A while back I heard a woman interviewed about a project in which participants went as far back in the process of “getting” food as they possibly could – growing their own rice, growing and grinding wheat for flour, raising, slaughtering and butchering animals and growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables. She was not proposing this as a lifestyle; the purpose of the project was to “get in touch” with where our food really comes from. Last Thanksgiving, while I did not create a cranberry bog in the yard or raise a turkey and wring it’s neck (I didn’t even pluck it) I did make everything that was served, and I made everything “the hard way.” The reasons for this were a combination of competitive show-offery (my ringtone is Ethel Merman singing “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”), a new found obsession with cooking, and my longstanding need to do everything the hardest possible way because it feels immoral to me if things come too easily (I would have made a great Puritan, actually).
This year, I am mellower, more comfortable with the fact that I can cook just about anything, and not particularly concerned about dazzling the world with my culinary skills. All through October and November I scanned articles and blog posts about new ways to cook turkey, cutting-edge side dishes and plans for vegetarian, Southern, and Asian-influenced feasts. In the end, I filed away anything that sounded interesting and decided that I wanted to cook the dishes my family has always enjoyed, cook them well, and spendthe rest of the holiday enjoying the people I love instead of wearing myself to a frazzle shaving 800 fennel bulbs or roasting my own Anaheim chiles and getting to Thanksgiving dinner bitchy, exhausted and focused on endurance until naptime rather than pleasure.
My mom is feeling well enough to make the turkey this year, and it makes sense to have her cook it at her house because we’re eating there. I fought back my initial panic – would she really brine it? would it be really as good as if I brined it and massaged it with Italian olive oil and stuffed it with herbs? – and reminded myself that she is highly competent, and was cooking fabulous meals before I was born. Furthermore, if it is not perfect, so what? Just. so. what? She also bought some kind of cranberry sauce that looked interesting to her (I think from Williams Sonoma) so I will not be making that, either. It will come out of a jar, and it will be just fine.
I am making everything else, but I’ve set the bar pretty low. Today I’m making whipped sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar, mashed potatoes with butter and cream, and a pumpkin and a pecan pie. I am not using a recipe for anything except the pecan pie (because I can’t remember how to make one) and I am not making anything the least bit edgy. I will make garlic mashed potatoes and sweet potato wedges with cayenne pepper another time; tomorrow is just about what tastes good and pleases people. Tomorrow I’ll make an apple pie (we like pie), stuffing, and Brussel sprouts. The stuffing recipe is a slight variation on our standard bread stuffing – James Beard’s by way of Mark Bittman, and I’ll play with the Brussel sprouts, probably caramelizing them in bacon grease and serving them with tiny, crispy bits of bacon. Good slab bacon. Maybe I’ll make rolls, but probably not; we’re already approaching Def-Con 5 in the starch department. I’ll make pan gravy, and we’ll have a really, really great dinner with family and neighbors, a visiting baby for good measure, and a hungry dog under the table.
If things change next year, who knows? If my mom can’t handle brining an 18 pound turkey, I’ll do it. If I get obsessed with a variation on the sweet potatoes, I’ll try something new. Right now, this year, it feels good to be hanging out with my boys watching movies and getting up occasionally to take something out of the oven or off a boil. I suspect it will feel just as good tomorrow to get to my parents’ house relaxed, hungry, and proud of what I made but not expecting a standing ovation or photographers from “Food & Wine.” Maybe I’m growing up.
I hope you all find yourselves with much to be grateful for, surrounded by people you love, and lifting a glass to family and friends separated from you by distance or mortality.