|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Samantha Peale on Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well by Sam Sifton
November 22nd, 2012
IN NOVEMBER 2003, I SPENT my last Thanksgiving holiday on the East Coast with my dearest friend, Tina, and her husband, Sam Sifton, author of the recently released Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well. Twenty of us gathered in the garden behind their Long Island cottage on a hard, gray afternoon. A massive turkey gurgled in the boiling oil of a cauldron, and a safe-ish distance from it Sifton opened oysters with a sinister knife and served his guests expertly. His father wore a tweed jacket and leaned against a tree trunk while describing the sharp climate in Sag Harbor, across the bay. My husband braved an oyster. A single one. I’m a guest who doesn’t eat shellfish, so I doubled down on prosecco to be polite.
Inside, Tina laid a red runner on top of a cream tablecloth, as Sifton describes in Thanksgiving. There was candlelight and firelight, and our cheeks were rosy from the damp chill outside and the wine. There was a lot of bustle and laughter.
Besides the bird, Sifton prepared the gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and maple-glazed carrots. He worked the stove-top and oven like Bunsen Honeydew. He delegated the three-pepper stuffing and the pies to friends who’d already perfected those recipes. Judge Sifton brought his famed Brussels sprouts doused in cream. I made a delicious chocolate cake, which it pains me to think of since reading in Thanksgiving that chocolate should be saved for “nights of anxiety and depression.” We felt we were part of something special, as people do when they collaborate on something challenging and it turns out well, or turns out at all.
I thought this version of the holiday, with so many people, spanning three or four generations under one small roof, the different contributors to the meal working under Sifton’s guidance to do things well, which in this case meant correctly (except for me, anxious chocolate lover), and the feeling of harmony, and sweet drunkenness, was romantic and novel. It was like watching a play and acting in it simultaneously. Did the booze keep the family from fighting? Why weren’t any of them taking sarcastic swipes at each other? How come they all let Sifton order them around without resisting? That would never happen in my family. I was fascinated by this cozy, Sifton-brand Thanksgiving that had been cooked well and with curious obedience. I was, indeed, thankful. Except for a minute when Sifton declined to even taste my holiday-inappropriate chocolate cake.
When I moved my family west, I learned that, despite what Sifton claims about the holiday being the same all over with minor regional differences, you cannot have his sort of big, agreeable, crisp New England–style Thanksgiving in Los Angeles. Not least of all because it is never crisp. It is sunny and hot, or it is sunny and not terribly hot. It might be a little crisp in the wee hours while we sleep, but we don’t know. How could we? For any holiday or occasion, we can count on weather conditions to be dusty. We don’t pad around the Spanish-style stucco house or the bungalow court or the pool cabana in our wool socks on Thanksgiving morning, as Sam Sifton does. All the wool socks are in a bin in the garage with our snowboarding gear. We wear flip-flops.
This year Thanksgiving feels more important than last. Our president was resoundingly re-elected. Our friends and families up and down the Eastern Seaboard were slammed by Hurricane Sandy; many of them will face the winter and a new year without homes. Across the country we take stock of what we have, what our neighbors have lost, and how we might help. It’s a great year to give our all to the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast and to share it with people we love.
Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well is a book that could make even the worst ingrate from New England or the mid-Atlantic yearn for exactly the holiday they fled the East Coast to escape, one with a lot of rules and dogma. Even if your family never cooked it well: Maybe you had plastic platters, or a cauliflower–and–Famous Durkee Sauce appetizer, or your mom has a serious bird phobia so she only roasted beef. Maybe you’ve been feeding your family three squares a day for a few decades and it’s hard to look forward to an outsize meal. Thanksgiving’s good-humored bossiness will set you on a fresh course, ready to meet the demands of the day. But if you’re cooking on the West Coast, there are additional rules.
An aggregation of my own polls of native Californians, East Coast transplants, parents from my kids’ school, their soccer teams, neighbors, and an Irishman show that the first hindrance to a traditional American Thanksgiving meal in Los Angeles County is that you can’t put together a table of friends and family who will all eat turkey. You would be hard pressed to find a group willing to share table space with a platter of light and dark meat and not insult you for cooking the animal in the first place. In fact, the first guest to arrive at your house will leave his flip-flops and yoga mat inside the door, park himself at the head of your red runner, and announce that he no longer eats meat:
“It’s very recent and it’s not something I want to impose on anyone else, but it’s important for me not to take part in the industrial slaughter of animals in America. I make an exception only when it’s a special occasion and I know the provenance of the meat.”
“Thanksgiving is a special occasion,” you reply. “I bought a kosher bird.”
You could quote Sifton’s description of the differences between birds here — frozen, fresh, kosher, free-range, organic, heritage — but it won’t matter to this quasi-vegetarian, your beloved friend who brought a dozen spliffs to share instead of wine. He will screw up his lightly tanned nose, and there’s plenty more judgment where that came from. You’re already failing to cook the meal correctly.
Another obstacle to creating a traditional Thanksgiving in Los Angeles is the dearth of Americans available to interpret the holiday according to the standard turkey-gravy-stuffing/dressing model. My Sierra Leonean neighbors celebrate the bounty of the country with Jallof Rice, a stew of meat and tomatoes. Then there's the artist Yoko Kanayama, who each year prepares a Thanksgiving appetizer of eel sushi with help from her husband, Michael, a Connecticut Yankee by way of Belgium. You try convincing Yoko to forgo all hors d'oeuvres, as Sifton prescribes, when she presents a porcelain platter of her delicate eel sculptures. The situation is serious in the West, where it’s a tradition to be suspicious of tradition; it’s not as easy as forbidding marshmallows or out-of-season asparagus at the table.
Around here, if you refer to Thanksgiving as American, you will be justly corrected that what you mean is norteamericano. Your Mexican friends will “Latinize” the food. The turkey is chickens from the coop out back, and it will be lemony, like EL Pollo Loco takeout, or it will have an adobo rub (which includes garlic, a banned substance in the Thanksgiving kitchen), and it will be served with beans, rice, and tortillas. Mashed potatoes and yams are forsaken for tamales. The Garcia-Davidge family, friends in Pasadena, turn the annual feast into a competition, the Colonizer vs. the Colonized. They prepare both traditional British and Mexican food for their children, the judges. The Armenian-Americans with whom I discussed the holiday menu laid claim to a traditional American feast based on their lamb-stuffed turkey, followed by flan for dessert. Maybe Sifton could make them see the error of their ways, but I doubt it. His research shows there were no potatoes at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, but does that mean we shouldn’t embrace lime Jell-O with pineapple and cottage cheese in 2012?
Each guest’s arrival is marked by his reaction to the aroma of the roasting bird — “Whoa, that’s intense!” — prompting your friend to deliver his speech about industrialized slaughter. Get smart and prepare Toby Sifton’s eggnog in anticipation. The drink contains a terrifying amount of liquor, four different kinds, plus 10 eggs and heavy cream. Undone by the entertainment industry, a number of your guests are sober now, which means more for you. Go easy on the nog — otherwise the food won’t hit the table until midnight.
Your sister-in-law and her husband brought an apple tart, made last weekend with organic farmers’ market fruit. There’s no sugar in the recipe because they don’t eat sugar anymore. “It’s like a drug! The kids go berserk when they have refined sugar, jumping around and hollering!” When you peek under the foil, you see that the tart is a little bit moldy. Don’t let your root vegetables dry out while you figure out whether to try to scrape the mold off or delicately tell your sister-in-law why you aren’t going to serve the dessert. You wish Sam Sifton still ran the Thanksgiving Help Line at The New York Times, because no matter how you handle the situation, you won’t be forgiven for a year.
Other guests include a couple of vegetarians and their lactose-intolerant children. They ran a five-kilometer turkey trot in Burbank “first thing,” though not before you started cooking. The kids placed in their age groups, and now they’re done bragging to your offspring, who played in the yard all morning with their nunchakus so they wouldn’t upset the place settings.
“We’re starving and ready to eat like horses,” say the vegetarians.
“Horses eat hay, apples, and chocolate,” says your six year-old, who won’t eat turkey or potatoes or yams or anything with discernable cheese or cream, unless it’s pizza or whipped cream. He cuts the air with a few terrifying nunchaku figure eights, just so we all know who’s boss.
The cyclists brought a lovely sweet potato and chard gratin, except they sprinkled the top with cashews. Good thing half the guests have EpiPens with them.
You don’t imagine this happening in the Long Island cottage, do you? At Sam Sifton’s Thanksgiving, the guests might go a little rogue with roasted whole heads of garlic for appetizers or the aforementioned chocolate cake, but in general they allow themselves to be governed in ways that Angelenos would never stand for, no matter who was in charge. Angelenos are beyond rogue. They are purposely rebellious and innovative with their medical marijuana, sushi, and tortas gallegas. It’s as though they just don’t want to eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
Sifton would implore me to be patient and keep my good humor. His meals are usually a mixture of deliciousness and hilarity, even high jinks. In the mid-1990s, when my husband and I lived in the apartment neighboring Tina and Sam’s in a drafty old warehouse in Brooklyn, he cooked on a highly inconsistent 20-inch stove or he climbed out his kitchen window to smoke pork butts on the roof of the soap factory next door. He leaped up on the sill and dove out into the cold or rain to tend the grill he’d bought at the hardware store on Metropolitan Avenue. Plenty of times the meals were all meat. “Vegetables are overrated,” he once joked. We were all really young.
My sons and I, excited by the arrival of Thanksgiving and the approach of the holiday, made Sifton’s pumpkin pie after school.
“We gotta practice for the big day,” said my 9-year-old.
None of us had made a pumpkin pie before, and I was mighty glad to have Sifton’s recipe to check carefully every step of the way. We made no substitutions of ingredients, though in lieu of a rolling pin we used nunchakus to roll out the dough, which worked well. We shopped together, took turns executing the instructions, and played a game of hearts on the kitchen floor while we waited for our pie to bake. We didn’t take any shortcuts, we cleaned up before the pie had cooled, and after a routine midweek dinner we shared a magical dessert, topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.
We won’t cut corners on Thanksgiving day either, which is perhaps the best lesson of Thanksgiving. We will commit to the holiday, to joining forces, most of us far from whence we came, missing our parents and our crisp native habitats. There will be an herb-roasted turkey, copious amounts of smooth gravy, and vegan-friendly stuffing. As far as I know, none of our guests are gluten-free — yet. If that changes, next year provides another opportunity to try and wow them.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I scoffed at the local propensity for dietary challenges that are not meant to inhibit anyone else but invariably control the menu and dominate the conversation with talk of bowels and holistic doctors. But these picky eaters are my friends, sometimes my family, and when they come for dinner, I want them to leave happy and sated, without regrets. I want them to say, “That was a good party,” as Sifton suggests. That’s all. And that’s everything. There is only one way I’ve discovered to feed every one of them — the first-generation norteamericanos, the native Californians, the recent immigrants, the carnivores, the refuseniks, renegades, and innovators. It is Sam Sifton’s number one banned substance: salad, grown in nearly every neighbor’s garden. Hold the nuts.