If I'd learned any lesson from Thanksgivings past, it's that you're a fool for getting too fancy with the food. One year I brought a mostarda I'd made to the meal. A mostarda's an Italian dish, a sweet fruit compote laced with mustard. I knew I'd failed the moment I began explaining it to the table. Who the hell wants to eat a Thanksgiving dish that needs to be explained?
There I go again, I thought: Thinking like a critic, when I should have been thinking like an eater. Was it any wonder why no one but my parents ever invited me to their house for dinner anymore?
So last week I told myself: Keep it simple. Please the people.
That meant cooking people-pleasing dishes.
Now, big roasts and lots of starches -- that's not my game when I cook. Nor am I particularly fond of cooking from recipes. I always feel like an actor who hasn't yet moved off-book. I'm following, I'm not making. I feel passive, not active, inhibited, not creative.
But this year -- cooking for seven, running the show for the first time -- I felt I needed to arm myself. I mentioned my gameplan to a colleague, who kindly gave me a recipe for a cranberry-cherry compote she adores. Another contributed a recipe for a corn pudding made with bacon drippings. I happen to love sweet potatoes, but I knew that others who would be at the table don't, and I was determined to make something they would eat, so I pored through cookbooks looking for the right combination of ingredients. I found one that sounded simple: reduce four cups of apple cider to one cup of syrup, stir into a bowl of warm, softened sweet potatoes, then add grated fresh ginger and butter. Mashed potatoes were mashed potatoes: What could be easier?
We needed a vegetable.
"Are you sure?" my wife asked.
"Why," I said, "you don't think anybody will eat it?"
"I mean, I will."
Here, I didn't need a book. I would reprise a dish I had done years earlier, only this time I would leave out the coarse fresh black pepper that triggered an asthma attack in my sister-in-law and nearly sent her to the hospital. (And nothing with almonds, either -- she had severe nut allergies, too.)
My guests, I reasoned, might not care for green beans, but I knew they cared for bacon. So, rather than make a green bean dish with bacon as the adornment, I would make a bacon dish with green beans in the secondary role.
The turkey was another matter. I knew it would be a heritage turkey, and had signed up for one weeks earlier thanks to an assist from the Post's former food critic, Phyllis Richman. On Tuesday, my wife had picked up the bird at a pre-arranged delivery spot from our trusted source. She'd even paid cash. It had all the trappings of a drug deal.
That same day, I had written about the heritage turkeys on the chog. In touting the virtues of these native, free-range breeds as a critic, I had forgotten about my vow as a cook. Friends and relatives began asking questions about it. Was it, um -- wild? Was it going to be all dark meat? Did it taste like turkey or like game?
It's turkey, I told them, only better. Watch. You'll see.
I'd quelled their fears, only to raise their expectations. Brilliant.
I went online looking for heritage turkey recipes. Each one seemed to contradict the other. Cook it fast, and hot. No, cook it low, and slow. Brine it, you need moisture with a lean bird like this. Don't brine it, you'll kill the natural flavor of the meat.
The fast and hot method seemed to make the most sense to me, and Phyllis gave it her endorsement, too. Now, I needed a recipe. After days of searching, I found one from Zak Palacio, the young, talented New York City chef. The name, and the reputation, should have ruled him out, but the recipe looked good. It called for a sage butter to go under the skin, and a maple butter to go over the skin. It might not be subtle, I figured, but subtlety wasn't my worry. Satisfying a crowd was. And there wasn't a fussy eater in the world who didn't love butter, or what butter did to nearly every food it touched.
There was only one problem. In the midst of my worry about pleasing each and every guest at the feast, I'd somehow forgotten that my mother is lactose intolerant.
It was too late, though. I'd already bought the many sticks of butter -- European, unsalted. In my mind, I had committed to the Palacio recipe, and could not conceive of preparing a wild turkey any other way. I reminded myself to tell her to take her pill before coming over.