Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Review - Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, Sam Sifton

Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well


Sam Sifton, Sarah Rutherford (Ill)

Category: Food & Cooking

Synopsis: Sifton, former restaurant critic for The New York Times, explains how to cook Thanksgiving dinner—the right way.

Date finished: 30 September 2013

Rating: ****½


“You can go your whole life and then wake up one morning and look in the refrigerator at this animal carcass the size of a toddler and think: I have to cook that today.”

You say you’ve always wanted to read a book about creating the perfect Thanksgiving meal written by a cranky, boozy, sarcastic know-it-all? Well, have I got the book for you!

I bought this book after I read about it on so many cooking blogs last year about this time. I saved it all year until the first chilly autumn nip. You see, in my family, I’m the Thanksgiving hostess. This started the Thanksgiving after I was married and has been in place the 11 years since. Mom takes Christmas, and we all go out for Easter, but Thanksgiving is all mine. And with family traditions and an opinionated—not to mention, picky-eating—husband, the menu does not change. So, I thought, if I can’t make it different, at least I can make it better. Thus, the book.

What a hoot this book is. Sifton is a man who takes his Thanksgiving meal seriously. He’s a man with Opinions. He’s a man who will tell you the Right Way to do things.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that anchors itself in tradition. Which means: You will make a turkey. Turkey is why you are here. (page 8)

Thanksgiving is likewise not a book for those interested in cutting corners….Put plainly, we are going to cook Thanksgiving correctly….There are going to be candles. There will be dessert. (page 8)

It means there will not be a salad course at meal’s end, or appetizers at its beginning. (page 9)

Let us speak frankly: you are going to need a lot of butter. (page 16)

You will not need garlic. (page 18)

Do not trust those plastic pop-up thermometers that are inserted in some turkeys, even free-range organic ones with college diplomas. (page 31)

I’ll risk starting a brushfire by saying with great confidence that the two most important factors in any credible Thanksgiving feast are the cranberry sauce and the gravy. Debate that all you like. But they tie every element on the plate together. They act as frame and foundation alike. (page 68)

 See? And I’ll spare you his directions on how to set a proper table.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot of practical information in this small book. For instance, I learned how they make high-fructose corn syrup. I learned why cranberry sauce gels. I learned what giblets are (now if someone would just tell me if it’s pronounced with a G-sound or J-sound…). I learned how to time the dreaded turkey thaw.

Also, there’s this:
Confidence is everything. Those who believe their gravy will turn out well will turn out good gravy….Work slowly, with deliberation, as if raking the lawn for a good neighbor, tasting all the way. (page 69)

 This makes me want to take over the making of the gravy—a task always pawned to my mother, since she has roughly 40 years more experience with it than I do.

But anyone who posits there’s only one right way to cook Thanksgiving dinner is going to stir up resentments in his reader, and here are mine:
  • He doesn’t account for personal taste. Not all people like butternut squash or Brussels sprouts just because they’re in season at Thanksgiving time.
  • He doesn’t say how many his recipes will feed, which is rather important in my humble opinion.
  • He bans garlic but then calls for it in at least three of his recipes. Just saying.
  • Green beans are not in season in November (as he insists all Thanksgiving food should be).
  • He doesn’t allow for (or understand) folks who don’t drink, although he does mention options for children and “those who no longer drink.” He suggests that a bottle of wine per guest is not too much. (page 89)
  • Oysters aren’t available (or appreciated) in all parts of the country. I dare you to eat an oyster bought in November in west-central Wisconsin.

Will my family allow me to change things up? No. Not ever. To the guys, homemade stuffing is just plain pretentious, so bring out the microwaved Stove Top, please. There will always be Norwegian lefse (think “potato tortilla”) on the table. Our beloved cranberry sauce straight from the can will not be removed from the table this side of eternity. And I can assure you that a butternut squash will never find its way into my kitchen. Amen. But is there room for improvement? Sure. And this book helps.

All in all, this was an enlightening and entertaining treatise on Thanksgiving. There are several blank pages in the back for notes or family recipes, and the sketches throughout are gorgeous.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

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