Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ducking Thanksgiving

The holiday Native Americans loathe, England sniffs over, and the rest of the world ignores is nearly upon us.

Thanksgiving. Like me, you may feel ambivalent about celebrating a meal that amounted to colonialism and genocide. Or, if you live outside the Bay Area and aren't brainwashed, you might consider turkey day a time to gather the family round and eat hearty.

Maybe you're just elated at the thought of a four-day weekend.

In honor of the upcoming event, I surveyed my cookbook collection, seeking insights into the great day. I was surprised to realize I have few cookbooks dealing with strictly "American" cuisine. There's plenty of French and Italian, a few Jewish cookbooks, vegetarian, and lots of unclassifiable "continental" cookery: Tamasin Day-Lewis, Fergus Henderson, Paul Bertolli, Alice Waters. Elizabeth David, alas, had little to say about our national eating habits. A few acerbic Davdian quotes would certainly be bracing.

In the end I pulled five books from the shelves: Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, the 75th Anniversary Edition of Joy of Cooking, Christopher Kimball's The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, and The Gourmet Cookbook.

Joy gives a the standard classic meal, from bird to cranberries. The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook offers one of Kimball's bizarre "life on the farm" introductions, including harvesting apples, cider-making, and postprandial games of parcheesi before the fire. The recipe for slow-roasted turkey is simple compared to Cook's Illustrated's usual (effective) culinary shenanigans, so perhaps we'll overlook the introductory musings.

Gourmet: again, as straightforward as can be, with a recommendation to cook the bird upside down for a perfect breast. No bizarre stuffings. A recipe for brining. Nothing about deep frying, an excellent way to test the adequacy of your homeowners insurance policy.

Laurie Colwin has much to say about Thanksgiving. She is generous enough to note how stressful holiday meals can be, what with family and culinary drama. She also admits to disliking stuffing, which is tantamount to heresy.

I love stuffing, but only one kind: my grandmother's. Her stuffing calls for a loaf of challah, which she baked herself, or later, as she got older, bought fresh from Modern Bakery on Nine and Greenfield in Southfield, Michigan. Modern's baked goods weren't as good as their rival's, Zeman's, but their bread was peerless. Tear the bread into small pieces in a ceramic bowl. Put aside. Melt a lot of butter into a pan. Chop onions and celery. Sauté in the butter until soft but not browned. Allow this to cool enough to handle, then pour it over the bread and mix with your hands. Add an egg (be sure the mixture isn't too hot or the egg will cook). Mix until you have a stuffing that holds together nicely. Salt lightly. Try not to eat it all raw, on the spot. This will be difficult.

You can stuff a turkey with this, or you can stuff a chicken, as my grandmother often did. If you fear poisoning your guests by stuffing a large turkey, bake the stuffing in a dish and serve tableside with your fancy serving spoon. Leftovers, should you be lucky enough to have any, may be attacked later that evening using one's fingers.

Other stuffings involving prunes, raisins, nuts, or sausage are not stuffings to me. At their worst, they are abominations. Edible versions--no fruit!--are tolerable but unworthy.

Naturally, this admission opens the door to family unrest. Hockeyman swears by his mother's stuffing, which invariably includes raisins. Occasionally she sneaks some dried fruit in there, too.

From stuffing it is but a short leap to gravy. Milk gravies are not a part of Jewish cookery, as milk and meat never go to table together. Gravy, when it does appear, is more au jus--simply the dripping the meat or poultry gave off as it roasted. Thus my maiden holiday cookery outings were met with genial confusion. Where was the gravy? I would point to the cooking vessel. In here.

Even now, in my highly treyfe kitchen, I dislike milk with meat. The textures and tastes clash. My concession to Hockeyman's gravy cravings involve chicken broth, wine, and sometimes butter, also treyfe but lacking milk's heavy, tongue-coating aspect.

But now for the big disclosure....

I don't like turkey. I never have. No matter what you do to it--brine, inject it with fancy marinades, deep fry it, roast it at 300 degrees for six hours--it ends up dry. Even if by some miracle you manage a moist bird, it tastes about as exciting as a bowl of Quaker oatmeal.

And there is always so goddamn much of it.

Hockeyman, normally an agreeable and rational individual, does not share my view. Only by dint of my great affection for him have I overcome this quirk in his make-up. Further, I have catered to it. Last year I purchased a six pound, free range, organic, politically correctly killed Willie Bird, which set me back twenty-six dollars. I tenderly drove him home and made room in the freezer.

I re-consulted my cookbooks. I bought the Bon Appetit Thanksgiving issue, which walked the novice through the entire T-Day experience. I bought stuffing makings and a pie. I was ready.

Lacking space, I did not brine the bird. I defrosted, salted inside and out, buttered the breast, stuffed the fellow, and tucked him into a low oven. I basted and covered and watched. After 2 1/2 hours the bird was ready. It looked perfect, a deep, glazed brown, sitting regally amidst a worshipful little surround of potatoes and carrots.

Well, you could've used Willie for flooring material. He was dry, tough, and tasteless. I was terribly disappointed--all that time and care with such a lousy result. The side dishes were fine, as was the pie, and we managed to wash it all down lots of wine, but that was my last outing with turkey. I'm sorry. I know some people love it. More power to 'em.

This year I am making duck. Side dishes will come from the farm box: greens, butternut squash. The duck recipe calls for poaching, so I will use the poaching liquid to make rice. A mixed berry galette for dessert, because in addition to disliking turkey and being judgmental about stuffing, I hate pumpkin pie. This will be more than ample for two, and provide a moist, flavorsome carcass for soup.

Thus we will celebrate a long weekend, trying very hard all the while not to think about the holiday season, bearing down upon us as the anvil does on Wile E. Coyote.


Blogger Sean Carter said...

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November 19, 2006 11:50 PM  

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