Although food is an essential part of so many holidays, it seems that only Thanksgiving is celebrated almost solely at the table. Each year that brings forth online and in print, myriad suggestions and recipes for alternatives to the time-tested standards, for reasons that allude me. I have always wondered why, if a holiday occurs only once a year, do we need variety on the menu? The same old classics served in the same old way become icons, bringing reassurance and warm familiarity to diners, most especially children.
For many years my late husband, Richard Falcone, and I gave a huge open-house party for about 75 people on New Year’s Day. I always prepared a very authentic Scandinavian buffet, which featured the same foods year after year. I even presented it the same way each time. As one regular guest observed “One thing I can count on each year is that the gravlox will be on the round scalloped crystal platter, front and center with the mustard-dill sauce to the right, all on the table that is covered in the red damask cloth.”
One reasons for seeking a change, of course, could be a dislike of a particular dish, no matter how iconic, and for me that means, of all things, the turkey. I regard it as a big, unwieldy, clumsy, and uninteresting bird not worth the trouble, even if heritage, wild, organic, Tom, or otherwise pedigreed. No matter how carefully prepared and wrestled with, it holds no candle to capon, guinea hen, duck or, best of all, squab.
With that in mind, one year I decided to serve individual squabs to guests. It turned out to be far more expensive. In addition to the price of squab vs. turkey, the butcher charged $2 per bird for deboning the breast to make way for a stuffing of Italian sausage, pistachios, and porcini mushrooms. The extra work of stuffing and trussing each bird was offset for me by not having to go through the mess of carving. To serve, I just plopped one bird on each plate and I could join the party.
But I was not ready for the reaction of my guests. Trouble set in immediately when a savvy gourmet remarked, “ah, pigeon.” Many Americans who happily eat squab, blanch when they are reminded that it is pigeon by another name and so it was with several at my table. It went over even worse with the three children at the table who began to cry, probably because they imagined that I had gone out into Washington Square Park and caught the main course with a giant butterfly net.
As a result of that failed experiment, I ignore suggestions for substitute Thanksgiving main courses, including author Calvin Trillin’s inspired thought that spaghetti carbonara should replace the big bird. Now when I host Thanksgiving dinner, I serve up all clichés, save only marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes in favor of those that are simply candied with honey. And even though I prepare my own cranberry sauce with orange rind, almonds, and Grand Marnier, I display the shimmering, garnet contents of canned Ocean Spray cranberry jelly, arranged on a dish so that the ridged can marks are clearly in view. That dish is one of my favorite memories of childhood Thanksgivings.
My reward in suffering through a turkey is never far off for what I wait and watch for is the carcass. To me that is more of a treasure than the meat itself as simmered slowly with carrots, onions, and celery it becomes the basis of a huge amount of savory stock that I freeze in 4 to 6 portion amounts. Later I turn each batch into a soup: mushroom-and-barley, split-pea, lentil, cabbage, gumbo, each nurturing in the winter months ahead. To be sure that stock is adaptable to many seasonings, I only sprinkle the inside of the bird with salt and pepper stuff the cavity with sprigs of thyme, cloves of garlic, and chunks of onion. I rub good old aromatic Bell’s Seasoning liberally all over outside skin, but do not want any lodged within the bones to confuse other flavorings for the soups I create. Skin, by the way, does not go into that stock because after being roasted, it tends to add an overcooked, dark greasiness. As for meat left on the carcass, I remove as much as possible so it can be added to the finished stock without becoming mushily overcooked.
Oddly, though most of my Thanksgivings have been celebrated at home, the two most memorable were spent abroad. For one I was in Turkey, part of a four-month research trip around the world and I scheduled that stop because I thought it mildly amusing to be “in” Turkey on Thanksgiving rather than have turkey in me. To be sure, I spent half a day in an Istanbul hamam (Turkish bath), being steamed nearly into stock myself.
The other was in a beautiful home outside of Milano where I was guest of honor at a dinner party. Knowing it was the American Thanksgiving, the hostess prepared very small turkeys, maybe 8 pounds each, cut up and simmered like coq au vin but here with dried porcini and dark red nebbiolo wine. It was served forth on cushions of soft, sunny polenta and was perhaps, the only turkey for which I ever gave thanks.