Thursday, November 26, 2009

Turkey: Kramer, kith and kin

The New Yorker's Nov. 23 issue is all about food, and I especially enjoyed Jane Kramer's article, "Pilgrim's Progress", which describes forty years of her strategy for making friends in foreign lands by cooking Thanksgiving dinner (at various times of the year) for guests like Sufi musicians in Morocco, Serbians, Ugandans, and– toughest crowd of all– the French. (Article not available online except by digital subscription.)

She assigns their difficulty with turkey-and-trimmings to their "finicky palates" and sees that sitting down to a groaning board of dishes that we eat gleefully "smushed together into one glorious taste" on a plate swimming in gravy is abhorrent to them. The French guests pick at her food, which they carefully segment so as not to touch other dishes on the plate. One of her friends, a French woman married to an American, describes a similar dinner at which Parisian diners picked at tiny portions of the food, but inhaled her truffle, chestnut and fois gras-studded dressing.

"They know what the good parts are", Le Duc said darkly.

Kramer's difficult guest endures, right under my roof. Le Duc, a French Canadian, has asserted for a quarter-century that people of French heritage do not 'do' Thanksgiving dinners. He is unmoved by turkey and thinks that two or three side dishes should be enough to accompany any main course. And salad is not served with the turkey, and marshmallows belong at a campfire.

As a newlywed, I saw that the memories of my American Thanksgiving dinners were going to remain just that, because despite Kramer's insistence, you can lead people to a turkey dinner but you can't make them like it. My sons reached adolescence before they witnessed a US-style Thanksgiving dinner table. They said that it looked just like a buffet.

For several Thanksgivings in the last decade, we were visited by The Siren, an American girlfriend who lived for a time in Chicago. We created full-on turkstravaganzas. He ate with appetite, but when she moved back to California, there was no wistful recollection, no longing for the pearl onions with apples or the trio of squash, fennel and parsnip pureés.

For the last dozen Thanksgivings (which in Canada happen six weeks earlier than in the US, and sensibly on the Monday, while Americans are celebrating Columbus Day), the family visits a cheerful, bustling restaurant that serves turkey dinner with enough familiar sides that you would look at the plate and say, "
Oh, it's Thanksgiving".

But the jo
int doesn't serve squash, apple cider sweet potatoes, the pearl onions, or anything but the most pedestrian mash and veg. Buoyed by Kramer's account of the lavish, warm Thanksgiving dinner served to friends in Spoleto last July, I am determined to take back Thanksgiving and reassert my homeland's tradition.

First, I have to regain my feast-fixin' mojo.

Mark Bittman has developed a
minimalist Thanksgiving menu, a good starting point (and stopping point for some). I'm thinking I'll surprise some friends in early spring, taking a page from Kramer's book. I'll add a few of my own favourites, including the tomato pudding and maybe leek gratin for Le Duc.

To those celebrating today, Happy Thanksgiving! I'll catch up with you in April!


Tomato Pudding
(A signature dish of the old Dilworth Hotel, Boyne City Michigan)

1 (10 oz.) can tomato puree (or you can make your own puree with fresh tomatoes)
3/4 c. boiling water
1 c. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
4 slices bread, white, diced
1/2 c. melted butter
Add sugar, water and salt to tomato puree. Boil 5 minutes. Place bread squares in buttered casserole dish and pour melted butter over them. Add hot tomato mixture and place cover on casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.



17 comments:

lagatta à montréal said...

Yes, (Canadian) Thanksgiving isn't really common here in Québec at all. There are some English-speaking people who prepare it, but most of them are from other provinces (such as a friend in Sherbrooke originally from Winnipeg). Her husband is Québécois and thinks it is very strange.

Turkey is eaten at Christmas or New Year's - the latter is the main banquet day of the year here - but that is mostly a matter of economics as it is cheap for a big crowd. I find people who have smaller groups and can afford it spring for tastier poultry and meats (duck is popular here now).

What on earth do you do with marshmallows? I have eaten Thanksgiving dinners in English-speaking Canada and in the US, but have never seen marshmallows. Do people put that on pumpkin pie?

On another board, there are people reporting in from New Orleans. Nos cousins là-bas make seafood gumbo at well as the turkey etc. Yum!

I'll definitely go read that article in La Grande bibliothèque. Love such stories of cultural interaction, as I've worked a lot in North-South schools and conferences where there were people from every continent - yes, including Australia, Imogen - and some very odd interactions about what consitutes normal food. Asians want rice at EVERY meal, including breakfast. Some North Americans want milk at meals other than breakfast, which utterly disgusts Europeans. And so on... Not always easy to plan for all. In general there was a no-pork policy for Muslims and Jews, but that didn't always sit well by East Asians...

metscan said...

I´m s o lucky that we have no Thanksgiving in our part of the world. We have dropped out all the traditional X-mas servings as well as the Easter ones. Yes, we are radical in many ways ( speaking only about my own family ). However, I do like the scent of a X-mas food, the cookies, who wouldn´t. But since it nowadays is possible to get everything whenever you like to, Christmas time has lost lots of it´s value for me.

Duchesse said...

lagatta: The marshmallows are the top layer of a classic very kitschy sweet yam casserole. (I don't make it but my GF did.)

A university friend used to bring a huge pot of gumbo up to Michigan in the trunk of his car when he went home to New Orleans-ooooh!

metscan: I don't like 'required' holiday menus either, but cannot resist Christmas cookies, especially shortbread.

materfamilias said...

We still do the turkey at Thanks-giving and Christmas -- Pater loves the turkey smell permeating the house. I'm not so keen, finding it a surfeit of food, really, and so much to store away and clean up after, but I do like the soup and the leftovers. One of my daughters is hosting Christmas this year, although she'd like help with the meal -- I think the kids have even arranged to share in the cooking, one bringing a salad, one bringing her best macaroni 'n' cheese dish(!!). I just try to look calm and remember that we'll be happy with their new configuration of this family celebration -- the new traditions may take a while to emerge and meanwhile the old ones may come to be better appreciated!

Funny about Money said...

I'm not nuts about turkey, myself. Matter o' fact, I avoid it at every turn. We're smoking a couple of ducks today.

It's been years since Americans have been able to buy turkey that tastes like anything. Even "organic" and kosher turkeys are flavorless. This fact was brought home to me when a friend in England insisted we come to Christmas dinner at her home in Kent. We reluctantly agreed, even though we would much have preferred to cook real food at our ice-cold flat in London. When dinner was served, we were amazed to discover the bird tasted the way turkey used to taste in the U.S., back in the Cretaceous.

Our flavorless turkeys lead people to brine them by soaking them overnight in a bathtub full of salt water. The result is...yes! Instead of flavorless white stuff, salty white stuff! This process renders the pan drippings unusable: when you try to make gravy you get salty gunk that puckers your mouth for hours. Since brown gravy is the only halfway desirable outcome of baking an American turkey, when you brine the thing you get 100 percent inedibility for your several hours of labor over the 15-pound carcass of a bizarrely bred, deformed bird.

Canned cranberry "sauce" is Jell-O in a can (ick!); mashed potatoes are flavorless and gummy; overcooked boiled Brussels sprouts smell bad and taste worse; and the highest and best use of yam casserole is as a vehicle for rum or whiskey. Marshmallows are not allowed in my house or on my property.

Thanksgiving: bah! Humbug!

Deja Pseu said...

I'm fortunate to have family members that cook, and bring fabulous side dishes for my turkey (though I do make stuffing, my favorite with tart green apples, celery, onions, slivered almonds). However, we don't have obscene amounts of food, and any leftovers are sent home with everyone.

I'd miss this holiday, I think, should I move somewhere that it's not celebrated.

A note to Funny About Money, we buy fresh, organic free-range turkeys from a producer called "Diestel" (they're in Nortthern California) and find them MUCH more flavorful than any others we've tried. We cook breast side down so the juices drain into the breast meet and are retained there.

(And now I'm wondering, where's my New Yorker for this week. I don't think I've received it yet...Grrr!)

Deja Pseu said...

"meet" = "meat"

Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP said...

Not having a thanksgiving here, Turkey is traditional fare at Christmas here - no idea why - not the weather for it!

lagatta à montréal said...

I'm sure the turkey dinner at the height of Australian summer would be a holdover from the old Country. Imogen, I have friends in Argentina and Chile, and they have taken to doing a barbecue by the sea. Though there are people who still do European Christmas dishes - at least that is usually Italian or Spanish food so not quite as out-of-season.

I confess that the marshmallow sweet-potato dish is, to put it charitably, a bit disturbing. There are nicer things to go with sweet potatoes - roast them, or make a very pretty gratin dauphinois altering layers of potato and sweet potato.

The husband of the New Orelans poster I mentioned is making an entire vat of seafood gumbo. It is a neighbourhood party, and they are feeding 60 people.

Valerie said...

Thanksgiving greetings from a long time lurker and great fan.

I run a study abroad program for US students in Mexico. We just concluded our traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Guests included visting families, instructors, community partners, professors from our affiliated universities, former language assistants who studied at our home campus in Iowa, our excursion provider, a former student and her family who were vacationing in the area, the entire staff of a local pilates studio that my students adore, and friends students have made in the community.

We were joined mid-way through the meal by a favorite live mariachi band and worked off accumulated calories by some high spirited salsa dancing.

The gathering gave us a chance to share this uniquely American tradition with our local friends and supporters while at the same time giving the students a taste of home at a time during the semester when they are feeling homesick and restive. The students were proud to serve as hosts, to give back to those who have been so good to them. Isn't that what Thanksgiving is all about?

Duchesse said...

lagatta: I have just enjoyed a dinner of lotte with a mussel sauce, roasted asparagus, basmati rice and tomato salad and am STILL salivating at your mention of seafood gumbo!

I would never use a marshmallow in a savoury dish.

Duchesse said...

Valerie: Thanks for this spirited comment; I can't imagine a more and enjoyable Thanksgiving than dinner and salsa dancing, it's right up there with Jane Kramer's best.

Frugal Scholar said...

I recounted your stories of the French-Canadian response to Thanksgiving to my two guests. You were a hit.

Meanwhile, we were mushing up the starches on our plates and putting on the gravy.

And Frugal Son was doing something in France--can't wait to hear about that meal.

Duchesse said...

Funny: "Yam casserole as a vehicle for rum or whiskey"- LOL! In Kramer's piece she says the same thing- that in France and Italy she could not get a turkey above 6-7 lbs. 10 lobs would be a monster!

Frugal: Nice to be at your table in absentia!

Karen said...

I've had the occasion to make at least three Thanksgiving dinners that I can remember in Norway. They all LOVED the dishes, especially the turkey and stuffing. Those people are so open to new taste delights. Imagine if you existed on fish and boiled potatoes your whole life and then were served this wonderful bird with "exotic" trimmings--The only thing they sniff their noses up at is mashed potatoes. Usually reserved for children served with sausages..

LaurieAnn said...

My DH takes off work for a week each year at Thanksgiving time so I am usually much more interested in our travel plans than I am in the feast. This year we didn't travel far in distance but had a very good time walking, dining, shopping and visiting museums in San Francisco.

As I am trying to buy only things which really work for me and which I love, I brought home only one item. A light-weight double faced wool coat from Max Mara. It's in a gorgeous deep purply-blue color which I call blueberry. It's as warm as I'll need for evening occasions where I live and folds down to nothing for travel. The idea is that I can wear it over a simple outfit of black skirt or slacks, add a single piece of jewelry and then be done. I've never allowed myself this level of quality before but this is one of those items that will work for me now at 48 and will still work at 68; my level of enjoyment when I wear it and the cost-per-wear will make the purchase worthwhile.

Duchesse said...

LaurieAnn: Your getaway sounds idyllic and your coat- marvelous. (How I wish commenters could post photos!) That's exactly the kind of elegant, quality purchase I aspire to make. Wore a silk Max Mara jacket-blouse for maybe 15 years till finally thought "I can't wear it anymore" and gave it to a friend- and it was still in excellent shape.

That colour is also what you get in very good clothes- an unusual but not aggressive shade. Enjoy it!