Thanksgiving means something different to everyone—whether it’s a time to pig out or if you’re under the gun as hostess and cook, it’s a momentous gastronomical occasion. For amateur cooks, the perfect roast turkey sits on the horizon, like some unattainable golden goose. As writer Jeffrey Steingarten points out, “The turkey will be the largest creature most of us will ever cook.” For food writers, Thanksgiving is like Christmas for a preacher: coming up with new material every year is both a blessing and a curse. These eight food writers have tackled the subject, discussing family recipes, turkey (or lack thereof), leftovers, or hatred for the holiday. Hopefully these anecdotes will offer up culinary and conversational inspiration this Thanksgiving.
1. M.F.K. Fisher on Family
The grandmother of food writing, M.F.K. Fisher wrote on everything food-related, from how to cook dinner on a tight, depression-era budget to how to make pâté. In her 84 years she published over 20 books. Fisher, who raised her two daughters single-handedly, knew the importance of family dinners. In An Alphabet for Gourmets, in the chapter titled “Family,” she writes that though Norman Rockwell paintings convince us that Thanksgiving dinner is a time for merriment, “The cold truth is that family dinners are more often than not an ordeal of nervous indigestion, preceded by hidden resentment and ennui and accompanied by psychosomatic jitters.” But when a family dinner goes well, all the hard work is worth it. “There we were, leaning our arms easily along the cool wood, reaching without thought for our little cups of hot bitter coffee or our glasses, not laughing perhaps as families do in the pictures and the stories, but with our eyes loving and deep, one to another. It was good, worth the planning. It made the other necessary mass meals more endurable, more a part of being that undeniable rock, the Family.”
2. Nora Ephron on the Easiest Turkey Ever
Though well-known for Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, it’s obvious, from her novel Heartburn and now with Julie & Julia that Nora Ephron also feels passionately about food, finding the inevitable humor in large family gatherings and mass consumption. “And so, Thanksgiving. It’s the most amazing holiday. Just think about it—it’s a miracle that once a year so many millions of Americans sit down to exactly the same meal as one another, exactly the same meal they grew up eating, and exactly the same meal they ate a year earlier. The turkey. The sweet potatoes. The stuffing. The pumpkin pie. Is there anything else we all can agree so vehemently about? I don’t think so.” In an interview with Salon, Ephron reveals that she’s discovered the way to ace the turkey: “You salt and pepper it, and you can put Lowry’s seasoning salt on it if you want to, and you stick it in the pan at 450 and you do not do one thing to it. You don’t baste it, you don’t... You might have to cover it at a certain point. And you might have to drain some of the fat that comes off, but it’s all these years of endless basting for nothing, it turns out.”
“I reminded everyone how refreshing it would be to hear sports announcers call some annual tussle the Spaghetti Carbonara Day Classic.”—Calvin Trillin
3. Judith Moore on Gravy
For a history of the turkey and a fascinating account of how turkeys have sex, consult Judith Moore’s essay “Turkey Sex.” While you’re at it, you might as well read her entire collection, Never Eat Your Heart Out, may be the best collection of food essays ever written. Moore describes her Thanksgiving rituals: “For the cook, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner can be an ordeal. I remember, in my first years as a housewife, getting up out of a warm bed while my husband and children slept” to defrost and cook the turkey. But for Moore, the most difficult and also most satisfying fait accompli was her giblet gravy. “Generally, gravy is made by thickening and seasoning juices that drip and ooze from cooking meat. Those juices are a gift, really, as in one of the American Heritage’s definitions for gravy ‘payment or benefit in excess of what is experienced or required,’ . . . One good way to describe that ‘benefit in excess’ is a poem titled Gravy which Raymond Carver wrote not long before he died in 1988. Carver from the time he was a teenager had been a destructive drinker, and then in the mid-1970s, when a doctor told him he had to quit the bottle or die, he got sober. Ten years later, when another doctor told Carver he had lung cancer, he wrote Gravy, in which he urged readers, ‘Don’t weep for me . . . I’m a lucky man. I’ve had teen years longer than I or anyone expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”
4. Jeffrey Steingarten on Stuffing
Vogue food-critic Jeffrey Steingarten recounts his favorite Thanksgiving in his book The Man Who Ate Everything, which utilizes a recipe for Thompson’s Turkey, by Morton Thompson, a 1930s newspaperman. Aside from the labor-heavy recipe for roasting the turkey, the stuffing recipe is a feat even for accomplished chefs. “As the stuffing contains 29 ingredients, it took me three hours to get the bird in the oven, and not only because my spice shelf had fallen out of alphabetical order; nearly every spice I possess found its place in Thompson’s stuffing. The completed mixture is reminiscent of no identifiable cuisine; it includes ingredients like crushed pineapple and canned water chestnuts that daring housewives of 50 years ago put into nearly everything they cooked. And it contains garlic, which was even too daring for most housewives 50 years ago when the American kitchen was still in the thrall of Anglo-German flavor phobias. Made with fresh herbs instead of Thompson’s dried, and with several ambiguities in the shopping list properly resolved, this is the most delicious bread stuffing I have ever tasted.”
5. Laurie Colwin on Turkey (or Seasonal Angst)
Laurie Colwin, the late food writer for Gourmet and author of several books, including the cherished Home Cooking, understood why turkey is reserved for Thanksgiving. In More Home Cooking, she describes trying to cook turkey breasts during the off-season, only to be disappointed. “There is really a je ne sais quoi about turkey cooking—the air of festivity, the family squabbles, the constant basting—that does not apply to the turkey breast, which is, really, a convenience of food... A turkey without seasonal angst is like a baseball game without a national anthem, a winter without snow, a birthday party without candles. For better or worse the exhaustion, the exhilaration, the expectations and the complications are a kind of emotional condiment, the secret element that gives turkey its essential spirit.”
6. Ruth Reichl on Dumpster Diving
Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet and author of Garlic and Sapphires and other books, loves Thanksgiving. “I can’t wait for Thanksgiving to come. It’s my favorite holiday because we all get to think about delicious food all the time. I make this delicious fruit and nut stuffing for my husband Michael Singer. I usually make four or five pies for Thanksgiving. I love the pie-perfumed air that fills the air at our house on Thanksgiving weekend.” But Reichl’s Thanksgivings weren’t always so traditional. As she recounts in her memoir Tender at the Bone, one Thanksgiving, living the Hippy life with friends in Berkeley, they decided to forgo the bird because “How could we even consider such a thing? Turkeys were not only high on the food chain but more of the more egregious examples of the vertical integration of agribusiness.” They go to the grocery store dumpster to forage for food, find potatoes, butter, and celery. Later, as the group works in the kitchen cooking a Cajun-style meal, one guest returns to the dumpster and brings back a turkey, still wrapped in the plastic. “We all stared at the bird. There were twelve people in the kitchen at that moment, and every one of us had the sense not to ask where it had come from.”
7. Calvin Trillin on Spaghetti Carbonara
Calvin Trillin has been on a national campaign since the early ‘90s to make Spaghetti Carbonara the national Thanksgiving dish. In his book, The Tummy Trilogy, he writes: “It would also not require much digging to discover that Christopher Columbus, the man who may have brought linguine with clam sauce to this continent, was from Genoa, and obviously would have sooner acknowledged that the world was shaped like an isosceles triangle than to have eaten the sort of things that the English Puritans ate. Righting an ancient wrong against Columbus, a great man who certainly did not come all this way only to have a city in Ohio named after him, would be a serious historical contribution. Also, I happen to love Spaghetti Carbonara. It was at other people’s Thanksgiving tables that I first began to articulate my Spaghetti Carbonara campaign—although, since we were usually served turkey, I naturally did not mention that the campaign had been inspired partly by my belief that turkey is basically something college dormitories use to punish students for hanging around on Sunday... I reminded everyone how refreshing it would be to hear sports announcers call some annual tussle the Spaghetti Carbonara Day Classic.”
8. Frank Bruni on Leftovers
Former New York Times food critic and author of the foodie memoir Born Round describes his “endless Thanksgiving feast” in an essay for Real Simple magazine that begins at the table and moves to a very important pay-off from Thanksgiving: the Leftovers. In his family, the tradition is turkey sandwiches, not the day after, or a week after Thanksgiving, but turkey sandwiches immediately following dinner. A representative from Bruni’s family goes to the Italian bakery for sandwich rolls that “aren’t so much beds as thrones for the tiers of white and dark meat” topped with “mayonnaise and Miracle Whip, two kinds of mustard, pan gravy, canned cranberry jelly, fresh cranberry sauce, and even, incredibly, stuffing.” Though these sandwiches sound absolutely delicious, Bruni is "moved less by its majesty than by its context—by my sense of the ritual surrounding it as something that sets my family apart and, really, defines us.”
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Thanksgiving dinner is our favorite meal of the year. Not only is it a holiday filled with fabulous eating, family and football, but it is also the day when we give our diets a hall pass, stuffing ourselves in a way we would never dream of the other 364 days of the year. But more than the food we savor, it is the scent of the feast that we love and that endures.
The sense of smell, more than sight, hearing or even taste, is where we store our most cherished and vintage memories. Once you raise that first fork full of stuffing, you begin to breathe in a memory of your childhood. As you sit at the table with your kids, parents, aunts, cousins and friends, the homeward journey begins.
Lisa and I are getting ready for the holiday at our two homes and have asked our friends about their traditions. While hewing to the classics, they shared their favorites. Both traditional and idiosyncratic, all are treasured like family heirlooms.
Imagine getting up on Thanksgiving morning to the luscious smell of Darryl’s pumpkin bread baking in the oven. An aromatic wake up call, the scent might lure even our sleepy college kids out of their beds and into the kitchen for a slice and their first cup of coffee. Sharon’s kids depend on her cinnamon rolls to get the holiday started early on Thursday while Risa’s festive breakfast is French toast made with Challah and eggnog.
Slowly, the turkey begins a four, five, six-hour roast, until it’s finally ready to be presented as the centerpiece of the feast. With the bird underway, we turn our attention to the sides, where family traditions and regional preferences come into play. Many of us have dishes we prepare once a year on Thanksgiving and only Thanksgiving. Helene told us about the “Leenzil’s Thanksgiving Salad” she makes with cherry jello and Caryn offered her favorite, so-called “Cheese Jello,” which she acknowledges as sounding weird but swears her family loves it.
At Lisa C’s house, it is a corn casserole she bakes with cheese until it’s melted and bubbling. She slides a double batch into the oven so her daughters and grandsons have an extra helping to take home with them.
Though we live in New York, my kitchen smells more like my mom’s house in Texas with cornbread baking in a cast iron skillet and the roasted sweet potatoes I whip with bourbon for a souffle. Each Thanksgiving dinner, I keep my most traditional of sources, Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook close at hand.
Potatoes, stuffing, roasted butternut squash, rolls – each dish renders a unique smell. With the ever-more ready turkey roasting in the oven, these combine, creating a signature fragrance greeting guests the moment they step through our front doors.
Pumpkin pie rules on Thanksgiving but caramel apple and chocolate pecan pies sound amazing, especially if pastry chef and writer, Mindy, is the one baking.
Everyone gathers, talks, eats, takes seconds, and…..dinner ends, with a slice of pie and a side of football. Cleanup. Deep breath, rest….
If we’ve planned it just right, Thanksgiving stretches into a multi-day feast with signature leftovers as an eagerly anticipated Act Two. Sharon gushes about her mom’s turkey chile and turkey meatloaf. For Theresa, our photographer and friend, it’s turkey noodle soup.
This year, we are planning to try out the Turkey Posole soup from Katie Workman. You can find the recipe in her wonderful cookbook The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket.
But Thanksgiving holiday doesn’t stop on Friday when your guests arrive carrying suitcases. When you have college kids coming back for a holiday break, they long for the home-cooking that is sorely missing on their meal plans.
Lisa L received an SOS from her college daughters for matzoh ball soup. With both kids sick, and sick of dorm food, she is ready with both the soup and the TLC they can count on once they set foot in the door.
While the multiple dishes that make up Thanksgiving dinner create a complex bouquet, a big pot of soup simmering for hours on the stove has a simpler smell. More like a pot of love, the smell of Lisa’s chicken noodle soup permeates her house, filling it with both the scent of the dish and affection of the cook.
With great thanks to our friends who contributed to this story, Mary Dell and Lisa wish you all a delicious Thanksgiving week.
Photo credit: Pumpkin pie: sea turtle