If you’re new to the show, Your Last Meal is the newest podcast in the Cascade Public Media family. A finalist for the James Beard Award, it is hosted by CPM Editor-at-Large Rachel Belle. Each episode, Rachel interviews a celebrity – like Jewel, Neil deGrasse Tyson, William Shatner, Margaret Cho, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and Bill Nye – about what they’d choose to eat for their last meal. Then she digs into the history, culture or science of those meals with experts from around the globe.
But for the Thanksgiving episode we’re having a big Friendsgiving audio potluck, inviting past guests to contribute a dish to the holiday meal. Country music star Martina McBride is bringing the salad, actor Zosia Mamet is bringing marshmallow sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce, director Greta Gerwig is bringing the stuffing and Christopher Kimball (Milk Street) is on pie duty.
There are also some new friends at the table. Food historian Ken Albala stops by to explain why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and comedian and musician Reggie Watts shares what his childhood Thanksgiving table looked like with a French mother.
You’ll have to listen to the full episode to get the whole story, but here’s a taste!
Martina McBride: Fluff Salad
What are your feelings on salad at the Thanksgiving table? Too healthy? Not beige enough? For Grammy-nominated country music star Martina McBride, a holiday salad doesn’t involve a single vegetable.
Martina’s salad won’t be the only marshmallow dish on our table.
Zosia Mamet: Sweet Potato Marshmallow Casserole & Cranberry Sauce
One of the most controversial Thanksgiving classics is a sticky, saccharine casserole of sweet potatoes tucked under a lid of bronzed, melty marshmallows. It’s a rare occasion when we all pretend that a dessert is a side dish, and actor Zosia Mamet (Girls, The Flight Attendant) is here for it.
The dish was invented by a cookbook author named Janet McKenzie Hill, a 1892 graduate of the Boston Cooking School, who was hired by the Angelus brand to help sell their marshmallows. Her recipe for sweet potato marshmallow casserole was printed on brochures, in women’s magazines and on the back of the marshmallow package, and has truly stood the test of time.
The other controversial Thanksgiving food? Cranberry sauce. While some like to simmer fresh cranberries with sugar and orange zest for a tart, chunky relish, others prefer the slick cylinder of canned cranberry sauce.
“And there’s exactly 17 ridges in that can,” said Ocean Spray’s head of marketing, Dan Hamilton.
Ocean Spray released its first cans of jellied cranberry sauce in 1941, a practical solution for using up all the bruised cranberries that weren’t pretty enough to sell fresh.
“Americans consume over 80 million pounds of cranberries on Thanksgiving week alone,” Hamilton said.
Greta Gerwig: Stuffing
Oscar-nominated director Greta Gerwig (Barbie, Little Women, Lady Bird) says her dad’s recipe is the best.
Everyone can picture the classic Rockwellian Thanksgiving spread, with the iconic, mahogany-skinned turkey proudly displayed in the center of the table. But how many people actually love roast turkey?
To no one’s surprise, turkey has never found its way into any of my guests’ last meals. Roast chicken: yes. Steak? Many times. Folks have requested wild duck, lobster, oysters, hot dogs, Spam and scrapple. But turkey? It is not a popular protein. So how did it become the symbolic food of Thanksgiving?
“I think the appeal is that it was a big bird,” said Ken Albala, professor of history at the University of the Pacific and author or editor of 25 books on food. “Big birds are associated with aristocracy and elegance, so you wait for a really important day.”
He says many Thanksgiving foods, including the turkey, have medieval roots.
“Stop and think of the weird accompaniments that we have for this meal,” Albala said. “A berry puree to go with a fowl is really unusual. That is a completely medieval combination of flavors. Raspberries and turkey was one that appears in 17th-century French cookbooks and is made fun of in the century following just because of how crazy and medieval that is. And it is a weird combination.”
Christopher Kimball: Apple Pie
Did you save room for dessert? I hope so! This Thanksgiving we’re having America’s favorite pie: apple! Which is also the favorite of Christopher Kimball, founder of America’s Test Kitchen and Milk Street. But he is decidedly not a fan of eating his pie a la mode.
You heard that right: cheddar cheese on pie. We get the history on this unusual sweet and savory combo from Jessie Moore, author of The Secret Lives of Baked Goods.
To learn that history, and to get the full meal deal, listen to the full Thanksgiving episode of Your Last Meal.