Last year, we devoted a lot of blog space to Thanksgiving, by Sam Sifton. And since we’re editors and writers, supposedly on the pulse of what the lastest, greatest, trendiest everything is, we should probably be featuring this year’s of-the-moment holiday cookbook. But here’s the thing: “trendy” and “of-the-moment” are not words that should EVER EVER EVER be in the same sentence as “Thanksgiving,” and we stand by our claim that Sam Sifton’s timeless, authoritative, delicious guide to our country’s greatest holiday is The Only Thanksgiving Recipe Collection You Will Ever Need. (Outside of your grandmother’s recipe box, of course — we don’t want to get anyone in trouble here). As such, we launch our “Countdown to Thanksgiving Series” with a bountiful giveaway: In the next 48 hours, five readers are eligible to win a free copy of Sifton’s Thanksgiving, and five more are eligible to have a free copy sent to whoever is cooking/hosting the feast… as a little pre-holiday pump-up and thank-you-in-advance. That’s TEN COPIES WE ARE GIVING AWAY. All you have to do is leave a comment below (we wouldn’t complain if this comment included a Thanksgiving tip) and tell me which one you are: #Host or #Guest.
Update: All winners have been notified. Congrats Josh, Betsy, Candice, Eva, Molly, Susan, Colleen F, L, Divya, Memegirl and to everyone else thanks for playing!
Related: Sam Sifton’s 1o Laws of Thanksgiving.
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As you might have gathered from Monday’s post, Sam Sifton is a man with opinions. (If you couldn’t already tell that from the subtitle of his book.) When it comes to food, opinions are good — but smart opinions are even better. We think Sam has smart opinions, and he was kind enough to take some time to share some of them with us. Here is Part One of his interview. (Part Two will appear next week: Three things you can do ahead of time to make the big day a lot less stressful.)
Andy: What is your policy on appetizers before the big meal? Do they belong, and if so, when should they appear?
Sam: I did not sit in my kitchen on Saturday night making lists, and deal with brining a bird on Monday night, and bake pies on Tuesday night, and spend all of Thursday cooking turkey, sides and gravy, then set a table appropriate to presidents and kings, so that you could come into my house and eat a pound and a half of nuts and guacamole before sitting down for the Thanksgiving feast.
I am an absolutist on this front. There is no place for an appetizer course in a proper Thanksgiving meal. You can serve oysters, because as Liebling knew, oysters don’t take up any space in the stomach. And you can serve a bisque because my father did, or you can serve whatever dish it is that you have always served in your family in advance of the meal. I am not here to tell you your traditions are wrong. They are never wrong. But really there is no need to serve an appetizer course. The scent of a roasting turkey is a good appetizer. On Thanksgiving, it is the best appetizer of all. But nuts? Cheese? A wee salad with dried cranberries and goat cheese? No. These waste valuable stomach space, not to mention forks and plates. They should be avoided.
What’s the single most important culinary element of the meal?
Bounty. That bird should be bigger than you need. There should be at least three, and ideally five, side dishes. There should be rivers of gravy and mountains of dressing. Pies should be visible in the distance, on sideboards, many of them. Bounty is at the essence of of cooking Thanksgiving well.
How do you add soul, or meaning, to the meal? I often find that, by the time we all sit down, with the kids and the dogs and all the chaos, with the food going cold, we never find that moment to stop and give thanks. How do you make that happen?
You stop the meal. You can’t surrender to chaos. You have to punch up through it and settle everyone down. Soul won’t just show up, after all. Meaning is not inherent to turkey, or yams. It needs to be summoned. Just wait for the moment when everyone, finally, is settling into their seats, and the dogs finding their place under the table. Stand up and tap a glass with a knife or simply raise a glass in your hand and keep it up there until everyone notices and stops talking. And then say, simply and with no apology, that you would like to give thanks.
I’ve been at Thanksgivings where everyone at the table has to stand and offer thanks for something that has happened over the course of the year. You do not need to do that. (In fact, please don’t.) But the host — or the person who has brought you all together — really should acknowledge, however briefly, the real purpose of the day. It is why you are here.
To whom or to what you give thanks is a personal choice. It might be a higher power, or the fact of the harvest. It could be simply the presence of your family and friends. It could be health or safety in the wake of this horrifying storm the east coast has just been through. It could be to those who made you, or made you possible. But to whomever or whatever, give thanks. Simply by its utterance, Thanksgiving provides the meal with a moment of grace. Look around the table now, into the eyes of everyone assembled. You see? That is what we’re looking for in this feast, ultimately: A moment of grace, born of Thanksgiving. Don’t forget that. It matters.
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This has already been quite a month for Sam Sifton. In addition to being the national editor of The New York Times – and helping run the paper’s coverage of Hurricane Sandy, and the presidential election, and whatever other ever-changing, constantly-unfolding news story that pops up in the meantime – he is also a food columnist for the Sunday Magazine, the newspaper’s former restaurant critic, a recovered short-order cook, a husband, a father of two young girls… and, luckily for us, the author of a just-published book, Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well. Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of editing this book, which means I had the pleasure of reading it several times and, best of all, cooking from it last year, as it was taking shape. Jenny and I love this book (in Jenny’s words – and you can trust her on this stuff – “This feels like the only Thanksgiving book I’ll ever need.”). We love the simplicity of it (130 pages, 50 traditional recipes), the authority of it (do this, not that), the timelessness of it (real cornbread stuffing, butternut squash with sage). It’s so beautifully written, too. If I lived in Glasgow, had never laid eyes on a turkey, and cared not two whits about Thanksgiving, I could pick this up and enjoy myself. Most of all, we love the message buried within: Thanksgiving does not have to be a source of stress. We should cherish it, and aim to make it great. There aren’t many national secular holidays, after all, so let’s get a big group together and dig in, American-style. In Sam’s honor, DALS hereby dedicates this week to his book, beginning here with ten inviolable rules for the big day. We’ll follow it with more advice and a recipe or two, so stay tuned. And give thanks! – Andy
10 Laws of Thanksgiving Dinner
by Sam Sifton
1. Let me speak plainly: you are going to need a lot of butter. Thanksgiving is not a day for diets, or for worrying about your cholesterol. It is a day on which we celebrate the delicious. And there is precious little on a Thanksgiving menu that is not made more delicious by butter. (Note: It should be unsalted butter. There is something magical about a piece of toast with salted butter. But for Thanksgiving, you want the unsalted variety, so that it is you, and not the butter maker, who is in control of the saltiness of your cooking. Figure at least two pounds for the day.)
2. Thanksgiving is a holiday that anchors itself in tradition. Which means: You should make turkey. Turkey is why you are here.
3. I’ll risk starting a brushfire by saying with great confidence that the two most important factors in any credible Thanksgiving feast are the cranberry sauce and the gravy. Debate that all you like. But they tie every element on the plate together, acting as frame and foundation alike. Cranberry sauce only enhances what is already excellent, and good gravy can cure almost any Thanksgiving ill.
4. You can make mashed potatoes lumpy with a fork or a masher device, or smooth with a food mill or stand mixer. And of course you can make them without peeling the potatoes, if your scrub the skins well. This makes for an attractive, rustic-looking dish. Indeed, the only trouble that should ever present itself when the subject comes to mashed potatoes and Thanksgiving is should someone demand that garlic or basil be added to the mix. Your response to this heresy should be brief and unequivocal: No. There is no place in the holiday for a mixture of garlic and potatoes, much less basil and potatoes. The flavors clash with the turkey and other sides. No.
5. Start serving drinks the minutes your guests arrive, no matter the hour. Thanksgiving is not a time to judge.
6. When hosting, do not be afraid to delegate.
7. Dessert need not be extravagant. It absolutely should not be experimental or overly cute. It must not involve individual tartlets or parfaits, nor marshmallows in any form. Save the chocolate for nights of depression and anxiety. Instead, focus on the proper execution of the American classics: apple pie, for instance, with a mound of whipped cream, or pumpkin pie with same. These represent Thanksgiving’s highest achievement. They are an explanation of American exceptionalism, in pastry form.
8. There is no “right” wine for Thanksgiving, no must-have grape or vintage, cocktail or spirit. Nor is there a “wrong” one, though I’d stay away from the low-end fortified stuff unless you are in a boxcar, hurtling west. What you want is a variety of grapes and vintages. Encourage guests to bring wines that interest them, wines that they would like others to try. Additionally, lay in some specialty items: beer for your uncle who only drinks Bud; nonalcoholic sparkling cider for the children; and plenty of Diet Cokes and ashtrays for those who no longer drink.
9. If you find yourself as a guest at someone else’s Thanksgiving, there is no finer gift to bring than a pie and a bottle of brown liquor.
10. As everyone takes a seat and prepares to eat, there is the delicate moment where you or someone at the table should ask for everyone’s attention, and offer thanks to one and all for being present, and for helping out. This is extraordinarily important. It is the point of the entire exercise. William Jennings Bryan wrote, “On Thanksgiving Day, we acknowledge our dependence.” I think that’s just about right.
Illustrations by Sarah Rutherford.
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