Thanksgiving has snuck up on me this year. In part I think that’s because I’ve been pretty preoccupied with a new baby and three other kids, and in part it’s because I’m not contributing anything to the Thanksgiving meal this year except a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread (which I’ve been instructed to purchase). My cousin, who is having Thanksgiving at her house this year, decreed that any family with a baby younger than one month old was not required to provide anything substantial. I had to beg to be allowed to bring bread.
However, now that I’m fully in the throes of Thanksgiving, I’ve been reading holiday magazines and looking at holiday recipes (it helps to pass the time between feedings). These days I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving, but I remember as a kid feeling that it was a wasted holiday. After all, there were no presents, no candy or costumes, no fireworks, you didn’t even get to stay up until midnight. Thanksgiving was a “talking” holiday.
Talking holidays were the ones where the grownups sat around talking for hours, and us kids were bored because we didn’t care about the conversation, and after awhile we didn’t even want to play with each other. We just wanted to go home and watch TV. Memorial Day and Labor Day were also talking holidays. The only holidays more pointless and less fun than talking holidays were the ones like Washington’s Birthday (as it was then—not President’s Day) and Veteran’s Day—they were only good for a day off from school.
Now that I’m a grown up myself, I find that Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Besides the talking, which I now enjoy, I’ve developed a greater interest in food and Thanksgiving, as we all know, is all about the food. Because of this, I read the aforementioned holiday cooking magazines and cookbooks quite avidly, and I’ve noticed some things that I find tedious or unappealing, or both.
I just read Mark Bittman’s column in the New York Times last week in which he gave a sort of formula for stuffing or dressing. He claimed (rightly) that it was dressing rather than stuffing because he liked it cooked alongside the turkey, rather than in it. He feels that cooking it inside the bird makes it soggy and overly mushy. That happens to be how I like my stuffing, but I also like some of what’s cooked in a casserole with the turkey, so I can get that crisp top and drown it with gravy.
In any event, his “formula” called for bread, fat (he recommended butter), nuts for crunch, and something interesting as an add-in, such as apple, chestnuts, or sausage. Let me say right now that I always use Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, so I’m sure there are plenty of food professionals out there who would scorn my opinion as that of a philistine. However, I must protest a couple of Mr. Bittman’s suggestions. First, nuts do not belong in stuffing. I don’t care for nut breads, either. The contrast between the very firm crunch of the nut and the mush of the bread is just too much contrast for me. Second, while I heartily agree that sausage is excellent in stuffing, I can’t bear weird ingredients like apple, dried fruit, chestnuts, or oysters. Stuffing is supposed to be savory—keep the dried fruit out of it.
Also in my reading, I’ve come across several suggestions for stuffing not made with bread at all. Often recommended are things like wild rice, bulger, barley, and even quinoa. Any of these might be fine on any other day, but on Thanksgiving bread stuffing is the only way to go. If I were served one of those grain-based stuffings instead of bread stuffing, I’d feel like there was a huge hole in my Thanksgiving holiday.
Another suggestion I’ve read many times is for potatoes other than mashed. This is just wrong. Au gratin potatoes, twice baked potatoes, any of these preparations is, again, fine for a non-holiday meal. But Thanksgiving calls for mashed potatoes. After all, mashed potatoes and gravy is a classic. Who ever heard of au gratin potatoes and gravy? Ick.
And then I must protest the thousands of “new” ways to prepare turkey. I don’t mean the dozens of variations on herbs, rubs, and basting liquids. I mean all the ways they encourage cooking a turkey besides simply roasting it. What’s wrong with roasting it? We’ve been doing that for hundreds of years now, and it’s always worked fine for me.
But no, now we’re urged to deep fry it, or grill it, or smoke it. A friend of mine’s mother-in-law smoked their turkey one year, and my friend said it was the most disgusting thing she’d ever tasted. I can’t say if that’s because the mother-in-law is generally a pretty poor cook, or if smoked whole turkey is just a bad idea. I had deep fried turkey at a wedding one time (don’t ask—I’m not sure why), and it was fine, but boring. It tasted OK, but it was just turkey with deep fried coating on it. I really couldn’t see the point.
The other fad, which seems to show no signs of faltering or fading, is brining a turkey. That is, soaking it in a bath of salt water with some spice in it for a couple of days. Again, the appeal of this eludes me. The same chefs and food writers who scorn commercial turkeys (like Butterball) because they’re injected with salty water are perfectly OK soaking an organic free-range turkey in a similar salt water solution for a day or two before cooking. Seems to me it amounts to the same thing in the end.
I freely admit that I’m a Thanksgiving traditionalist and don’t want to deviate from the familiar. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, a vegetable or two, some rolls and butter, and a little dessert are all I ask for. I don’t require sweet potatoes. I can take them or leave them. And I prefer my turkey roasted, and wish all of those faddish ways of cooking turkey would go away. I guess some people get tired of the same meal year after year, but since it’s 364 days from one Thanksgiving to the next, I actually look forward to the same thing we had last year.