this decorum was breached by my friend Julian, who was visiting from Chicago and who I guess didn’t know any better. (Not that I’m judging him.) The subject was not the dry turkey but the suspiciously fluffy and flavorless mashed potatoes. “Are these fake?” he asked loudly. The question provoked my grandmother, who’d prepared them, to declare that Julian was the rudest little boy she’d ever met. She and Julian were both right, of course, but each had violated an unspoken rule: Everyone’s potatoes are delicious, just as everyone’s children are delightful. That’s what Thanksgiving is all about: tactical insincerity in the service of domestic harmony.
- Frank Bruni on Non-Critic Life
- 9 Chefs' Dream Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Why Diana Lenzi Left a Cooking Career in Rome to Take Over Her Family's Chianti Estate
But it’s also true that everyone is a critic. Our lips may lie, but our taste buds never do. And so the holiday meal can become a paradoxical affair. Home is where we learn to suppress our critical instincts; it’s also where we sharpen them. If we can’t judge the people closest to us, then whom can we judge? We can tell ourselves that the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving resides in togetherness or football or vague, politically dubious stories about Pilgrims and Indians, but who are we kidding? We assemble to eat, which means that each of us brings to the table our own tastes. Which are always more complicated than we suppose and harder to dissemble.