- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

If the first Thanksgiving were held today, the Wampanoag Indians would have a lot more company than Pilgrims. Since that initial Plymouth, Mass., harvest celebration in 1621, quite a few more interlopers have arrived on the North American scene and they have brought their culinary traditions with them.
The principal Thanksgiving meat for Americans of Cuban extraction, for example, is pork.
Germans like to spice their autumnal feast with traditional beef-based dishes.
Puerto Ricans, while they stick mainly to turkey as a main course, lean heavily on starchy potato dishes to round out their Thanksgiving meals.
The original Pilgrims themselves would eat several different kinds of meat, including chicken and pork, to celebrate the fall harvest.
There are vegetarians now, too, and they eschew meat altogether.
So how, nutritionally, do all these options stack up to one another?
With its balanced array of meats and vegetables, "Thanksgiving is in some ways the model meal," says Dr. Peter Shields, professor of medicine and oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center.
"It all depends on how you cook it," he says. "High-heat cooking causes a lot of carcinogens to be formed."
Thus, many families' tradition of slow-cooking turkey for multiple hours on Thanksgiving day is worth the wait.
Another important factor is which part of the turkey is consumed.
Though Dr. Shields says turkey (and other white meat generally) is healthier than red meat, its benefits are lost when one eats the darker portions of the bird.
The same goes for pork.
"Pork can be lean; it depends on which part of the pig is used," says Phillip Harvy, a nutritional biochemist at the National Nutritional Food Association in Newport Beach, Calif. "Loin meat is typically lower in saturated fat and cholesterol."
Again, preparation is key.
"Pan-frying or charbroiling pork is not such a good idea," Dr. Shields says. "What's in those black lines are a lot of chemicals."
The danger of overeating on Thanksgiving, as everyone knows, lies not in the main course necessarily, but in the side dishes.
As Stacey Snelling, an associate professor at American University who focuses on nutrition and health promotion, notes: "Ethnicity comes out in the side dishes that complement the turkey."
Regardless of the eaters' ethnic backgrounds, a lot of the excess caloric intake can be traced to overconsumption of those sumptuous secondary dishes.
Miguel Marrero, 24, a Laurel-based photographer, says Puerto Ricans have a special affinity for potato-based dishes on Thanksgiving.
"It's actually very similar to what Americans eat," he says of a traditional Puerto Rican Thanksgiving. Along with turkey, "We have rice and pigeon peas and batata, which is like sweet potatoes.
"And we have to have potato salad," Mr. Marrero says.
As with main courses, the trick to making sure side dishes such as potato salad and sweet potatoes aren't overly fatty is in the preparation.
Says Mr. Harvy: "Don't engorge everything in the sauces and the butter."
Germans like to complement their turkey dinners with red meat.
"When I celebrate Thanksgiving with my German-American grandparents, we always have a traditional German dish, such as sauerbraten or roladen, in addition to turkey," says Maria Miller, 29, a Capitol Hill staffer who lives in the District.
While turkey and pork are healthier than red meats, sauerbraten and roladen, both roast beef dishes, require lengthy preparation and would meet Dr. Shields' slow-cook standard.
It's altogether fitting that American immigrants are spicing up their Thanksgiving meals because the centrality of turkey is fairly recent.
"Adherence to just eating turkey is really a 20th-century phenomenon," says Kathleen Curtin, a food historian at Plimoth Plantation, a museum of 17th-century Plymouth Colony, Mass.
"In the Victorian era, you may have seen a chicken pie or a roast pork," Ms. Curtin says.
American Colonials would incorporate other wild fowl, including goose and duck, as well as meats such as venison and seal, into their fall harvest meals.
Before the process of genetic modification gave us breast-heavy birds, Ms. Curtin says, "Turkeys were thinner, and you couldn't feed a large gathering of people with just one bird."
Complementary dishes, moreover, were healthier.
"[Colonists] didn't relish vegetables the same way we do, and they didn't cover them with things like butter," Ms. Curtin says.
For those want who want to swear off meat of any kind, there is, of course, the vegetarian alternative.
The Vegetarian Society of D.C. will serve a huge vegan meal Thursday for its Life-Affirming Thanksgiving Celebration at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Bethesda.
"It's basically a strictly vegetarian gourmet feast," says Saurabh Dalal, the organization's president.
Among the features of the meatless cuisine: tofu-and-herb salad, arugula, chickpea-tomato salad, a soup, wild mushroom ravioli, Moroccan couscous, rice pilaf and garlic mashed potatoes.
"Overall, it's just a tasteful preparation," Mr. Dalal says of the event.
Mr. Harvy says vegetarian alternatives can be tasty. "Tofu turkey or soybean curd is rich in isoflavones," he says, chemical compounds that have been shown to promote health.
For vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, it's advisable to avoid processed food.
Dr. Shields says food preservatives such as nitrates can cause cancer.
Mr. Harvy recommends avoiding "self-basting turkeys." "Use a turkey that hasn't been injected with a lot of extra fat," he says.
Another thing to avoid is drinking too much alcohol before the meal. "That tends to increase one's hunger," Mr. Harvy says.
He also recommends exercising at some point before sitting down to eat a big Thanksgiving meal, especially if one has the day off from work.
"If it's convenient, do something unusually strenuous a pretty demanding swimming workout, a run or bike riding," Mr. Harvy says.
Mrs. Snelling sounds a note of moderation:
"If you were eating these foods every day, that would be one thing," she says. "It's not what we eat once a year, it's the other 364 days that matter."
The average American gains 8 to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mrs. Snelling says. Clearly, that's caused by more than two sessions of overeating.
Since the idea behind the original Thanksgiving meal was to celebrate the bountiful New England harvest, it's OK to overindulge in one or two times.
The holiday season also gives families of all backgrounds a chance to celebrate their unique ancestry, she says. Holiday eating becomes problematic when Thanksgiving-sized meals are consumed several times in the month-long stretch.
"Get up and take a walk with your family," Mrs. Snelling says. "Do that and have that second piece of pie, but don't let the holiday control you until January."


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