By Patrick F. Cannon
I have been told by those in the know that fear of Thanksgiving dinner is growing every year. Many couples and even families have fled their homes on this hallowed day, ending up in some expensive restaurant that promises Thanksgiving dinner “with all the fixings.”
If I may say so, this unfortunate trend is distinctly un-American. It is, after all, our unique holiday, begun – if you recall your history – by the storied Pilgrims in the 1600s, who sat down to a Turkey and Boston baked bean dinner with their Native American neighbors. Now, of course, the Native Americans have been moved to their own verdant landscapes in the storied West, so we must make do with family and friends. The concept is however the same: we gather over a hearty meal and give thanks for out blessings, such as they are.
As I understand it, the fear involves that actual preparation of the meal. My dear wife Jeanette and I have been hosting Thanksgiving Dinner for more than 30 years. We are happy to share the experience gained with those whose trepidation has led them away from hearth and home on this hallowed day.
All festive occasions should begin with hors de oeuvres. Because the meal to follow is a bit on the heavy side, I would suggest lighter nibbles. Little pretzel sticks always go well, as do dry roasted peanuts. For the gourmets, you could offer that old standby, sour cream and onion dip, but instead of rippled potato chips, cut up some celery and carrots into bite-sized sticks. Please save the pate de foie gras for another day. The thoughtful host will also offer a full range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to liven up the pre-dinner festivities. To impress your guests, I have a suggestion – do as I do and make a one-time purchase of a premium booze, Makers Mark bourbon, for example. After you’ve enjoyed it yourself, fill the empty bottle with Old Rotgut. Your guests will be none the wiser.
But the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner is, of course, the turkey. A noble bird, indeed, and much improved during my long lifetime. Perhaps you recall Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “Freedom from Want,” one of four celebrating President Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (speech, worship, and from want and fear). In it, a beaming grandpa stands over the handsome bird, ready to carve it for his expectant and happy family. Tom Turkey looks scrumptious, but I can tell you from experience that looks can be deceiving.
In my youth, the bird often yielded dry white meat, which required copious amounts of gravy to make palatable. While the legs were moister, they were full of strange tendons and other bits and pieces, making it a challenge to separate enough flesh to actually eat. By contrast, today’s turkey is a miracle of modern science. Grandpa’s version was closer to the wild bird, which can scurry about and even fly for short distances. Through selective breeding and magic potions, we now have a fowl that can barely walk, much less fly, but yields much more – and more tender – white meat and much less supportive framework.
Nowadays, most folks buy a frozen bird. These are perfectly adequate and much less expensive than fresh, which you may also have to order in advance. If you’re a stickler for such things, suit yourself. Depending on the number of guests you expect, you can get one as small as 12 pounds or as large as 20 pounds or more. It should be purchased a week or so in advance, since it will take about that long to thaw in your fridge (a still frozen bird on Thanksgiving morning is a nightmare).
Some people, myself included, stuff the cavity with a mixture of bread and other stuff (my secret, alas). Others warn against this, claiming that if not fully cooked, it might kill you and your guests. Suit yourself, but I believe in actually cooking the turkey until it’s done. I have yet to lose anyone, and can tell you that the dressing cooked inside is tastier than that cooked outside. However, mine is so legendary that I have to do both to meet the demand.
There will be cooking directions on the bird’s wrapping and I suggest you follow them. As to the important gravy, I can offer no advice, since Jeanette makes it. As with so many other things, I refer you to the internet for suitable recipes.
As to side dishes, you must of course have mashed potatoes. The recipe is quite simple: cook suitable potatoes until tender, drain, then mash with whole milk, salt and pepper, and lots of butter. Depending on the state of your arm muscles, you can accomplish this with a manual masher or a stand mixer. Some people like to put other stuff in them, but why bother? Another classic side dish is the green bean casserole. This was invented in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly of the Campbells Soup Company, who died just this year at 92, full of deserved honors. The recipe includes green beans, mushroom soup (of course) and French-fried onions. Again, the internet is your source for detailed instructions.
Jeanette insists upon sweet potatoes, although I deplore them. If you decide to have them, make sure they’re cloyingly sweet and are topped with melted marshmallows. You should have at least one more vegetable. I recommend carrots. After peeling, I cut them on the bias, which gives them a jaunty look. They go well tossed with a bit of honey. Based on experience, I know that my wife will almost certainly make another vegetable. Because of the number of dishes, the standard dinner plate is not considered sufficient, so a smaller side plate is also provided.
I almost forgot cranberry sauce. I favor the canned, jellied variety. It comes out of the can in an impressive cylinder, which can be sliced into rounds, and arranged on a serving plate with perhaps a sprig of parsley to set it off.
As to wines, I prefer a good pinot noir and a dry Riesling; your guests should find one or the other to their taste. For desert, pumpkin pie is a traditional choice. For the more adventurous, can I recommend that other classic from the nation’s test kitchens – mock apple pie? I have written previously about my admiration for the anonymous genius who was able to look at the simple Ritz cracker and conjure up an apple pie without needing the fruit itself. A suitable ending, I think, for this most American of celebratory meals.
As you can see, it’s all very simple and doable. Why would anyone choose to go to a restaurant instead?
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon