Thanksgiving is not a day for culinary innovation in the Editor’s house. More than token variation from the traditional array would risk riot, not least among the most ardent traditionalists, those younger than twenty. The fireplace must burn all day and into the night. The weather should be bleak, grey and cold, and windy enough to send the salted seabreeze through the house.
A shifting alliance of family and friends spends the day cooking, talking and nibbling. Guests, some two dozen this year, arrive at random times, but none later than five o’clock, the traditional hour of yardarm on weekends the world around. We sit down to dinner early, around six or so, and it lasts for hours.
It would not be Thanksgiving without Black Velvet beforehand, a mixture of Champagne and Guinness that creates mild controversy. Some people, not welcome at Thanksgiving, consider the combination a waste of both fizz and stout, so their opinion does not count. The Editor does, however, indulge different attitudes as to proportion. Everyone, it seems, likes to vary the conventional ratio of one to one. Miss Dinsmore goes heavy on Champagne, the Editor prefers more stout. Chandon blanc de noirs is our sparkler of choice, not really Champagne but big, bold and cheap enough for its shotgun marriage to the Guinness, which must be the traditional kind, no ‘draft’ widgets and certainly not ‘Guinness 250.’
Black Velvet is a traditional British foil for shellfish, which adds to its Thanksgiving appeal. The featured feast is so robust that we keep the starters light, seldom more than shellfish and olives, oysters with lemon alone and steamed shrimp dipped in mustard remoulade, our ardent nod to New Orleans.
We always serve olives stuffed with anchovies from Goya; you can spend a lot more on other versions imported from Spain and they will not be as good. We have black olives too, and green ones stuffed with something else, blue cheese or pickled onions, for those intolerant of fish. Sometimes there are papery slices of Catimpal Chourice, ground and cured by Daniel & Co. right in Rhode Island, and Lebanon bologna, which neither resembles bologna nor comes from the Levant. It is an American innovation instead, a beef sausage laced with delicate allspice and deeply smoked.
Roast turkey is the obvious constant, served with both giblet and mushroom (no giblets) gravy, three kinds of cranberry sauce and simple savory stuffing that runs back generations in the family of the Editor’s mother. It is not much more than torn good bread, celery, garlic, onion, mushrooms and a lake of molten butter. This stuffing makes the day.
We boil a turkey too, stuffed with oysters embedded in breadcrumbs, suet, citrus and herbs, and use the fragrant stock for celery sauce. The boiled bird is better than it sounds, in fact addictive, and unlike its roasted kin, foolproof. Its presence adds a measure of calm, for even if the roasted breast shades to dry (an outcome happily confined to theory in the Editor’s kitchen during recent years), the timing for the boiled version is forgiving and its outcome never fails. We get a good gumbo from the stock and carcasses, simmered to reduction and strained.
The preparation of vegetables may vary, if only a little, but never their kind. There must be mashed potatoes, squash and turnip, all prepared the same way, seasoned simply with butter, salt and white pepper. Two kinds of onions go to table, one of them simply boiled and the other napped either in cream or curry sauce, or glazed with cayenne and molasses. We always serve Brussels sprouts too, in creamy combination with celery by way of Theodora FitzGibbon, another British version sauced with horseradish, our own warm salad with Parmesan, sautéed southern style with lots of bacon or sometimes paired with chestnuts.
What to drink? The answer is as constant as the turkey. It no longer is fashionable to serve America’s wine at Thanksgiving but the Editor is no follower of fashion and hews to her Zinfandel. The structure and fruit of monsters from Amador somehow suit roast turkey, much like cranberry sauce, but collide unpleasantly with hints of oyster, so we also serve dry and steely Rieslings for the boiled bird, from Alsace and the Rhine but never the Mosel.
It is hoary dogma to call dessert the glory of the English table, but just as some paranoids have indeed been followed, many clichés are true. We serve too many pies, pumpkin, mince and apple, ice creams of cinnamon or stout, and pudding with hard sauce. It is the take of the Editor’s mother on her grandmother-in-law’s ancient recipe for plum pudding, really an autumn pudding with the texture of moist cake loaded with spice, preserved fruit and rum. Thanksgiving would be hollow without it.
We have neither the room nor inclination for cheese on Thanksgiving day but Port is another matter. We will crack a bottle of treasured old vintage Port, decanted the unorthodox and effective way through a coffee filter, alongside a less costly but equally welcome ten year old tawny. There are whiskies too, both Bourbon and malt, and that Cognac of South America, Pampero Aniversario rum.
Most of all we have companionship, and if most of the house resembles an extension of Hogarth’s ‘Midnight Modern Conversation’ by evening’s end, then it has been a wonderful day.
Thanksgiving recipes appear in the practical.