Friday, November 21, 2008

On Thanksgiving dinner

ROBERTA: It's hard to concentrate on writing right now because Thanksgiving dinner will be at my place next week. We'll be eleven. And so as hard as I try to focus on my new novel's synopsis, my mind wanders off to the menu. My husband's siblings will all contribute (the sweet potato casserole, the mashed potatoes and turnips, the brussel sprouts), leaving me with the turkey, the gravy, the stuffing, and the pies. Pies are easy--I'll bake a delicious pumpkin-maple pie and a chocolate cream pie, which is nontraditional but universally adored. But I agonize over the stuffing. It has to be homemade--no Pepperidge Farm bread cubes for me. One year when I lived in the South, I produced an oyster stuffing, which was expensive and labor-intensive. And no one has ever requested a repeat. Last year I tried a cornbread and sausage affair that horrified the vegetarians. I'll be happy to take suggestions from the floor. And what's your Thanksgiving dinner routine? Does the earth shake if you don't stick to the traditional menu?

Ro: Every Thanksgiving is different for me...from what we eat, to where we eat, who is there, and what day it is. (For years we had Thanksgiving on the Friday after T'day.) With three stepsons, assorted partners, ex-wives, new husbands and children from previous alliances...I just go where I'm told or ask for a head count (if I'm cooking.) I love everything on Roberta's menu so she doesn't know it, but I will be showing up at her place on Thursday.

When I have some say in the matter - aside from the turkey - I always make a cranberry tart. It's an old Martha Stewart recipe from the book Entertaining, which my husband published 26 years ago. It's foolproof, looks gorgeous and I could eat it everyday. If I'm cooking I like to watch videos in the kitchen while I'm preparing...Love, Actually, Miracle on 34th Street, and um...sometimes...Gladiator. ;-)

HANK: Ro, I just burst out laughing. (I have that cookbook. I'm going to look up that recipe this instant.)
Anyway. My little brother Chip, who is an environmental attorney in Colorado, was the one who always needed to have Thanksgiving be just the same every year. Long long ago, like, 35 years ago? My mother would make a jello mold (yup) black cherry jello with black cherries suspended in it. Decades later, when Jello-anything was far from our consciousness but we still all had Thanksgiving together, Chip was bummed because there was no cherry jello. It just meant Thanksgiving to him.

In other Thanksgiving news---when we were growing up, we had huge Thanksgiving dinners. So big, Mom would make two turkeys. Each year, she carefully made oyster dressing AND plain dressing. That way, one turkey could be delicious and pristine for us kids, and the other, filled with yucky disgusting slimy oyster dressing, could be reserved for the adults.

Fast forward again. I'm maybe 25. And in the kitchen watching Mom make the two turkeys. Without hesitation, she put oysters in the bowl of stuffing. And then proceeded to put oyster stuffing in BOTH turkeys. Mom Mom, I cried. Wait! You're putting oyster stuffing in both turkeys!

She gave me that Mom look. Of course I am, she said. I've been doing it every year of your life. I just told you kids there was plain stuffing so you would eat it.

ROBERTA: So do you make the oyster stuffing these days Hank? And Ro, we'd love to have you. Dinner's at 3. Bring the hubby and the dog--and the tart! What about the rest of you, Thanksgiving specialties anyone?
(Photo credits: dinner by orphanjones, cranberry pecan tart by bucklave, oyster by adactio)


  1. Of course not! NO slimy oysters in my dressing..just Trader Joes multi-grain bread that I leave out for two days, mirepoix of celery, carrots and onions; sage and spices, and lots of butter.

    (And I don't cook it in the turkey anymore. It's a miracle we didn't all die from salmonella.)

    And then--the terrifying quandary of THE GRAVY. Every year the same wail of apprehension goes out from my brain: HOW do you make gravy???

    (I'm a corn starch and water devotee...but the whole process still sends me into a tizzy.)

  2. I, too, LOVE LOVE LOVE Thanksgiving...for family, friends, and for the food. Our Thanksgiving meal is shared with a bunch of omnivores, three vegetarians, one person who's lactose-intolerant, and another who's wheat-intolerant. So I use rice flour for the gravy and vegetable stock for the butternut squash soup, and there's lots of dishes so no one starves.

    And honestly, as gourmet a cook as I, am I wouldn't have anything but packaged seasoned stuffing (Pepperidge Farm does very nicely, thank you very much) leavened with chopped onion and celery and, of course, smothered in homemade gravy.

    The problem with a stuffed bird is that you don't get the pan drippings that you'd get with an unstuffed bird. So the gravy is more of a challenge. Anyone have a way around this gotcha, short of wringing out the stuffing??

  3. Hallie,
    I'm with you on the Pepperidge Farm cubes. And with Roberta on the chocolate cream pie. I don't have to have Thanksgiving in the same place, but when I cook, I HAVE to have the same selection of pies (apple, pumpkin, chocolate cream.) and Kielbasa as an appetizer because my mother was Polish.
    I like flour instead of cornstarch in the gravy (makes a less shiny gravy) and dried cranberries in the stuffing. I think it tastes better cooked in the bird and as long as you wait until right before it goes in to stuff it, you don't have to worry about Salmonella ------I hope!

  4. What is with oysters? Squishy things, ick.

    I cooked my first turkey my senior year in high school, because I wanted the whole family to go to our Thanksgiving Day football game. Now I can do it in my sleep. The secret is...that tacky Pepperidge Farm stuffing in a bag. Thanksgiving just doesn't taste right without it--I think it's the MSG.

    Hank, my grandmother could not cook. I mean, she never learned, at all. She could make meatloaf and fudge--and gravy. She was always the designated gravy maker, and it was always great. Turkey grease, flour, stock--presto!

    I keep promising myself that one of these years I'm going to head to Plimoth Plantation (a mere twenty minutes away) and let them do the whole thing!

  5. Oh, Ro! I can't tell you how many times I've hauled out Martha Stewart's Entertaining. (I can practically recite the Christmas book--I have a first edition and a softcover version.) I have a few of the millions of other books she's been associated with (we all know she doesn't write them, right?), but the first few were the best.

    My mother is 82 and is "doing Thanksgiving" next week. Which means that I will be "doing" a lot of it "with" her.

    And I thought we were the only ones in the US who ate brussels sprouts.

  6. Well, I like shiny gravy.

    And Pepperidge farm cubes are great, love the seasoning, but TJ bread has fewer sugars. Also--Whole Foods has a wonderful seasoning herbs and spices mix, it's fresh and comes in a little plastic container.

    And for the juices have that whole pan when you take the turkey out. So I put it right on the stove, turn up the heat, and add water and white wine. Stir it so all those nice black and brown bits some off the botom and edges, and simmer for awhile.

    Then add the cornstarch (sorry Jan)that's already been mixed into a paste in cold water. Very important! So, no lumps. Salt and pepper.

    And now, I'm so hungry!

  7. Lorraine, Hallie has the best Brussels sprouts recipe! I don't really like them--but I love hers!

    And Sheila, my producer Mary went to PP a few years ago. Ask her about it before you go...

  8. I'm getting hungry reading these comments! I roast my turkey with chicken broth in the pan, sometimes mixed with some water depending on how long it roasts and how much I have to add. I use that to make the gravy (flour for me).
    When I was little my grandmother always made the turkey and brought it to our house, and *every, single year* she would say "God sends the food, the devil sends the cook." Didn't go over well with my mother who had made most of the meal!

  9. Oh, Peg, I love hearing about those family sayings!

    Every year we'd sit down at the table, after a whole day of cooking and table setting and flowers and yelling kids and people asking for lunch (the WORST) and when we were finally at the table, my step-father would say
    "How do you like it so far?"

    And we'd all howl with laughter.

  10. I think there must be a secret society of women who love brussels sprouts! I just had lunch with a woman and the two of us confessed our love for them and split a dish for lunch.
    Lorraine, I've gone through 3 copies of Entertaining getting my last one a year ago when MS did an ann'y show. I was in the audience watching my husband and his friends reminisce about the good old days. Check out the recipe for chocolate pecan tartlets. And the applesauce spice cake. They're orgasmic.

  11. My favorite family Thanksgiving story was from my mom's side. I don't know whose idea it was, but back in the 1930s they cooked the turkey overnight at about 175 degrees...Everyone spent Thanksgiving night throwing up, etc. It's only my favorite story because no one died!

    My most distressing Thanksgiving was when we found out the day before that P had testicular cancer and they were going to have to operate at 8 a.m. Friday morning. We had to petition my MIL to move the 6 pm hors d'ouerves back ONE hour so we could drive there and back home (two hours) that night. You would have thought we'd asked the sun to set an hour earlier! Same exact menu for 45 years....

    We do our own little Thanksgivings now. Much less stress. This year we're even taking the kids to a fun, secret location!

  12. Peanut Soup - a recipe from Williamsburg. Man, you don't even want to know the calories(Just Don't Ask), but its rich overwhelming wonderfulness is a solid presence for us vegetarians sidestepping the turkey.

    Oh, I do love to make (and eat!) peanut soup.

  13. Hmm, peanut soup...does not sound like it would float my boat. Maybe if you listed the fattening ingredients:).

    And Laura, we're dying to know the top secret location...

  14. This 'un. :-D


  15. Just had to add: my daughter, the novice cook, found a recipe for Brussels sprouts that involves caramelizing them in butter and sugar. Sounds weird, but the sugar cuts the bitterness and they're delicious! Who knew? (Actually I've always liked them.)

    This year she's volunteered to make stuffed butternut squash. Should be interesting.

  16. Oh, I love stuffed butternut squash. Thanksgiving food is such an opportunity for texture and flavor combinations.

    And having just got out of the hospital, where 'vegetarian bland' was labeled on the top of every meal, boy am I grateful to be home again in the festive season!

    Roasted tomatoes with parmesan, sweet corn with lime sour cream sauce, cranberry Wensleydale cheese on octagonal wheat crackers, cream of peanut soup with chipotle. Color! Texture! Taste!

    I just had a pumpkin polenta that was out of this world.

    Yum, yum.

    Happy, blessed Thanksgiving to you all.

  17. Roberta, any chance of your posting the recipe for the maple pumpkin pie? I doubt I'll be allowed to make it this T'giving, but I love baking and it sounds delicious!

    Hank--your mom, my mom--sisters under the skin. Not oysters, no, but if they'd been there, she'd have done that! And I'd have gotten the same eye roll years later.

    I'm rebelling against the green beans I usually do, and this year I'm making an orange, dried cranberry, toasted almond thingy I created. Since I rarely "create" food worth eating, I'm feeling pleased and proud.