Photo by Mark Hunter
I may be the only person I know who actually looks forward to cooking big Thanksgiving dinners, to peeling sacks of potatoes, rinsing black grit from mountains of leeks, listening to the soft pop-pop of cranberries simmering in lakes of mulled wine. I have come to respect if not actually enjoy the feel of turkey slime, the scorched fingers that come with peeling freshly roasted chestnuts for stuffing, the annoying little blisters that sometimes come with wrestling an 18-pound turkey out of an undersize oven, the pie crust that can smell my fear. I love knowing that my refrigerator contains half a dozen bottles of Alsatian Riesling, that a magnum of Volnay is ready to be opened, the cheese is ripe, the walnuts are shelled, and the good pears are finally in season.
For cooks, Thanksgiving should be the best party of the year, celebrating the only holiday that revolves completely around food. It always seems a little Betty Crocker-ish to be the guy running around with platters of fried chicken on the Fourth of July or the little caviar canapés on New Year’s Eve, but this holiday is all about the kitchen, the turkey, cranberry sauce, the (God help us) candied yams with marshmallows.
Still, Thanksgiving itself is the opposite of bucolic, peopled with overmedicated spouses resentful for not being in Downey or in Connecticut, with grandfathers who lock themselves in their bedrooms, with great-aunts really ticked that once again nobody has bothered to serve their giant, toxic vats of ambrosia. One set of in-laws considers the holiday a bust without a very specific green-bean casserole, another pouts when the stuffing recipe somehow omits the canned mushrooms, a third is busy trying to contain their daughter’s hideous boyfriend. Great-grandmothers boycott. Spaniels wolf down hams. Young nephews re-purpose stairways as bobsled runs, swivel chairs as carnival rides, and kumquats as juicy missiles.
With the possible exception of a drunken bachelor party or a bris gone horribly, horribly wrong, there may be no official occasion on which the possibilities for disaster are quite so manifest.
Which is why in my house, Thanksgiving comes on the Sunday before the holiday itself, a day when the organic turkeys are still in the stores, the farmers markets burst with produce, the manifest delights of spoke-and-hub airplane travel are a couple of days in the future, and the idea of apple-and-chestnut stuffing seems delightful rather than a betrayal of family values.
If you like, you can think of it as an anti-judgmental dress rehearsal for Thanksgiving itself, an excuse to polish the good silver if you have any, unearth your grandmother’s old ring mold, and dig out the roaster from where you tossed it in the garage. As a bonus, by the time you finally get around to washing the pre-Thanksgiving dishes, it will be time to put them out again for the holiday itself.
At pre-Thanksgiving, if you want to make creamed leeks instead of stewed stringbeans, spoonbread instead of biscuits, or spiced crab apples instead of cranberry sauce, go right ahead — none of your friends will complain. If your proclivities run toward upside-down cake instead of pumpkin pie, that’s all right too. Don’t like yams? Don’t make them — everybody will have ample opportunities to eat them later in the week. And you can even mess around with the turkey if you want, which is an opportunity one’s own parents rarely afford.
My significant other and I both spent years in the trenches at food publications, where the fashions in turkey roasting loom as large as trends in, say, war and peace at Newsweek. The two of us spent more time than I like to admit up to our elbows in something the L.A. Times food section called the Times Turkey, a lumpy, graceless creation in which the stuffing went not into the cavity of the animal, but under its dimpled skin.
Was my mother happy to see the Times Turkey? She was not.
There was the year of the steamed Chinese-style turkey stuffed with Chinese sausage and sticky rice, which was just lovely, crisp-skinned and sweet as a Beijing duck, and the year everybody was pickling their turkeys in a seasoned brine before they roasted them, which gave the white meat a very nice flavor but gave the skin the appearance of what I can only compare to a carefully braised basketball (the gravy made from the drippings had a Dead Sea aspect to it I hope never to encounter again).
The low-heat turkey that was fashionable in the late ’90s never quite made it to my table — I got nervous about bacteria about halfway through the roasting and finished the bird off at a more respectable 350 degrees. Cookbook queen Barbara Kafka’s high-heat turkey was delicious, though it did fill the kitchen with dense, sage-scented smoke. Deep-fried turkey had its run; smoke-roasted turkey with chile salsa popped up from time to time. This year, Gourmet is plumping for turkey with pomegranate gravy; Food + Wine for an Alsatian-style cured bird that sounds as if it would go better with choucroute than with mashed potatoes. Juniper-scented turkey with sauerkraut may be the sort of dish you could only get away with at pre-Thanksgiving . . . my favorite party of the year.