Recipe for Disaster
When Thanksgiving Dinner Goes Awry for Celebrity Chefs
Holiday cooking accidents don’t just happen to you but also to the pros.
Halloween is like a signpost on the parkway of life, every year it pops up announcing that we are leaving normalcy and entering the dangerous holiday zone, which begins any second now and ends with a pot of black eyed peas on January 1. As you read this, airline tickets are being purchased, menus planned, phone calls made. Some folks have even begun hurling barbs at friends and family to start their first arguments of the season!
It was in the spirit of these times that I found myself musing on what I actually look forward to about Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t quite an Oprah-style meditation on what I’m thankful for in a big, life affirming way, but more of what I look forward to and, perhaps more importantly, what I’d be happy to never see happen at my holiday table again.
I can’t wait for oysters, and oyster stuffing. I’m looking forward to writer Calvin Trillin’s plea for us all to eat Spaghetti Carbonara, or at least my dad’s yearly championing of this idea. I love my friend Evelyn’s spinach madeleine, straight out of the River Road Junior League’s cookbook. I can’t wait to make a broth from the carcass of our Greenberg smoked turkey and use it as the base of a ramen on Black Friday. Other things, however, I have less robust enthusiasm for: Why are Thanksgiving vegetables so weird? What accident—burnt rolls, grease fires, frozen pipes and dented fenders—will visit us this year?
The holiday might be fun, but it ain’t easy. And those colorful Thanksgiving disasters become part of family lore and their retelling becomes its own tradition. To help you prepare for Thursday, I asked a number of celebrity chefs for their favorite turkey day mishaps, which, yes, even happen to the pros.
Guy Fieri took a moment from working on his new Food Network show, Guy’s Big Project, to reminisce with me. “Before it was popular, I attempted to deep fry a turkey in oil in the backyard. I miscalculated the turkey to oil ratio and ended up making a small fireball!”
He’s not the only one. Sunny Anderson, also of the Food Network (and inventor of the ingenious Infladium), burned up a swath of her yard trying to fry a turkey “Concrete…works best,” she sternly tells me.
But accidents happen even if you’re not so adventurous. Celebrity chef and Chopped judge, Amanda Freitag, cooked a Thanksgiving in her tiny kitchen in Chelsea and, no joke, dropped the turkey on the floor. “It was a total Julia Child moment,” she remembers, with a laugh. But “It was really good, though.”
But Andrew Zimmern takes the cake, pun intended, on the best Thanksgiving horror story. “I made molasses cakes and grabbed a jar from the cupboard,” he recalls. “I was nursing a cold and couldn’t smell the homemade fish sauce caramel I had grabbed by accident. Boy, were they awful.” (To help you avoid any missteps, he just posted a bunch of new tutorials for staple Thanksgiving dishes on his site.)
Thanksgiving, of course, comes in many forms. Freitag has been working since she was fifteen and spent more holidays eating a staff meal than anything else. Anderson’s family shucked a bushel of oysters in the backyard. Zimmern, whose family was very food forward the rest of the year, reverted to tradition for Thanksgiving. Fieri, on the other hand, grew up with big raucous meals: “If someone didn’t have a place to go, they were at our Thanksgiving table and typically brought a dish to share.”
Despite these variables, everyone seemed to agree that shortcuts are not in the spirit of the day.
Freitag remembers an unfortunate run in with a box of dehydrated potatoes “Whenever I cook potatoes I think about those,” she admits. Canned vegetables give her the shivers, too, especially canned asparagus.
Zimmern agrees: “I don’t use canned soups to make casseroles. To me, that’s cooking for days when we cut corners. That’s not Thanksgiving. I roast sweet potatoes and season them, mashing, with goat butter and brown sugar. I keep things simple.”
Good advice. Now, be careful with those turkey fryers, people.