The Thanksgiving issue: Gratitude and craft

Time to get serious, now. Thanksgiving is only a day away, and if you haven’t started your preparations yet, you’d best get cracking. I don’t mean brining the turkey or kneading bread dough: I mean being thankful. The point of setting this day aside isn’t just to eat. And yet, of course, to show our gratitude, we hold a feast. How, exactly, is a feast supposed to make us thankful?

I was thinking about this question after reading my local newspaper last week, which wants me to breathe easier about Thanksgiving. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Gratitude and craft”

The Thanksgiving issue: Cranberry sauce

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. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Cranberry sauce”

The Thanksgiving issue: Stuffing

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. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Stuffing”

The Thanksgiving issue: Roast turkey

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. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Roast turkey”

The Thanksgiving issue

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. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue”

New Year’s wishes

So I wrote this and published this, and then, defying the traditional New Year’s resolution to be more organized, forgot to publish it. But now it’s relevant again, so with a little updating, here it is with best wishes for 2007.

Darrin McMahon writes in today’s the 12.29.2005 New York Times that you can’t just decide to be happy. He notes that happiness as a commendable and morally acceptable end in itself is a concept invented only in the past few centuries and cites the 19th-century philosophers Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill on the subject — now there’s research to back them up, but really, Mill’s common sense could be more common without the blessing of social science:

Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

In the spirit of Mill and the ever-cranky Carlyle (and with an eye toward looking back fondly on the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, whose memory moves me to one-liner homilies), I will not tell you to have a happy 2006 2007 but instead offer the following wishes. Continue reading “New Year’s wishes”

Radish and watercress sandwiches

My grandmother taught me to eat radishes. Or, I should say, I learned the habit from her; I don’t think she had any grand plan to indoctrinate me. She served radishes and scallions with breakfast, accompanied by individual dishes of salt for dipping. My cousin and I, aged about five, theorized implausibly about why the salt improved the flavor of the radish. We could agree only that without salt, the radish tasted impossibly harsh; with it, like heaven. (I may not have been a typical five year old.) Continue reading “Radish and watercress sandwiches”

Bustling

Central Market on a busy day bustles, a word we don’t use much anymore but which seems to describe an ideal city scene, crowds smoothly mingling in purposeful activity, not frenetic or restless but businesslike in a friendly way. That feeling is what I love about the market, and what I always notice first: the city of my childhood imagination, busy and purposeful and bustling. I have that feeling even when it is not particularly crowded, late on Tuesday mornings and mid-afternoons, times when no conventionally employed person should be out shopping. Even then it feels to me as if, perhaps, it is only waiting to bustle. Continue reading “Bustling”