Flavour Flash – The Festive Special

As Canadian Thanksgiving approaches, we ponder the annual question associated with this holiday with trepidation. Not what to be thankful for, but rather… will it be too hot in Toronto to actually cook a roast bird and five side dishes on Thanksgiving Day? It’s about a 50/50 draw; some years early October is cool and rainy, other years temperatures can hit the high 20s.

Since it’s just Greg and I, we usually just cook a chicken, but I don’t relish standing in a hot kitchen with the oven and all the burners going if it’s going to be a warm day with a humidex. Besides, I can roast a chicken any time, I don’t need a holiday to do it, so while we want to do something to celebrate the day, I’m never inclined to actually break a sweat.

For the past couple of years in pandemic times, upscale local restaurants have filled the void with gorgeous multi-course menus delivered to our door. One of the options we considered this year included seared foie gras, so there’s lots to be thankful for.

In the past, though, the delivery options got no more fancy than Swiss Chalet.

I can’t find any information online as to when Swiss Chalet began offering the Festive Special. This is their normal quarter chicken dinner with the addition of stuffing, cranberry sauce and a chocolate of some kind. (And yes, old timers, we all miss the days before they replaced the Toblerone bars with glommy Lindt balls.) In recent years, this has begun to include a slice of pie.

Offered from the beginning of November onwards until Christmas, a few years ago, someone at Swiss Chalet clued in to the fact that they could also offer the Festive Special at Thanksgiving. The first year it was for Thanksgiving weekend only, but now it appears to be for a week or so leading up to the holiday.

This delights me for entirely personal reasons.

My first Thanksgiving in Toronto, in 1987, I had been living here only for a couple of months. While one of my roommates was a chef, and we all delighted in trying out all the different cuisines of Chinatown and Kensington Market where we lived, none of us was inclined to cook a big dinner. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have anything close to the necessary equipment. Tap Phong, the fabulous housewares shop on Spadina Avenue didn’t even exist yet; the place was still a kosher poultry slaughterhouse.

Plus, it was hot. So stinking hot.

So on the Sunday of Thanksgiving, when my roommates Paul and Deryk suggested we go to the Swiss Chalet on Spadina Avenue for lunch, we did so more for the fact that we knew it was air-conditioned than any other reason.

When I called my grandma later that evening to wish her a Happy Thanksgiving, her first question was “Did you have a turkey?”

This was a trick question, because if I had said no, I’d have been read the riot act. My family was convinced that moving to Toronto would be my ruin, so any crack in the armour of perceived normalcy would have been met with outrage. I’m still not sure why it mattered if I had turkey or not, it was nothing to them, and none of Grandma’s business, really, but it would have indicated that I was far from home doing weird, crazy, dangerous, hedonistic stuff even if I wasn’t. (Okay, I was.)

“Oh.. we just had chicken,” I replied offhandedly. “A turkey would be too big.”

This answer sufficed. Chicken was an acceptable replacement for turkey. She didn’t ask about side dishes or pie, she was satisfied knowing I had done something “traditional” to celebrate the day. She pointedly did not ask if we had cooked it ourselves. Maybe she knew not to pry further, afraid the answer might have been something ‘weird and gross’, along the lines of ‘chicken feet at a dim sum restaurant’, which would have caused her to unleash a tirade of of judgmental, racist assumptions that she was wise enough not to reveal.

In any case, the ruse worked, and “just had chicken” became the default reply for queries into my menu choices for events that came burdened with expectations of traditional fare, even if (especially if) I hadn’t bothered to celebrate at all.

Every year since, I raise a toast to my Nan when it comes time to cut into Thanksgiving dinner. Especially if it’s just chicken from Swiss Chalet.