Thanksgiving TM_TG_SIDES_FI_002

As that fateful Thursday in November approaches, a seemingly endless shopping list runs through the mind of the cooks braving the task of cooking the Thanksgiving meal. Turkey? Check. Dinner rolls? Check. Potatoes? Check. Veggies? Check. Boxed stuffing, canned soup, canned cranberry sauce? Not for me.

For a holiday built around a soulful home-cooked feast, there sure are a lot of ingredients that come straight from a can or box. Now I understand for some who are feeding a family of 60 that cooking from scratch is an act of valor. But my family was never an overly large crowd, and even now as more of us get older, move away, have families of our own, the group is getting even smaller. So with this year’s smaller table, instead of sticking to the canned ingredients, we’ll be doing Thanksgiving sans the cans. MORE

Bookshelf, Thanksgiving

Choosing Sides

Make your side dishes the best part of your Thanksgiving meal


TM_BK_CHSIDES_AP_001 We all know that Thanksgiving is a turkey-centric holiday, but I don’t think I’m speaking an untruth when I say that for most of us, it’s a meal that’s really more about the side dishes than the main event. Truly, it’s stuffing, potatoes, green beans, and casseroles that make this annual meal feel both special and festive.

Cookbook author Tara Matazara Desmond knows that it’s really the side dish that makes the meal, and has recently published a book celebrating the things we serve along with our mains. Called Choosing Sides: From Holidays to Every Day, 130 Delicious Recipes to Make the Meal, this book features side dishes for every occasion.

Whether you’re searching for something special to join a brunch menu or you’re simply on the hunt for some new flavors to enhance a weeknight regular, this book is here to serve as useful guide for home cooks who are stuck in a rut and need a few new ideas.

First Person, Thanksgiving TM_TK_HOTLINE_FI_001

I was just about to roll out my homemade pie crust when I encountered my first problem. As I reached for a rolling pin from my cabinet, I realized I didn’t own one.

Normally, I’d just grab my shiny laptop and search for how to solve my cooking conundrum online. But the countertops in my kitchen were buried beneath a bed of flour and my fingers were heavily caked with sticky dough. It was not a very laptop-friendly environment. So instead of darting off to Google or shouting out to the social media universe for an answer, I went old-school and reached for my phone. With my cleanest knuckle, I swiped the screen to unlock it, then tapped to re-dial my most recent call: 1-877-367-7538, the Crisco Pie Hotline.

Yes, in a digital world full of Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, and email inquiries, I chose to call a hotline and speak to an actual human for baking advice. And instead of listening to a recorded message with answers to frequently asked questions, I was connected with a cooking expert that gave me the personal attention I needed to deal with my crisis.

Thanksgiving TM_TK_ALLVEG_FI_001

When my sister was 14 years old, she stopped eating meat. We were always a household that was big on vegetables, so it wasn’t too much of a hardship, but when meat-centric holidays like Thanksgiving rolled around, it was a little bit more of a challenge.

One year, my mom sprang for a tofu roast that was pressed into the shape of a turkey. Other years, we did fanciful things with sautéed mushrooms, roasted acorn squash, and toasted nuts.

Eventually, my sister returned to the poultry-eating fold, but over those years I learned a lot about making main dishes that were both suitably celebratory and free from meat.

Thanksgiving TM_FF_ANTIPMPK_FI_002

Rallying against the overabundance of “pumpkin” flavored and scented items that fill our coffee-shop menus and store shelves is like worrying about Miley Cyrus’s future or whether you left the oven on when you’re on vacation: it might feel important, but you can’t do anything about it. By now, we all know that many of the “pumpkin” treats marketed at us don’t have any actual pumpkin in them, right? Rather, “pumpkin” has become shorthand for a comforting combination of seasonal spices. I get it. Saying “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” is easier than “cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and maybe some allspice latte.”

So, if telling you that there’s no pumpkin in a lot of pumpkin-spice stuff is akin to telling you there’s no Santa Claus, is informing you that there was no actual pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving like telling you that the Easter Bunny is fake too? While the pumpkin is indigenous to North America and they likely had a pumpkin dish at the first Thanksgiving, they didn’t have the wheat to make the crusts at the time.

Rather, the pumpkin and the pumpkin pie are American nostalgia foods – and they’ve been that for a long time. MORE

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Pity the turkey. Capons are sauced, cranes are lifted, partridges are allayed, geese are reared. Turkeys are, to use the proper historical carving vocabulary, simply cut up. The ritual carving of the turkey is one of the few vestiges of a past, glorious tradition that once wowed diners at spectacular feasts, and yet, the prosaic words for slicing up the turkey do not seem to match the grandeur of the deed.

Once, carving was held in high esteem. It was less about serving base bodily needs for nourishment and more concerned with spectacle and performance. Those who carved (and those who had carving done for them) were not concerned with where their next meal was coming from. It was a demonstration of power: the ability to muster a bountiful feast and an exhibition of control of the body (both that of the carver and of the animal carcass to be consumed). In full view of the diners assembled at the table, the carver hoisted the bird aloft with one hand, while wielding a razor-sharp knife in the other. Slices from the cooked carcass floated down to the plate. MORE

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It wouldn’t be a true Thanksgiving without some pie after your turkey. But, at least in my house, which is probably true for many others, the Thanksgiving dessert spread hasn’t changed at all during my 20 years of existence (and probably for even longer than that). Classic desserts such as apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie are as important to Thanksgiving as the Macy’s Parade, the green bean casserole, or the yearly anticipation for Black Friday sales. But of late, I’ve grown restless with these traditional baked goods, and so I’ve decided to revamp the Thanksgiving dessert table.

My quibble with the usual turkey day desserts is their predictability – their sugary predictability, that is. Every year it’s the same assortment of pumpkin, apple, pecan, or chocolate pies. Each and every one often tastes like a single droll note of sweet. No real spice, no interesting or unexpected flavor pairings, and no plays on texture. Just the same plain crust and standard sugary fillings – the only real difference is whether your whipped topping came from a can or a tub.

Thanksgiving, Viva La Vegan TM_VV_THKSG_AP_001

At an early age, I learned that the best way to get out of the endless cleaning and dish-washing activities that accompany the Thanksgiving holiday is to help my mom in the kitchen. Each year, from Wednesday until Thursday evening, I am her prep cook, her errand runner, and her preserver of sanity. Over potato peeling, apple chopping, turkey basting, and some perfunctory wine sipping, my mom and I simply click. The conversation flows, punctuated only by her showing me, for perhaps the tenth time, how to properly roll out a pie crust, and by me reminding her, for the hundredth time, that she needs to relax. Beyond the company and holiday cheer, cooking with my mom is what makes Thanksgiving special. MORE

Food Culture, Thanksgiving TM_FC_TURKEY_FI_001

When I set out to learn more about the source of the word turkey and some of its idiomatic variants, I had no idea that the research would lead me, well, on a wild goose chase.

Let’s start with the word for the bird. Turkeys are North American in origin; the domesticated fowl we raise today is the descendent of a slightly smaller wild bird found throughout the continent, though a cousin of this bird was domesticated in Mesoamerica long before Spanish explorers arrived. The Spanish called Mexican bird pavo, or peacock, after another fowl with spectacular plumage. Further north, English colonists thought the wild turkeys looked more like guineafowl, a small African bird that was imported to England through Turkey. Due to their trade origin, the guineafowl were sometimes called turkeys—and thereafter, so was the wild North American bird. In the nation of Turkey, as it happens, the bird is referred to as hindi, or from the country of India; in India, the bird is called peru, after the South American country; elsewhere in Europe, the turkey is known most commonly as “French chicken” and or “Indian chicken”—the latter generally refers to continental India. MORE

Thanksgiving, The Larder

Side Projects

A trio of takes on the Thanksgiving sweet potato


When it comes to Thanksgiving menu items, my family is the type that prefers tradition to experimentation. Throughout my childhood years, we ate nearly the same meal. A turkey, prepared and stuffed with seasoned bread cubes from Pepperidge Farms. Mashed russet potatoes with butter. Hubbard squash, steamed, drained of extra liquid and creamed with butter, salt, and freshly grated ginger. Briefly blanched green beans, dressed with more butter and toasted almond shards. Canned cranberry sauce. And two pies (apple and pumpkin) with vanilla ice cream for dessert.

It’s a fairly traditional spread, with just one glaring omission. There are no sweet potatoes to be found. My mom, unimpressed with the classic casserole constructed of canned potatoes, brown sugar and marshmallows she had been forced to eat as a child, banned orange tubers from her holiday table. MORE


Turducken, Meet Your Match

A vegetarian alternative to the ultimate Thanksgiving centerpiece


The Ethiopian cooks had two antelopes brought in from the zoo. They gutted, skinned, and roasted them in spices and butter. Twenty turkeys — stuffed with herbs and bread — were thrust into the antelopes and the empty crevasses filled with hundreds of hardboiled eggs. A bleating camel, feeling something sinister in the room, was soon slaughtered as well, his innards replaced with the antelopes, whose innards had been replaced with the turkeys and eggs, whose innards had been replaced with breads, spices, herbs, and fish. And the Emperor of Ethiopia ate only just a little.

Bawdy, exorbitant, unethical. In the most mythic banquets, everything is permitted, nothing impossible. Mile-high desserts carved to resemble palaces, grapes served upon platters of young boys, vomit buckets. But aside from the slaves, drunkenness, and orgies, it is perhaps the dining upon outrageously prepared animals — much like the stuffed camel Bohumil Hrabel describes in I Served the King of England — that is most…indelible. Heliogabalus enjoyed ostrich brains and eels fattened with Christians. The Emperor Vitellius once served a dish including flamingo tongues and lamprey milt in the name of Minerva. Hampton Court under Henry VIII was often the stage for feasts of whale, peacock beaks, and the ever-popular flaming boar’s head. No organ was left unturned. MORE

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The way some people love antique furniture, I love antique pie recipes. Vintage American cookbooks are full of with mysterious, alluring recipes that hardly anyone bakes anymore — Marlborough pie, Osgood pie, syrup pie, brown-sugar pie, boiled cider pie — and they fascinate me. What does a Kentucky transparent pie taste like? Is it actually transparent? Why did people stop making Tyler pies? Are we missing out on something? Or do recipes go extinct for a reason?

About fifteen years ago I baked a chess pie, a vintage dessert still popular in the South, and I have baked one for Thanksgiving ever since. It is my favorite pie in the world, filled with a blond, jelly-like custard.  What other lovely vintage pies would I discover if I started searching?  This year, I decided to try to find a great old American pie to resurrect for the Thanksgiving table. I mined my old cookbooks for intriguing recipes, ruling out any that sounded remotely familiar. No chocolate pies, no lemon pies, no apple pies.  As I told my daughter Isabel, “The pies have to be antique.” MORE