Ah, Thanksgiving. America’s harvest feast captured in all of its serene and joyous perfection by Norman Rockwell as smiling faces greet the plump, brown turkey arriving at a table bountifully laden with dish after dish, hot and steaming, fresh from the kitchen. If only this fantasy bore any relation to the reality of getting this meal on the table.
I mean, you’ve cooked – or at least eaten – Thanksgiving dinner, right, bearing witness to this insane high wire act of getting six-eight sides and the largest piece of protein you will cook all year onto the table, hot and fresh at the same time? From a home kitchen? Not a chance. Fortunately, as a professional storyteller, cook and author, I can offer you…no, not helpful advice. No, I’m going to offer you my own disaster stories in an effort to make yours seem less traumatic.
Let’s Start with Wine.
Did your Mom raise you right? Mine did. How do I know? Because several years ago some good friends arrived at the house thoughtfully bearing a bottle of wine which they proudly presented to my husband Jason and me. “It’s our favorite,” they said. “It’s nice and sweet. Not like those dry wines.” As they stepped away Jason muttered under his breath, “oh, you mean like the good ones?”
First, a pro tip on receiving undrinkable wine. Let your guests know that this bottle looks far too special to open with a houseful of people and that you want to save it to enjoy later at a special occasion. Then stash it in the pantry and forget about it, until one night when you have finished all the other wine in the house and, with a decent buzz going, you decide that you really need one more glass and end up opening the bottle.
I will give our friends props for this, however. Turkey pairs well with sweet, less dry wines, but these bottles come with a risk. Many Rieslings, Viogniers and Gewürztraminers come way too sweet and alcohol forward. Choosing a good Pinot Noir is easy but I leave these more challenging selections to the pros on my annual pre-Thanksgiving visit to Schneider’s (300 Massachusetts Ave NE, cellar.com).
While they help you with a few bottles, you should also grab bottles of Madeira and Calvados, apple brandy from Normandy, for deglazing the pan as you finish off Thanksgiving sides. And, just in case the rest of the meal goes horribly wrong, grab some good bourbon. You can enjoy it on the rocks with a few drops of blood orange bitters or do a couple shots out on the back porch with your younger siblings.
It’s All in the Timing
My husband, and most of our friends, my family, and random guests unlucky enough to get dragged along to Thanksgiving dinner at my house would all argue that my biggest problem in the kitchen is time management. I would argue that the reason we end up eating 2-3 hours late each year is an excess of grandeur. I love a table loaded to the point of collapse with dish after dish to where I can only manage a couple of bites of each. Fortunately, I love Thanksgiving leftovers.
That said, due to this perpetually late service, Jason and I have arrived at a compromise: hors d’oeuvres. He figures if our guests are going to eat dinner long after sunset, nodding off because they’ve been staving off hunger with wine, that we should feed them. A quick trip through Radici (303 Seventh Street SE), just across the street from Eastern Market, I stock up on snacks to feed our guests while they wait for the turkey to come out of the oven. My turkey, at least, will have an amazing gravy. How do I know, because of what may be the worst Thanksgiving disaster story ever.
I had traveled for Thanksgiving to visit friends. Now, I love cooking at Thanksgiving and asked, nay begged, to be allowed in the kitchen, even if only to do some knife prep. But it was to no avail, until… When the turkey came out of the oven I was asked to carve it. As I took my first cut I looked back over my shoulder to see the juices from the foil roasting pan dumped down the sink as two cans of mushrooms and two jars of gravy were slipped into a saucepan for warming. Again, my Mom raised me right, so I effused about the meal while crying silent tears.
At the risk of shaming your holiday prep may I please suggest a visit to Leah at Hill’s Kitchen (713 D St. SE, hillskitchen.com)? She has beautiful, heavy-bottomed, roasting pans. You will need one of these because when your turkey comes out of the oven you will want to remove the turkey, skim off a bit of the fat, and place the pan over a couple of burners. Deglaze it with your dry Vermouth or use Calvados for a richer gravy. Add and reduce some homemade turkey stock. That, my friends, is gravy, not sadness. And a harvest celebration should be full of joy.
Putting out the fires
Jarred gravy is not the worst disaster to grace my Thanksgiving history. No, that occurred several years ago while catering a pre-Thanksgiving dinner for a friend. My friend, who grew up down in the south, requires a large pan of mac and cheese on his Thanksgiving menu. So I made one. I added dried porcini mushrooms and buttery panko breadcrumbs on top. The cheese sauce had more farm-fresh butter and aged cheddar, gruyere and parmesan from Mike Bowers over at Bower’s Fancy Dairy inside Eastern Market.
Thirty minutes before dinner I set it in the oven to warm through and toast the bread crumbs. At five minutes before dinner I checked the oven. The breadcrumb topping wasn’t quite warm enough so I set the gas oven to broil. Two minutes later the fire alarm went off.
You know as a kid when you squirted out a slick of lighter fluid and then dropped a match to watch the conflagration of leaping flames? That was less impressive than my pan of mac and cheese which was engulfed in flames. I tossed a sheet pan on top and closed the oven again.
Praying that it would go out, I served the rest of the meal. My friend came into the kitchen. “Where is the mac and cheese,” he said. “Everyone is waiting for it.” I told him that it would be right out. I opened the oven again. The surface of the pan was completely black. I smuggled it out to the back porch, lifted off the burnt crumbs in a single mass, quickly stirred the pan through and served it.
After a deep sigh of relief and five minutes passed by, the first guest walked into the kitchen. “The mac and cheese is delicious,” they said. “There’s something so unusual about the flavor.” I suggested the porcini mushrooms.
Another guest came in shortly after. “This is fantastic mac and cheese. What is that unusual flavor?”
“Porcini mushrooms?” I suggested again.
“No, no, it’s something smoky,” they replied.
My facial expression was at best enigmatic. As they turned to leave I turned around, eyes to the heavens, and muttered under my breath, “Thank you, Jesus.” The guest, still in the kitchen and fortunately a church goer, replied, “Amen,” as they returned to the table. Amen indeed.
Good luck everybody!
All culinary disasters aside I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving. Relax. By the time everyone makes it to the table and shares thanks for the past year, all the food is at best lukewarm anyway. Remember, the most important thing at the table this year are the people you love. And, if it all goes horribly wrong, I’ll be right over for a shot of that bourbon. Happy Thanksgiving!
Jonathan Bardzik is a local storyteller, cook, author and television personality. He got his start offering live, weekly, cooking demonstrations at Eastern Market and today cooks at markets around the area, offers private teaching dinners and corporate team-building events. His three cookbooks of fresh, seasonal food are available on his website, JonathanBardzik.com. His new television series, Jonathan’s Kitchen, debuts next summer on Amazon Prime Video.