Back when Earth Day was still in diapers, cheese fondue was considered an elegant appetizer and people thought they looked hot in bell bottoms, there were no free-range heritage turkeys or fancy-pants sweet potatoes on the Thanksgiving table.

No, our birds came frozen from the nearest factory farm. And the cranberry sauce? It slid out of a can with a schlurp that made children giggle.

The average American Thanksgiving we celebrated 30 to 40 years ago was, for the most part, processed, cheap and convenient. And, not knowing any better, we loved it.

Here’s a look back at some Thanksgiving classics, along with suggestions for how you can freshen up your feast with delicious kicked-up versions made with local ingredients that didn’t come out of a can or box.

THE TURKEY

THEN: When you were a kid, didn’t it always seem like the turkey took a week to thaw and your mom always had to get up at, oh, 3 a.m. to put it in the oven?

Back then, our turkeys were almost always frozen as hard as a politician’s head. A fresh turkey seemed kind of exotic, like Ricardo Montalban.

NOW: Oh, the options. If you want to save a dying breed, buy a heritage turkey. It may cost as much as your entire weekly grocery bill, depending on the breed and where you buy it, but you’ll feel less guilty pouring gravy on it. And those fresh, free-range turkeys? They’re everywhere.

Aurora Provisions is offering local free-range turkeys for $3.89 a pound, if you want to cook your own. If they do the cooking for you, it’s $16.95 per pound for a sage-and-cider-glazed turkey breast or $10.95 per pound for a “Lemon Herb Butter Roast Whole, Boned, Heat & Serve Turkey.”

Rosemont Market is offering free-range birds from Maine-ly Poultry for $3.79 a pound and free-range, pasture-fed birds from Serendipity Acres for $4.99 a pound.

Whole Foods is a virtual turkey farm in itself. They offer birds that are free-range, herb-rubbed, brined, organic free-range, smoked whole, smoked boneless or bone-in breast, heirloom bronze organic heritage and cooked whole. Whew.

THE STUFFING

THEN: The stuffing is where people either get really creative or stick to tried-and-true tradition. I’ve tried making fancy stuffings over the years for my family, but we always seem to go back to my mother’s cornbread dressing.

The classic, of course, is the boxed stuff that to this day costs less than $2 for a packet of cubed croutons and some dried herbs. Really? Is it that hard to cube some bread and chop up some fresh herbs? If you’re still using the boxed stuff on Thanksgiving, shame on you.

NOW: If you must go with a stuffing mix, at least check out Rosemont Market, where the cut-up bread is homemade ($2.99 for a 1-pound bag) and hasn’t been sitting on a shelf for months.

Whole Foods has traditional New England stuffing ($10.99, serves four), cornbread stuffing with sausage and spinach ($13.99, serves four) and vegan sprouted grain bread stuffing ($12.99, serves four).

Aurora Provisions is selling a cornbread, apple and fennel sausage stuffing ($8.95 per pound) and something called “Marika’s Mom’s Stuffing,” a traditional bread stuffing with onion, garlic, parsley, turkey stock, dill and apricots (also $8.95 per pound).

If your menu includes sweet potatoes, you can kill two birds with one stone with the sweet potato bacon stuffing ($5.99 per pound) from Leavitt & Sons in Falmouth.

THE GRAVY

THEN: Homemade has always been preferred, but let’s face it, gravy is a crapshoot. Sometimes it turns out mind-blowingly good. But if you don’t have your gravy mojo going on, it can be inedible. That’s why they came up with ready-made gravy in jars and the powdered stuff in packets.

My mother always made homemade, but kept some of the commercial goop on hand, just in case a disaster occurred. Once the drippings have been used, there’s no turning back, and you can’t serve a Thanksgiving turkey without some kind of gravy.

NOW: If you don’t want to make your own gravy, or you’re worried you might not have enough, you really should get some take-out from a local market rather than resort to the jarred and powdered stuff. Yes, it’s more expensive, but – good gravy! – it’s Thanksgiving.

Aurora Provisions has Riesling gravy ($12.99 for a quart) for those who think you need more wine with your dinner. Rosemont has traditional gravy for $5.99 a quart. And Whole Foods’ gravies, made in their kitchens in Massachusetts, are $4.99 a pint for traditional turkey gravy or vegan wild mushroom gravy. If you’re hosting a big crowd, check out Trader Joe’s “All-Natural Gravy” for $1.49 per 17.6-ounce carton.

THE CRANBERRY SAUCE

THEN: Kids always wanted to open the cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, but they’d rather die than actually eat it. The challenge was to get it out of the can in one piece so you could see the can’s ridges imprinted into the jellied block of cranberry substance. And, oh yes, there was that cool noise it made coming out.

NOW: A return to fresh, homemade cranberry relishes are one of the major improvements in Thanksgiving over the years. I always make my own cranberry-orange relish, but if you don’t want to bother, there are lots of store-bought options that will add some pizazz to your holiday table. Trader Joe’s has a fresh cranberry orange relish for $3.49. Whole Foods’ version is $4.99. Rosemont Market’s version is a cranberry-orange-ginger sauce for $3.29, and Aurora’s has a cranberry-port wine relish for $6.99.

THE GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

THEN: This perennial favorite is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. It’s the simplest of recipes – green beans, cream of mushroom soup, milk, fried onions and just a touch of soy sauce – but still people argue over it. French cut or regular green beans? Canned, frozen or fresh? Should you add water chestnuts, or is that some kind of culinary Communist plot?

NOW: After 55 years, green bean casserole has become one of those things that people either love or hate. I asked folks on Facebook and Twitter what they do to try to improve the dish, and the answers were nothing if not creative. One family adds sauteed fresh mushrooms, shallots and onions, and substitutes sour cream for a portion of the soup to cut back on sodium. Another uses shitake mushrooms and shallots, and tops the casserole off with homemade panko onion rings.

Most local substitutes for GBC seem to be various versions of green bean almandine, although Leavitt & Sons has a green bean cheese casserole for $7.99 a pound. Trader Joe’s at least makes an attempt at the classic: its version contains blanched green beans, a wild mushroom sauce, cream, butter and gourmet fried onion pieces, 16 ounces for $3.99.

THE SWEET POTATOES

THEN: My older brother is in his 50s, but still insists on having his sweet potatoes served with marshmallows on top. This seems to be a guy thing, so at first I thought maybe there’s just some kind of sweet-potato mutation on the Y chromosome.

Then it occurred to me that maybe the browned, crispy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside marshmallows brought back memories of all our family camping trips where we roasted marshmallows over an open campfire. All I know is, no matter how fabulous my sweet potatoes with the cinnamon, nutmeg and pecan topping are, the marshmallows always win.

NOW: This dish is so simple, the biggest controversy that’s developed over the years seems to be, should you use big, fat marshmallows or the mini ones? If you don’t want to make it yourself, there’s always Whole Foods’ Sweet Potato Tart with Marshmallows ($4.99 each).

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]