Talking Turkey

I know, it’s not baking and pastry-related, however there were two separate articles on preparing the perfect turkey in this week’s New York Times. Add those to the ones in all the cooking magazines, plus the ones that are being published even as we speak in daily papers all over the country, and you’ve got what seems like turkey-day hysteria. Take the NYT articles. The first was on brining (or not brining) turkey by my food science hero, Harold McGee. He ultimately seemed to come down on the side of not brining, but then took a turn into the bizarre by discouraging the making of gravy, and calling for each individual slice of bird to be dipped in a thin pan sauce just before serving. Mark Bittman went even further into left field by suggesting that cooks cut up their birds into pieces before cooking, so that the white meat and dark meant can be individually roasted. What the…? It put me in mind of Thomas Keller’s beef Bourguignonne recipe, which calls for each ingredient to be prepared separately to perfection and then combined before serving. I know he’s America’s greatest chef, but beef Bourguignonne is a stew, man. A stew!

This to me is the dark side of the new, modern foodie culture we’ve created, in which the pursuit of perfection becomes pathology. That sounds funny, I know, coming from a guy who’s making his own graham crackers and marshmallows this week. However an obsessive experiment in food is one thing, the obsessive ruination of a time-honored family ritual is another. Creating a roast turkey fit for the table of El Bulli is, I think, to completely miss the entire point of a Thanksgiving dinner, which is the friends and the family, obviously. The bird is just the excuse to get them all together in the same room. If the breast meat’s a little dry, the potatoes a little lumpy and the gravy a little sticky — who cares? It’s that good old home cookin’ man. Anyway it’s the quirks that, for me, really make the memories. Dry-as-a-bone white meat makes me think of my great aunt, who roasted and sliced her bird the day before to save time. Salty gravy puts me in mind of my mother’s mother, whose taste buds started to go when she was in her 80’s. Gooey gravy reminds me of my father’s mother, who detested cooking, and put so much starch in her gravy it could have been served with an ice cream scoop.

Ridiculous follies all of them…but what I wouldn’t give to be able to go back in time and have some of those Thanksgiving meals over again — warts and all, as they say. I’m by no means the the first person to make this observation, but what a Thanksgiving dinner really is is a kind of metaphor for family. It isn’t perfect, can’t be perfect, shouldn’t be perfect. So skip the brine and skip the bird-beautiful restaurant techniques, just put the darn thing in the oven. Then pour yourself a tall glass of wine and go talk to your great aunt Rose, because she hasn’t seen you since you were this big.

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