I have been cooking for 40 of my 46 years (not counting my redshirt season), and for most of that span, I have either assisted in the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast or cooked it entirely by myself. I have gone to the trouble to fix the whole smash even on occasions when I was the only one partaking of it, and I have cooked for more than 20 people at a time. I have cooked in a variety of home kitchens, several for the first time, and have made do with conditions that would have made Chef Robert Irvine take a sledgehammer to the whole mess and order out for Chinese.
In short, I have developed quite an extensive compendium of knowledge and information regarding the most hallowed of America’s traditional holiday meals that I believe will be useful to both the experienced cook and the beleaguered novice who has watched every episode of Iron Chef and now thinks they can make Beef Wellington with canned biscuit dough and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.
Turkey: It goes without saying that turkey is the mainstay of the Thanksgiving table. Turkey is one of America’s oldest, dearest protein sources. So intertwined is the bird in the long history our land, from the first colonial settlers to the frozen section of your local supermarket, that it has earned its place on the holiday table. Benjamin Franklin believed that the turkey should be named the national bird, which just goes to show you why you shouldn’t go screwing around with lightning.
The rule of thumb is to estimate 1 to 1½ pounds per person when choosing a bird. This, of course, may not be practical if you’re feeding 30 people. You may choose to purchase two smaller birds, which will also produce a more tender and juicy meat than one big old bird who probably went down fighting. Or, you can buy one medium-sized ostrich and just tell everyone you got your turkey from Sam’s Club along with a free 50-gallon drum of giblet gravy.
Let’s assume you’re not feeding half the neighborhood and just need an average sized bird for an average sized family. If the option is available where you are, you may choose to get your turkey from a nearby farm where it has been organically and humanely raised, read to every night at bedtime, and loved like a member of the family. That is, until the former software engineer who left his high-paying but soul-killing job in the Silicone Valley to do something meaningful with his life realized that just raising heritage breed turkeys doesn’t pay the bills. So he tearfully parts with the product of his love and care, and asks that when you serve Emil, please place him on the table near the corn because he really enjoyed corn.
Or, like most people, you could go to the local market and purchase a frozen turkey because you’ve already got enough drama in your life. Remember to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, four hours for every pound. If pressed for time, you can also thaw the bird in a bath of cold water, 30 minutes per pound, changing the water every 30 minutes. And if you’re really up against the clock, you can light a can of Sterno and place it inside the bird until thawed. Just remember to remove it before putting it in the oven, unless you want your kitchen to look like the set of Apocalypse Now.
Disclaimer: Do NOT place a can of Sterno inside your turkey. It’s a joke, for heaven’s sake. Do you do everything food writers tell you to? If so, how do you live on nothing but quinoa and Sriracha?
A little note for those who’ve never cooked a turkey before: Be sure and remove the neck, which is placed inside the body cavity, and the bag of giblets which is sometimes found tucked up under the front of the bird where the neck used to be. Put both the neck and the giblets aside, you’ll need them in a bit. Also, if the turkey has one of those pop-up timers, remove that as well. All it does is tell you when you’ve completely overcooked your bird. You’re more than capable of doing that without it.
Now, on the subject of brining, I should state that don’t believe in it. Ten years ago, no one ever mentioned it, and now, thanks to the proliferation of food-related media, it has become a matter of poultry snobbery. “Well, of course, anyone who knows anything brines their turkey,” the self-anointed epicures say, dismissively, in spite of the fact that they probably couldn’t tell the difference between a brined bird and a well-prepared non-brined one if their lives depended on it.
If you simply must brine your bird, you will shortly encounter the fact that it requires a rather large container for both the turkey and the necessary volume of brining solution. In the interest of efficiency, I recommend running a bathtub full of warm water and adding the appropriate amount of salt and other herbs and spices to suit your tastes. Then, take the turkey in with you; you get a nice relaxing aroma therapeutic bath and the bird gets a snob-pleasing brine. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.
As far as preparing the bird, there are as many methods and approaches as there are cooks. The food magazines currently on the newsstand are filled with ideas and opinions, both new and old. Some swear by rubbing a compound butter or seasoning mixture up under the skin, some insist you should rub it on the skin. Some will tell you to truss the legs and tuck the wing tips in so that they don’t burn, others insist on removing the legs, thighs, and wings completely and cooking them separately. Some recommend cooking the bird on a roasting rack, others on a bed of mirepoix (onions, celery and carrots). Everyone has their own way, and it’s up to the individual to pick and choose what works best for them. And what’s the best way to know what works best? Try it and if it sucks, you’ll know better next year.
My tried-and-true method is to fill the cavity of the bird with a lemon and an onion (both quartered), coarsely chopped garlic, a stick of butter, and about a tablespoon of poultry seasoning. I will use a roasting rack unless I have some celery and carrots that are a bit past their prime, in which case I’ll use a bed of mirepoix. I rub the skin with kosher salt, and put it in a 325° oven for 15 minutes per pound. It’s done when a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165°, which is the temperature at which the FDA is reasonably certain that the meat will not kill anyone who so much as looks at it cross-eyed.
After about an hour in the oven, as pan drippings start to accumulate, begin basting the bird every 30 minutes or just whenever the hell you feel like it. A good rule of thumb is to baste the bird every time a distant relative pops their head into the kitchen doorway and asks, “Is it soup yet?” Basting the bird gives you something to do with your hands at that moment, rather than stabbing them in the throat with a meat fork.
Dressing: The difference between stuffing and dressing is that stuffing is cooked inside the bird, potentially becoming a glob of weaponized salmonella, whereas dressing is cooked and served separately like any civilized human being would. It is no surprise, then, that we in the South serve dressing instead of stuffing even though our digestive systems are stout enough to handle raw chicken with no ill effects.
Dressing is one of those Southern dishes for which almost everyone has a closely guarded old family recipe. Again, there are as many variations as there are cooks. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all cornbread and sausage. In fact, even as a native of Appalachia where cornbread is elemental to our being, I’d never even heard of cornbread dressing until I was an adult. I’m tempted to believe it’s one of those manufactured Southernisms, things that we’re all supposed to like in spite of the fact that most of us had never even seen them until someone slapped Paula Deen’s picture on the package and tried to sell it to us for two prices.
As a native Virginian, I grew up partial to oyster dressing. Take a loaf of white bread and either tear it into small pieces and let it dry out, or slice it and toast it and then tear it into pieces. You don’t want uniform cubes, the uneven edges of torn bread absorb the liquid and flavors better. Meanwhile, take the turkey neck and giblets (removing the liver), and put them in a saucepan with some water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer until it starts to smell like turkey, skimming off any foam that gathers on top. Set aside and let cool a bit.
Put the pieces of bread in a large mixing bowl, then add a pint of oysters and their liquor. Squish up the oysters by hand, to ensure they distribute evenly through the mixture. Add a diced onion and some diced celery, and poultry seasoning to taste. Then, add the water you boiled the turkey neck in. Chop up the giblets and add them, too. As soon as the neck is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off of it by hand and add it to the mix as well. Give everything a good mix and add canned chicken stock until the mixture has a good, moist consistency. Place in a greased baking dish and slip it in with the turkey during the last 45 minutes.
Gravy: Good gravy is like a good pair of jeans—goes with everything, and fits so well that you don’t even think about it. But you’d miss it if it wasn’t there, particularly when you’re waiting for someone to come bail you out of the county lock-up after you got pinched for indecent exposure.
Fortunately, gravy is a fairly simple concoction. Pour off the pan drippings from the turkey roasting pan into a plastic container and place into the freezer until the fat rises to the top and congeals. Put the fat into a saucepan, along with an equal amount of flour; I use an “instant” flour, like Wondra, because of its uniform consistency and moisture content. Stir constantly until you have a good roux, preferably a nice peanut color. You may wish to keep a peanut on hand for comparison, just remember not to absentmindedly eat it while cooking or else you might as well just throw the whole damned mess away and just open a can. Roux is not to be trifled with.
Add the drippings, and more chicken stock if needed. Allow it to cook to a nice, gravy-like consistency; just remember that it will continue to thicken once you remove it from the heat. Let it cook down too much, and it will set up like cement once it cools. You can either return it to the heat and add more liquid until the proper consistency is achieved, or defiantly own your mistake by cutting the block of gravy into cubes and serving them as-is. If anyone questions it, tell them that Bon Appétit says that all the hippest joints in Portland are doing it that way now.
Green Beans: The understated star of the Thanksgiving table when I was growing up was leatherbritches, which are dried green beans slow cooked with fat back. To make leatherbritches, you must purchase a large amount of green beans during the peak growing season in the summer, thread them onto long lengths of fishing line, and hang them to dry for several months. If you did not have the forethought to do that last summer, then you will not be having leatherbritches so just forget I mentioned them.
Purchase a good-sized mess of green beans, snap the ends off, and break them into bite-sized pieces. This is a good, tedious activity to use as punishment for the first kid who gets into trouble running around like a little heathen. Put them to work while you pause to enjoy a well-deserved cocktail to keep you from reaching for the meat fork again.
Once the beans are all snapped and in the pot, issue a stern warning to the young miscreant and send them back to play with the other kids until the incorrigible brat screws up again just in time to peel the Russets for the mashed potatoes. Thoroughly rinse the beans in cold water, because god knows where the kids have been, and then add water to cover. Add fatback and a goodly tablespoon or so of salt. Place on the stove, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until you’ve cooked the absolute bejeezus out of them in the time-honored Southern fashion. Your goal is fork-tender beans lacking any nutritional value whatsoever. The hunk of fatback, at this point, should contain more vitamins than the beans for them to be truly worthy of the Dixie dining table.
Mashed Potatoes: With the little recidivist returned to the seat of punishment, peeling the potatoes, now is a good time to consider the options when it comes to the iconic yet underrated dish. Some people prefer hand-mashed, still slightly chunky mashed potatoes; others prefer a light, creamy dish that becomes a perfect vessel for a ladleful of gravy with just the flick of the wrist. Some add only butter and milk, some add sour cream, some go buck wild and load them up like a baked potato. Some forego the potatoes altogether and try to slip a mashed cauliflower and root vegetable mixture past you, resulting in you throwing away next year’s nauseatingly twee hand-made dinner invitation with the rest of the junk mail.
I keep the mashed potatoes simple. Good Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed. Place in a lidded container, cover with cold water, add a tablespoon or so of salt, and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and let simmer, covered, for twenty to thirty minutes, or until you can cut through a potato cube with just a fork. Drain the water, add butter and milk (a little at a time), and mix with a hand mixer until light and creamy. Some people swear by a ricer to achieve the proper consistency for mashed potatoes, but I say those people are needlessly complicating things. My mashed potatoes have never failed to please, and I don’t have to invent new curse words while I’m trying to remove the bits of dried potato that are stuck like epoxy in the little holes of the ricer. Everyone wins, in my book.
Cranberry Sauce: Here, I reveal one of my darkest culinary secrets. Try as I might, regardless of the recipe or my years of experience and instinct, I have yet to produce a cranberry sauce that I like more than the whole berry canned stuff. Don’t judge me. We all have our shameful food foibles. I once dated a woman who railed at every opportunity against America’s fast food culture, but would sneak out in the middle of the night for a Big Mac. I only found out about it because Ronald McDonald owed me one for tipping him off that Mayor McCheese was taking kickbacks from the mob for awarding no-bid contracts on the balls that filled the Playland ball pits.
Pumpkin Pie: They say that nothing succeeds like success. To that end, I have absolutely no qualms about using Libby’s canned pumpkin and making my pies more or less by the iconic recipe on the can. If you’ve ever tried making your own pumpkin puree at home, you realize what an ordeal it can be. And it rarely turns out to be anywhere near as good as the stuff in the can. Leave it to the professionals.
I have been known to use a pre-made store-bought crust, since baking is not particularly most strong suit and my pie crusts often turn out looking like the Scarecrow’s face in another holiday classic, The Wizard of Oz. I’ve tried almost every tip known to man (“Freeze the butter and cut it into tiny little cubes first”), and I’ve yet to avoid disappointment with the results. If it helps, you can always look at it this way: since you did assemble all the ingredients and bake them in your own kitchen, you can still technically call the finished product “homemade.” Besides, if you’ve done it right, by this point in the meal most of your guests will just be shoveling food into their heads due to pure inertia.
Bread: It is an old Southern saying that the absence of hot bread from the dinner table means that the guests are unwelcome. You may keep this in mind, depending on how many people at your table you haven’t seen hide nor hair of since they came freeloading last Thanksgiving.
Assuming everyone is indeed welcome, there are options available even to the most baking-impaired of us. I am fortunate to have a good country white bread recipe, and my KitchenAid mixer is capable of doing most of the hard work. If you are not so blessed, there are options available in the freezer section of your grocery store, as well as some take-and-bake alternatives that are usually found over in the overpriced bread section they want you to believe was baked right there in the store. There are also some credible no-knead mixes that take most of the labor out of baking. Choose the option that best suits you.
Appetizers: Some people believe in serving appetizers intermittently throughout the day, to keep people from becoming too ravenous after being taunted with the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen all day. I take a different tack. I want everyone’s appetite so intense that, after everyone is seated and grace is said, they hit the table like sharks in a feeding frenzy. For me, it’s dinner and a show, and more than makes up for the fact that I missed the early football game while I was cooking the bounty laid out before them. And if I’ve timed it right, I’m almost guaranteed to see more vicious collisions than anything the Lions could muster.
Miscellaneous: Of course, Thanksgiving dinner is first and foremost a celebration of tradition. If there is a particular dish that was a mainstay on the holiday table that lives in your fondest memories, by all means, add it to the menu. I covered only the basics, the things that should be part of every Thanksgiving meal; I also make a point of adding a new side dish each year that I’ve never served before, and trying something just a little different with the regulars just to keep things interesting. There are no wrong answers when it comes to what belongs amid the bounty, except that horrid green bean casserole that no one really likes but everyone takes a polite spoonful and later hides it under their napkin before discreetly disposing of the godawful stuff.
A proper feast should include options to suit almost everyone, except for the brooding teenager currently going through their vegan phase who is going to complain no matter what you serve. In that case, a slab of tranquilizer-laced tofurkey is a small price to pay for the resultant peace and quiet.
More to the point.
Try to offer a good selection of different tastes and textures to liven up the plate. And be aware of your own prejudices when planning a menu. For instance, I don’t care for sweets. Therefore, I don’t give any consideration to adding something sweet to the meal or selecting a variety of desserts. I have to actively remind myself to make a sweet potato casserole for the dinner table, and bake a cake or a couple of different pies to go with the obligatory pumpkin pie. Failing that, I just put a bowl of sugar on the table and tell anyone with a sweet tooth to have at it. I am nothing if not a considerate host.
So, after four decades of experience, these are my most time-tested tips and tricks. You will notice that one overriding theme runs through them, and it is the most important tip of all: Don’t sweat it. The day is about family and friends, about being grateful for what you have and mindful of those who are not as blessed. The very cornerstone of my culinary philosophy is that food should be about people first, food second. Anything you make, if you make it to the best of your ability and with love in your heart for those who are to partake of it, is going to be good. Many a dry turkey or bowl of lumpy gravy has gone unnoticed at a table brought together by a common affection for the people seated around it. Do your best, and always remember the immortal words of Julia Child, “Never apologize.” And if someone does complain, let ‘em eat green bean casserole.