"If I knew the way, I would take you home."
Major holidays are, in my family, like most others, major events. The ones that fall between October and January especially. That includes Halloween, both Christmas and Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve. Sometimes Kwanzaa. Most of all, Thanksgiving.
You could call our family a lot of things. My mother, betraying her Virginia roots and a basic inability to say something negative directly, might call it varied or widespread. My stepmother, Jill, comes complete with a similar innate ability to deliver a complimentary description of just about any event or thing. She usually means it, and she really digs it in with a smile when she doesn’t. Coincidentally, considering the holiday at hand, at her most vulgar she is most likely to deliver something like, "You turkey." She’d call us broad. Maybe far-reaching.
Those not among the matriarchs might call us something more like an aberration. Like a maniac had cut out favorite character descriptions from arcane fairy tales and pasted them all back together into a new story in a scrapbook. Admittedly, we tend sometimes toward cynical. I prefer to agree with the moms.
I’m the oldest of six children. That includes a relatively even distribution of siblings, step-children, and halves. There are a few marriages on both sides. At least five sets of grandparents war politely for the right to host the holiday celebration. Extended families include innumerable aunts and uncles. One couple stepped in as guardians to three of us for years, adding another contingent of family extensions and one more pair of enthusiastically engaged grandparents. Grandma and Grandpa "Wolf," parents to the "Wolfie" brothers. I’m sorry if you had a run-in with those characters along the way, but I love them. I’ll never forget my first beer in a bar at the age of fourteen. That’s a story for another day.
We’ve got both Catholics and all sorts of Protestants, as well as plenty of Jews. Union organizers and executives. Mob enforcers and cops. Waitresses and saloon owners. And me. Logging into Facebook for updates can be an exhilarating experience.
I was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1984. So was Scarlett Johansson. President Kennedy died on the same day (November 22) in 1963. Not Thanksgiving. The holiday was about as late as it gets that year and didn’t land on the calendar until November 28. The yearly celebration quickly took on added importance to me. Also to my family, who went out of their way to recognize my birthday around the busy holiday preparations or proceedings.
The instances that my birthday fell on the fourth Thursday of November number only five. The day I was born, then again six years later, neither of which I can recall. Somehow there was an instance in 2001 that I also can’t seem to recall. I do remember waking up halfway through dinner after drinking all morning at our high school football game. I say they forgot about me. On Thanksgiving! My birthday! Their story is a little different. Then there were two more pretty close together, 2007 and 2012. Those I remember. I spent them both in restaurants. Working.
For years I caught some shit for that. Somewhere around the time I turned 13 (November 27 that year), Jill’s mother Lil took over the majority of Thanksgiving cooking and hosting responsibilities. We would make our rounds before or after, but she controlled the main event. I developed a reputation for being able to put away three to five pounds of mashed potatoes on my own. Five years of that and Lil had finally adjusted her shopping list to compensate for my appetite. Around year six I stopped showing up.
I got a quick glimpse into where Jill inherited her delivery style.
"Gram says we missed you for Thanksgiving again but at least we have plenty of potatoes to share." A smile just about audible over the telephone.
I should have been thankful emojis hadn't yet entered the vernacular.
A few years later the phone call stopped. They came to understand that I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Outside of finding a new line of work. My holiday plans were decided for me the minute I took a sous chef job at a busy downtown bistro in the ground floor of a boutique hotel. Half the staff salaries were paid on the proceeds of those fall and winter prix fixe reservations alone. And I came to love those holiday services anyway. Most of all; Thanksgiving.
It took a couple of years for me to really get the hang of the Thanksgiving service when we would serve 200 or so hungry revelers. Not including the copious solo orders from the bar or the early birds for breakfast. Eventually I learned to dig into it gleefully. Carrying around memories of kitchens of grandmothers and aunts and mothers as we paraded around town on the annual holiday procession. I remained serious about the mashed potatoes. Every day, but especially that day. Any of my sous chefs over the years at Beacon Hill Bistro will attest to my physical effort each year, personally passing twenty-pound batches two-and-a-half times over ten hours of Thanksgiving dinner over the wire mesh to be pureed with nearly equal parts dairy and plenty of salt and hand cracked pepper.
"Goddamn if Lil thinks she has something to say about potatoes, she ought to take a look at this…" Delivered under my breath but with a smile from ear to ear.
We were serious, too, of course, about the turkey. We’d buy great birds (thirty of them) and treat them to a long process celebrating the best of all the parts. I’d cut it all off the bone in one piece, then make a sausage out of the thigh meat (larded with the backfat of my beloved Mangalitsa pig, which was usually delivered a few weeks before Thanksgiving) and stuff that sausage back into the turkey breasts, roll it all up in its own skin, and very slowly poach it in a stock made from its bones until fully cooked. Then we’d air-dry the skin a couple of days before slowly reheating it in the oven slicked with butter, salt, and pepper. Once hot it was dipped in the deep fryer for a crispy, tender, juicy turkey that is easy to slice and serve. A technique I learned then modified over the years from an early mentor who could have been channeling my own Grandma Wolfie as he drilled into our heads that when it comes to the holiday service to "be ready, be ready be ready…" and "use an electric knife."
The accompaniments are important also. Although I have built a reputation in heavily researched, globe-trotting menus, I cook Thanksgiving with two feet firmly on American soil. Happy to pull inspiration from my family's roots up and down the East Coast and just a bit south and west. Oyster stew is cooked in juice pressed from local crab apples, the dressing (stuffing, but not stuffed) a combination of cornbread and Jewish-style rye. Desserts, nothing but pie — maybe just a few light surprises to keep things interesting. No matter how many we used to serve, I’d try not to forget to call mom, so she could remind me about her favorite Thanksgiving ever and pretend she needs my advice on cooking the turkey (she doesn’t.)
This year I had a lot to be thankful for. After toiling about in that downtown basement for years under the fluorescent lights, I’m building my own restaurant, an opportunity afforded me based on a lot of hard work, the trust of a handful of believers, and a city-wide reputation I never imagined when I first signed away any future holidays so many years ago. I have a partner who somehow manages to wrangle my constant visioning and dreaming and sprinting forward into something sewn up tightly and presented beautifully for our guests, fans, family, staff, and supporters, without whom I’d likely still be under those fluorescents, a skilled but content malingerer feuding with my ambition while grilling steaks and rolling omelettes in the basement for faceless tourists and a few beloved regulars just above. I’ve published essays both fun and meaningful in major media outlets, including my first this year in print. I have an audience and a platform from which to share my ideas even beyond the kitchen walls.
Speaking of walls, ours are finished. The floors too. In fact, those floors are why I don’t have too much to update from the construction viewpoint this week. A combination of a couple of mundane events turned the clock against us this time. The cold weather hit for a few days just as our floors were being stained. That would be fine on its own, but at the same time our electrician came down with the flu. The plan was to install the HVAC at just the moment the paint on the walls dried, but just before the stain was applied, the heat speeding up the drying process that was instead halted by the cold air as he recovered.
He’s back to work now. The heat is ready to fire. The floors are dry although still awaiting a final coat of stain. Tomorrow we begin something referred to as a "punch list." It means the scope of agreed work is just about done, but like a first draft. What’s left is editing. Punctuation. Smoothing, finishing, polishing. Then we look at the final stages, including equipment and countertop installation, mounting some shelving, finally deciding on those light fixtures. I suppose we should buy some dishes, pots, pans. Napkins?
While those floors dried, I drove. Jill lives about two hours from the city, a few doors down from Lil. Jill hosts Thanksgiving now and handles most of the cooking, with a little welcome help from my sisters. Lil’s husband Bud took care of the potatoes this year. It concerned me to hear that. Bud is a handyman, a football star, and a hell of a conversationalist. But potato puree? He handled the job with ease. I would have used a little more butter. I suspect there was some margarine. He got the salt and pepper right, and there were even potatoes to spare. Granted, I don’t eat like I used to. And you know what? Margarine on toast after school or scooped over the top of hot potatoes used to please us just fine.
Shrinking appetites aside I think I’ve regained a taste for taking the holidays off, for enjoying them with family. For the relaxation of cooking well for and in sight of twenty instead of ten times that. For arguing over the remote with little nieces and nephews who prefer Frozen over the Macy’s day parade. Cloudy With a Chance Of Meatballs over Dallas Cowboys football. Settling finally on Ratatouille, just in time for the little ones to fall asleep. I’ve regained a taste for it for sure. And I’m thankful to be in the position to have the choice.
Maybe one of these upcoming years I'll fly to South Carolina. Instead of calling mom to indulge her in confirming that yes, it is still okay to drape the turkey in thickly sliced bacon before roasting, I'll see if she’ll meet me in Charleston. We can find someone else’s boutique hotel to eat lunch at. I’ll sip bourbon outside. She’ll just have tea, but she won’t judge my preferences. At least not out loud. I’ll bring her one of those boneless rolled turkeys. They take up to three days to prepare just right. I think she’ll find my Mangalitsa larded sausage a fine stand-in for her market-bought pork products.
Oyster Stew (Serves 20)
We haven’t published a recipe with this series yet. Sorry. It’s a hard transition from plywood to mirepoix. Here’s one to enjoy as soon as the weather turns cool. It’s as good at Christmas as Thanksgiving. Oysters aren’t just for sundresses and patios. You could embellish this with pork or spices. The holiday kitchen is busy enough already, though, and this is one you can pull together in just a couple of minutes once the potatoes are cooked. Jill would just snip fresh chives with scissors over the bowls when finished, which is pleasantly sufficient. I prefer a big mix. Parsley, chives, tarragon, chervil the most likely. I can’t get enough, though; I love the flavors of herbs competing against each other a bit, vying for attention over the clamor of the family table. I might also add dill and even thyme or cilantro. Lemon zest.
- 4 large red bliss potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 leeks — white part only, halved lengthwise and then into ¼ inch half-moons, rinsed well and drained
- 12 ounces hard cider
- 10 ounces heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons chives or mixed herbs, finely chopped
- 4 dozen local oysters, shucked with liquid reserved
In a medium-sized pot, cover the potatoes with cold water and add a generous pinch of salt. Place the pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and cook the potatoes until they are just cooked through. Immediately remove from heat, drain, and cover with cold water until cool.
Place a heavy bottomed sauté pan over medium heat. Add the butter, and when the butter melts, add the leeks and a pinch of salt. Cook the leeks, stirring frequently to avoid browning, until tender. Lower the heat and add the potatoes, cider, reserved oyster liquid, and cream. When this comes to a simmer, add the oysters and cook just until the edges of the oysters begin to curl. Remove the pan from the heat, add the herbs, and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Place two oysters in each bowl and divide the broth among them. A few hands will go up when you ask who loves oysters. Indulge them or reserve the extra for yourself while you do the dishes.