Sam Sifton blames himself, in a way, for why people try to get creative with food on Thanksgiving, of all days.
“Those of us in the media, those who work for a magazine, for the Food Network, and all those people who write about food,” said the former New York Times food critic, “can't write the same thing we wrote last year about Thanksgiving.”
The answer to that yearly conundrum is spreads featuring this year's of-the-moment side dish, the in-vogue vegetable or the new way to cook turkey.
“It infects Americans,” Sifton said in a phone interview from New York. “We think 'Golly, my roast turkey wasn't that great last year,' so instead we're going to try this recipe with persimmons and gold leaf and then use a hair dryer and then finally paint it with, you know, pig's blood'.”
In his new book “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well,” Sifton single-handedly works to discourage people from trying something new on the year's most important food holiday. We know what works. We know what we like. So why mess with it?
“The message of my book — and the message of Thanksgiving — is that we should be trying to just get some stuff right,” Sifton said. “If you want to try new fancy things, great. But you need to get your roast turkey correct before you go elsewhere.”
If Americans have one thing to be thankful for this season, it's those standby recipes that have been favorites for generations, the kind of thing home cooks, including Sifton, rely on year after year for the holiday table.
For Brian O'Malley, a chef and an instructor in the Institute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College, those standards include his mother-in-law's candied sweet potatoes made in an electric skillet and his grandmother's spiced peaches.
O'Malley has added his own twist to the holiday menu, and he said he plans to cook three turkeys for his 24 guests this year. He's playing host to the holiday for the first time.
“We have a struggle with the turkey,” he said, “between doing a turkey in a way that is best for the turkey or in a way that people accept the most.”
O'Malley prefers to break the turkey down into parts and prepare the legs and thighs confit, cooking them in their own juices, and then roulade the breast by wrapping it around a stuffing.
“My family always asks me: 'Why can't we have regular turkey?'” he said, chuckling.
This year, he'll do turkey his way, a “traditional” turkey in the oven and, on the grill, a wild turkey that a friend shot.
Rose Bockelman, of Omaha, said neither she nor her husband are big fans of turkey, so she cooks a ham. The turkey-lovers in the family aren't out of luck, though, because her brother-in-law fixes a bird and brings that over, too.
Other Thanksgiving must-haves in the Bockelman home are scalloped corn, broccoli rice casserole and the standard green bean casserole with crunchy onions on top.
Bockelman puts her own stamp on the family tradition with homemade sweetbread in the shape of a turkey. She bakes the bread in a mold.
“After it's baked I let it cool and brush butter on it, then sprinkle different colors of sugar over the feathers,” she said. “By the time I'm done, every inch is covered in sugar.”
She said her mother always served sparkling juices at holidays for those who didn't drink wine, and she's continued that tradition. Kids, especially, she said, like drinking something bubbly out of a wine glass.
Sifton said there are a few dishes that must make it onto his Thanksgiving table: a turkey or two, a cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, a sweet potato or yam dish and greens: collard, green beans or his go-to, Brussels sprouts.
And, he said, “I am pretty bossy about pie. There really needs to be pie and if there is, it should be apple, to celebrate the fall harvest, and pumpkin.”
O'Malley said he tries to keep stress to a minimum on Thanksgiving Day by encouraging his guests to arrive just before the dinner begins. He also tries to keep the kitchen as a work space instead of a gathering place.
“If someone finds their way into the kitchen,” he said, “chances are they are avoiding the rest of the 28 people there, so give them a job. They want to help.”
Bockelman said she usually has to work the day before and the day after Thanksgiving so she does most of her cooking in advance.
Above all else, even when the day is hectic, its important to remember to give thanks.
“You feel a bit weird about it,” Sifton said. “But you have to do it. You can't wait for the grace of Thanksgiving. You have to call for that moment of grace.”
Setting a special table is one thing Bockelman said helps remind her family of the importance of the day. She brings out the gold tablecloth, the formal china, the chargers and the fancy napkin rings she bought at Borshiem's, where she works.
“It's a day for family,” she said. “A special occasion. It's when you bring out the best.”
Both Sifton and O'Malley said giving thanks to the bird itself or the farmer that raised it are two ways to make it less awkward.
“The world is becoming more attentive to ingredients,” O'Malley said. “There is some tongue-in-cheek talk about turkeys getting pardoned, but its still important to acknowledge what it takes to put the food on the table. That's something to be thankful for, and it can't be overstated.”
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