You have, no doubt, come here hoping to learn of some radical old-fashioned method for preparing cranberry sauce, some cabalistic ritual of autumn berrying well known to the ancients but lost to our rational age, the merest taste of which will produce shivers of delight claimed in one long-lost poem (once decoded and translated from the Coptic) to last three full days and create breezes that resonate in the distant tropics. Some search for wisdom, others truth or beauty: you, my friend, seek cranberry sauce.
Plumping up dead birds with bread crumbs is a bit of culinary foolery that dates at least to medieval Europe, as is combining bread crumbs with meat, fat, and spices and stuffing, or forcing, this “forcemeat” into nearly any available receptacle. Stuffing a turkey is therefore not at all an American idea in origin, and it seems not to be an American idea in style, either, because in our perfectionist age we’ve decided that it’s not only detrimental to the quality of the meat but actually dangerous. In the old days, half the point of roasting a turkey was to bring the stuffing to fulfillment by soaking it through with juice and rendered fat and unidentifiable squishy bits of the inside of the bird. The meat was an afterthought, a requirement of the holiday, a vehicle for the stuffing and building block for sandwiches the next day, and if it were a little stringy, well, that’s why God made mayonnaise and gravy. The problem, of course, is that by the time the stuffing is heated through, the turkey has overcooked, and if you don’t heat it through, you will surely die before Christmas of salmonella. Baked on the side, though, the stuffing is dull, sterile, unloved, all wasted potential like an unfreshened heifer. Then the turkey was dry and the stuffing was moist; now we’ve reversed the equation. It’s certainly more precise, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement.
Let’s pretend, though, that stuffing is a word we mean literally, as opposed to dressing, which is wont feel like leftovers before it’s even been served. It’ll be more fun this way.
Roast turkey didn’t become de rigeur at Thanksgiving dinner until the nineteenth century. Before Thanksgiving became an institutionalized celebration of Americanness it, and its menus, were a more ad hoc affair, featuring whatever any family thought appropriate. By the 1850s New Englanders had more or less standardized the holiday in an attempt to recapture something that had been lost since colonial days, some simplicity or integrity or je ne sais quoi. Turkey, being identifiably American, fit the bill, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.
I am not, however, going to give you a recipe for roasting a turkey. Roasting a turkey is a simple affair if you are not inclined to be perfectionist about it, which you ought not be on Thanksgiving, for the simple reason that with all that family around, you are going to need to be too drunk to follow through on your perfectionism anyway, and will therefore inevitably be disappointed. You are, moreover, almost certainly not going to roast a turkey next Thursday. You are far more likely going to bake the thing, which is an altogether different matter.
Under Title 36 of the U.S. Code, “Patriotic and National Observances, Ceremonies, and Organizations,” it is of course mandatory that all serial publications whose primary subject matter pertains to food, cooking, or other domestic affairs and which reach interstate audiences publish a Thanksgiving issue. Probably as a result of my admittedly somewhat whimsical application for an ISSN for my blog, I received a notice last week from the Department of State Office of Patriotic Education, Thanksgiving Section, advising me that as of November 1st I was not in compliance. And so, beginning tonight, I will do my duty as a Good American and publish, in four parts (or possibly five), the First Annual Walbert’s Compendium Thanksgiving Issue.
Dishes have been invented, recipes written, foods sampled and praised through the millenia for reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Consider, for example, the peanut. Weird dirty little legume that it is, it sparked no great enthusiasm in the Europeans who found it in America and fed it to livestock and slaves. Africans in America were reminded of the ground nuts they knew and cooked them similarly, in soups and stews, but most Anglos would eat them only as snacks, in candy (such as the peanut brittle made by Afro-Caribbeans in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century and sold from carts) or roasted and salted, cracked open and shells discarded on the street or the floor of the theater, a peculiarly American custom that set visiting Europeans’ teeth on edge. For a hundred years white Americans wolfed them in informal public settings but wouldn’t dream of eating them at home as part of an actual meal; peanuts were the proverbial girl a guy would sleep with but never marry. Why? Who knows? Maybe because Africans ate them, maybe because they grew in the ground, maybe because nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans were singularly unadventurous eaters.
One more apple recipe before we move on to winter. My grandmother used to make these, but I’d forgotten them until recently when my mother and sister mentioned they were looking for the recipe. They’re simply apples baked in pastry with a brown sugar syrup, a sort of single-serving pie, and I have no idea why they’re called “dumplings,” because every other dumpling I’ve ever heard of was boiled, and these are of course baked. In any case, I was compelled to try to reconstruct the recipe from a memory that is, by now, a quarter-century old and pretty foggy.