Saturday, November 3, 2012

Help...I'm Making Thanksgiving Dinner

OK, the title of this is maybe misleading. I'm totally not doing that. I can. I have, but it is my mom's job. She has told me many, many, many times, with no irony or sarcasm at all, that it is by far her favorite meal to make.

Because of that, I steer clear for the most part. I help her in the kitchen and I bring a dish or two, but it is her shebang. I don't really put much thought into it beyond what I'm going to bring whereas she is probably already working on the menu, making shopping and to do lists, etc.

I'm glad mom loves Thanksgiving so much. I actually don't. Call me un-American (well, not really, please), but I don't really like turkey all that much. Fruit pies are a waste of perfectly good pie crust. Sweet potatoes gross me out. Cranberry sauce seems pointless. Etc, etc. Bah! Humbug! To me, Thanksgiving is the green light for Christmas decor, carols, and sweaters. (And, obviously being thankful for the plenty that fills our lives in the form of family, friends, shelter, stuff.)

When I got a book from Goodreads Advance Readers (mentioned here) that was about preparing Thanksgiving, I wasn't as super stoked as I would have been if it had been a different cookbook to add to my collection. The book sat on my coffee table for a few days. Grudgingly I picked it up thinking that I would  flip through to find a side dish recipe inside and I'd do nothing more with it. (I do have to think about these things early because mummy dearest needs to know what I'm bringing so she can maintain up-to-date lists.)

I read it cover to cover. And liked it. I wanted it to be longer. (It is a skinny little thing; only 160 pages in length.) It isn't every day that I find a cookbook writer who can, well, write. Sam Sifton can write. He's got culinary and literary chops! He wrote (and edited!) for the New York Times. Did you know the New York Times had (still has?!?) a Thanksgiving dinner help desk website set up for harried, stressed Thanksgiving chefs at home? I had no idea. That desk was manned by our author for three years! That'll get you some turkey day street cred. I chuckled when I read about the help desk. I had visions of frantic questions about burnt crusts and unthawed turkey. I wonder who makes these posts. Not my mom. She's cool as a cucumber in the kitchen.

Sifton makes it clear from the start that he believes that this one meal out of the other 364 days of meals needs to be traditional. And so, his little manual takes the reader through a very traditional approach.

Butter. In this book, glorious butter is a NECESSITY. As it should be every day. Pie crusts should be homemade. Salad, he belabors at least four times, do not belong anywhere near Thanksgiving. Appetizers. No, no, no, no. Just no. Unless, said appetizers are oysters. Then yes.

See, I didn't know about these rules. I might have actually brought salad to Thanksgiving last year. (Never again Mr. Sifton. I promise.)

There is nothing new about this book. It is not full of experimental, trendy recipes for the holiday. Instead it is full of traditional, tried-and-true dishes that absolutely belong on the dinner table. Chapter two is entitled "The Turkey" and it is a comprehensive chapter on thawing, seasoning/brining, cooking (including grilling and frying), carving and serving the centerpiece of the meal. There's not just one recommended approach, but an entire chapter. I like that.

There is a chapter on table setting, serving, and etiquette (chapter five) that is just lovely. This chapter calls to mind the Norman Rockwell painting with the family seated at the table with dishes served family style. Paper and plastic, Sifton says, are abominations of tradition. Thank you. (And thank you mom for always making Thanksgiving an occasion for china and silver, even if I had to polish and then hand-wash.)

I could go one about all eight of the chapters, but I won't. I will, though, mention that chapter six, "Drinks & Drinking" encourages drinking. Thanksgiving is, after all, a celebration. While Sifton doesn't encourage getting blitzed and belligerent, he does remind the reader that the meal is a long one, part of a long day of preparation and digestion. Drink, he says. Be merry. Wine, should flow in abundance. A bottle per person? Absolutely not unrealistic! Imbibing while cooking. Go for it. (With moderation, obviously.) This is not an uptight book, is my point.

Sifton is not unclear about his expectations of this holiday meal. He delivers these expectations in a wonderfully cheeky and conversational way. I'm a nerd about tone. Cookbooks, as a rule, seem to be stuffy and without any sort of discernible--or at least enjoyable--tone. This one though, breaks that rule. (As a note, I'm not positive I can actually classify this a cookbook, though. It is hard to classify. It has recipes, but they are not the bulk.)

In his introduction, Sifton says the following: "Thanksgiving is likewise not a book for those interested in cutting corners. Shortcuts are anathema to Thanksgiving, which is a holiday that celebrates not just our bounty but also our slow, careful preparation of it. There is no room in Thanksgiving for the false wisdom of compromise--for ways to celebrate the holiday without cooking, or by cranking open cans of gravy to pour over a store-roasted turkey reheated in the microwave. Thanksgiving is no place for irony. We are simply going to cook."

Did you ever imagine lovely prose about Thanksgiving? I would have thought it impossible. Sifton makes the impossible possible. And natural. He is poetic at times, funny at others, clear and articulate. This book was an absolute joy to read.

Another reason I'm not sure it is fully a cookbook is its lack of glossy photos. Instead, the book has beautifully sketched drawings and diagrams (like a properly set table) by Sarah Rutherford. These drawings are the perfect accompaniment to the text. Glossy photos of a glistening turkey and laughing people around a perfectly set table are just too cliche for this book.

Lacking any nod toward cliche are these drawings. Chapter one opens with this one.

Beautiful. Understated. Traditional. Just like the book.
Whether this is your first time preparing the Thanksgiving meal, or your 30th, I recommend Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well to get you thinking about the meal that is (happily/terrifyingly/ ominously?) looming this month.
Mr. Sifton, I'm now officially excited about Thanksgiving this year!
Are you making Thanksgiving dinner? Do you believe in Sifton's steadfast rules of no salad, set the table, eat Turkey, etc.? Does anyone out there shuck oysters on Thanksgiving? Am I missing something?

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