Gravy is great, but the best sauce for Thanksgiving dinner (excluding wine, of course) is good conversation. Something edgy enough to maintain interest, yet tame enough to keep your crazy uncle seated for the entire meal.
Don't wing it unless you're willing to risk ruffling a few feathers; instead, here's a guide to some safe -- and substantive -- conversation starters.
1. Talk Turkey
Not the country. Focus on the bird instead, which has a surprisingly interesting history -- and nearly went extinct.
Native to North and Central America, the turkey spread to Europe, according to New Scientist. When colonizers returned to the Americas, they brought the turkey back with them, only to relentlessly hunt its wilder (and tastier) native cousin and cut down the birds' natural shelter, trees, for building materials.
New Scientist notes that by 1920, the turkey had disappeared from 18 of the 39 states it once occupied, down from an estimated pre-Columbus population of 10 million to between 30,000 and 200,000.
Wildlife managers struggled to rebuild populations until the middle of the 20th century, when they realized individual birds, bred in captivity, had no idea how to survive on their own. When whole flocks were relocated, however, they rebounded -- all the way to your table. (Read more on the turkey's history at New Scientist.)
Drop some dinner-table knowledge with a couple turkey facts:
- An adult wild turkey has between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers on its body.
- A turkey's beard (the dangly bit) is called a "wattle," while the flesh on their foreheads is called the "snood."
- Male turkeys (called "gobblers" or "toms") poop a different shape than females ("hens"). Gobblers produce J-shaped droppings, while hens make spirals and curlicues 💩 .
There's no form of transit more universally decried at Thanksgiving than air travel, and if your relatives flew in for the holiday, this topic is a sure gimme.
Open with obligatory low-hanging fruit (e.g. "How was your flight?"), then branch into more interesting conversation about how airlines make us board the plane all wrong. According to Mythbusters, the standard "back to front" boarding technique is also the "slowest and least efficient."
Other patterns, like boarding window passengers first, then middle seats, then aisles, tend to be quicker. Interestingly, one of the fastest methods is actually no method at all -- a free-for-all without any seat assignments -- but it's also the least customer friendly, according to Mythbusters (sorry, Southwest!).
3. The 'Mystery' Spots On Ceres
If you want to steer clear of troublesome terrestrial subjects altogether, consider instead the mysterious bright spots on Ceres, the dwarf planet located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
We first learned of the anomalous spots after the Hubble Telescope captured photos of Ceres in 2004, but only started getting higher-resolution images this summer when NASA's Dawn spacecraft dropped into orbit.
Here's what they look like close up. For perspective, "Occator Crater," which encircles the spots, is about 60 miles wide and two miles deep:
Conspiracy theorists rejoiced when scientists didn't have an immediate, definitive explanation for the spots' reflectivity. While NASA data indicates they're likely some sort of salt deposit -- and we should know more in the near future as Dawn gathers more information -- for the time being you can delight in Thanksgiving conversation about the mystery of the unknown.
Because maybe they're aliens. Very, very salty ones.
4. Question Everything -- And Listen
Sometimes it's better to ask a great question or two to get the ball rolling. Here are a few basics -- other than the classic "What are you thankful for?" -- from HuffPost bloggers Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker:
- "What's the strangest thing about where you grew up?"
- "What does your name mean?" (If they say, "I don't know," reply, "What would you like it to mean?")
- "What are you looking forward to this week?"
- "Who do you think is the luckiest person in this room?"
- "If you could teleport by blinking your eyes, where would you go right now?"
Asking grandma and grandpa (or another loving couple) to tell the story of how they met is always a good option. Another good question to ask parents or grandparents: "How did you celebrate Thanksgiving when you were younger?" Or, get even more ideas from Colin and Baedeker.
5. Sometimes There's No Avoiding Politics
If you absolutely must bring up the Syrian refugee crisis, here's our guide to keeping the conversation civil.
You may want to keep Adele handy, just in case things take a turn for the worse: