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.