The history, the attention to football, and the date Thanksgiving falls on the calendar may differ between the Canadian and American versions, but the sentiment and the food are similar. In 1943, Norman Rockwell presented the classic scene of Thanksgiving dinner in his painting “Freedom From Want” on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Sam Sifton has written Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well (Random House, 2012, $21.00) in this same traditional vein. Sifton portrays the American holiday, but refers to familiar fare that Canadians fill their tables and stomachs with in October, instead of November.
As former restaurant critic for The New York Times, Sifton spent many Thanksgiving Days at the office fielding calls from desperate home cooks needing help or solace to make it through the meal. He was essentially a one-man Thanksgiving help-line, fielding problems about kitchen time management, cooking techniques, or even family drama (his advice: a well-designed seating plan).
Sifton makes no apologies for being a strict traditionalist and his image of Thanksgiving is so charming and familiar I don’t see how anyone would want it otherwise. There are slight variations on some dishes — a dash of soy sauce to glaze the turkey, some heavy cream added to the Brussels sprouts — but the mains are fairly constant with very little experimentation. There are alternative cooking methods offered for the turkey, such as roasting, smoking, grilling, brining, or deep-frying. Brining is especially useful if you have been told in the past that your turkey turns out dry. Detailed steps for carving the turkey are also outlined for a tricky, messy business that one may forget how to do properly from year to year.
Aside from the avian main attraction, Sifton provides recipes for the staples that should be offered every year: stuffing (inside the turkey it’s stuffing, outside it’s dressing), mashed potatoes, yams (preferably without marshmallow topping), and vegetable sides (green beans, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash). He argues that the most important duo at a Thanksgiving table is gravy and cranberry sauce. Sifton writes, “If the cranberry sauce only enhances what is already excellent, good gravy can cure almost any Thanksgiving ill.” His dedication to making perfect gravy is admirable and he calls it “a salty balm, rich in flavor, transforming all that it touches.” Short of enjoying his firsthand, the recipe called Serious Pan Gravy in the book will have to suffice. Although he cringes at canned cranberry sauce, he admits it has become a tradition for some families and he can’t stand in the way of a good tradition. For such families, he suggests introducing fresh cranberries, heated down with sugar and orange juice, alongside the canned one.
As for drinks, Sifton proposes that plenty of wine, bottles of fizzy water, and mulled cider are most appropriate. For dessert Sifton takes his most steadfast position. Old stand-bys are the order of the day — apple, pumpkin or pecan pie, maybe apple crisp or pear cobbler. It is acceptable for all to be topped with a heavy dollop of whipped cream.
He warns that butter will be used heavy-handedly in most recipes to bring out flavor, suggesting two pounds at a minimum for mashed potatoes, desserts, and turkey basting is required. His consolation is that “Thanksgiving is not a day for diets, or for worrying about your cholesterol. It is a day on which we celebrate the delicious. And there is precious little on a Thanksgiving menu that is not made more delicious with butter.” He is also adamant that garlic has no place in Thanksgiving dishes, as it clashes with the classic flavours.
The witty narrative interspersed throughout the recipes delves into all aspects of the holiday, from planning the meal to washing the dishes, from the mélange of kitchen utensils to dealing with leftovers. It is a charming book to get you in the mood to host a traditional meal, even down to the table setting requirements of an ironed tablecloth (not plastic) and cloth napkins (not paper) folded straight under silverware, and never, ever engineered into an origami duck. Most dinners won’t turn out as the perfect Rockwell image, but this book can help you get many of the pieces right.
Darin Cook is a regular contributor to eatdrink who keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants in London.