LIKE any child of the ‘50s, I have warm and fuzzy memories of Thanksgiving being more of a marathon than a meal. We would eat until we almost hurt, then start all over again. A feast like that was just too rare to rush through.
Those long, lazy, dedicated-eating holidays were the antithesis of Thanksgiving today, when the cover line over the turkeys on all the food magazines really should read: “Gone in 60 seconds.” Most Americans can now demolish a groaning board in less time than it takes to set it. Somehow, the emphasis of the great unifying feast has shifted to the harried shopping and the frenzied cooking and the high anxiety in the kitchen. The actual eating gets the shortest of shrifts, so that the time spent together at the table -- the point of it all -- is almost an afterthought.
Probably any of the usual suspects can take the blame: a drive-through food culture; the siren call of 24-hour, 1,500-channel TV; a misplaced faith in multi-tasking; squirming discomfort with sit-down family meals. But whatever is at fault, it’s kicked the stuffing out of Thanksgiving.
I never thought about it until recently, but I’ve been subliminally fighting back for years. I want a meal that inspires lingering. One that requires ingredients any good supermarket carries and recipes that need no high-wire techniques to perfect. And I want the guests to stop and smell the gravy. That’s the tricky part.
Restaurants that serve Thanksgiving dinner have it easy -- they can serve courses to draw out the feast. But at home, seeing all 19 dishes laid out at once is half the pleasure of the day’s sensory overload.
Planting bumps in the road
With 22 Novembers of practice under my apron, I plan the meal backward, looking for ways to slow it down rather than rush to get it on the plate. The goal is a 33-rpm experience in a DSL world. Everyone at our table knows you come for dinner and stay for the day. And we don’t even have to lock them in.
One way to keep the chairs warm longer is to hold off on a couple of really great side dishes. After everyone has filled a plate with turkey and a surfeit of trimmings, I bring out the dinner rolls that were baking after the oven was emptied of sweet potatoes and stuffing. It’s like a butter-up call to pace yourself in case there’s more to come.
And I’ve learned to transform the inevitable leftover stuffing into a simple bread pudding, adding eggs and milk for a custardy effect. After everyone has experienced the meaty-fluffy stuffing that soaked up all the juices inside the turkey, they get a second taste and, inevitably, a second wind.
Varying the menu just slightly from year to year also has a slowing effect. No one rushes through it unthinkingly. We have to have certain dishes, like mashed potatoes and gravy, but we brine our turkey a different way every time, partly for the sane scientist in me and partly because people can taste the difference. This year it struck me that soy sauce along with the usual brine would add a little interest, and the skin would be dark perfection. It worked: It was the most beautifully browned bird I ever cooked, and the flavors were somehow more complex and unified.
I never make the same stuffing, either. I especially love a cornbread base, and spicy sausage like andouille or chorizo goes so well with it. A combination of raw onions and peppers with sauteed garlic and shiitakes creates contrasts in texture and flavor that make people stop and think.
I always cook sweet potatoes without sugar as a side dish to twist perceptions (I’m proud to say I have never made candied yams). And I almost always substitute them for pumpkin in a pie -- the one devised by the late Southern chef Bill Neal is worlds away from the recipe on the Libby’s label, and not just because it’s topped with pecan streusel. The filling is airy but intense.
I still serve pumpkin, but in an offbeat way, maybe in a gratin. Diced, seasoned with garlic and thyme and creamy with Gruyere, it’s as much a conversation piece as a side dish. But more than that: It tastes incredible. And if any vegetarians happen to be in the vicinity, it also makes a satisfying main course.
The delaying tactics start well before the napkins unfold, though. For us, the feasting actually begins in the kitchen. While my consort and I are cooking at one end, our friends are at the other, clinking Champagne glasses and nibbling among themselves.
Bob and I make everything but the brine on the day itself, and not coincidentally it’s the one day we’re a relatively happy couple in the kitchen -- my inner control freak takes a holiday. We wrestle the turkey and stuffing together, trade off on basting and agonizing, wordlessly divide up the side dishes. (He risks nicked-up thumbs cutting crosses into chestnuts to roast; I slice sweet potatoes.)
The payoff comes at the table. No one bolts down Bob’s Brussels sprouts without stopping to ask how he came to make them seductive yet again. Pistachio oil from France was one year’s secret ingredient, amplified by lots of chopped pistachios; I later modified the recipe by separating the leaves so the dish looked prettier and tasted less like little cabbages. If we were serving the same old menu year after year, everyone would make faster work of it than they do with a Swanson’s Hungry-Man.
Giving guests aprons is another great delaying tactic. Over the years, our friends have delegated certain dishes to themselves. I would never let my friend Wally near my stove at a dinner party, but I am beyond happy to stand back and let her commandeer two burners on Thanksgiving to whisk up the foolproof gravy her mother taught her (a couple of heaping tablespoons of flour in a cup of cold water makes a slurry that thickens the rich and intensely flavorful pan drippings). Two other friends from different cities always collaborate on the mashed potatoes, one doing the muscle work and the other pouring butter and cream in quantities even I might quail at.
And once again, when all their contributions are dispersed on all those plates, no one eats and runs. The tale of the technique and collaboration has to be discussed at leisurely length.
But probably the best deceleration trick I’ve learned was the very first, in the year another friend came to Thanksgiving with his French wife and a bottle of Calvados. As she explained, we should have a glass midmeal, so that we could “burn a hole” in our stomachs with the apple brandy to fit in more food. The trou Normand, as she called it, was an ancient custom meant to stimulate the appetite and ease digestion.
That year, eons ago in a minuscule kitchen, we stowed the Calvados in our liquor cabinet over the stove. It got hot and we got full, but when we drank it, it of course was even more potent. That Thanksgiving went very long and late.
Nowadays the trou Normand is an indispensable part of the holiday at our house. It prolongs the meal like nothing else -- before dessert, we take a break in the living room with our Calvados snifters, loll around listening to old LPs, watch the sky go deep blue to starry black, and realize there is no reason to rush back and end a once-a-year meal until we’re good and ready.