No appetizers. No garlic. No marshmallows (unless you grew up with them, maybe). No irony.
These are a few of the rules for Thanksgiving laid down by Sam Sifton, who has clearly given the subject a lot of thought.
Currently the national editor of the New York Times (NYT:US), Sifton has served as the paper’s restaurant critic and dining editor. He’s also answered its Thanksgiving helpline, fielding questions about what to do with a mother-in-law who wants beef tenderloin, or which part of the turkey to stuff.
Over lunch at Bloomberg world headquarters in Manhattan, we talked about his new book, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well,” which gives us all the answers.
Muchnick: So no garlic, huh?
Sifton: Garlic on Thanksgiving is an abomination, and I say that unreservedly. I have no problem with garlic in regular life. But I think putting it into your Thanksgiving is wrong.
Muchnick: Yet you put soy sauce on your turkey.
Sifton: Yeah, I know. Well, I am large, I contain multitudes, I contradict myself.
Muchnick: How do you feel about French string beans with dried onion rings?
Sifton: When I was doing the helpline a couple of years ago, someone wrote me from France to say that they wanted to recreate that dish and they were having a hard time finding the onion rings. I suggested putting a piece of cardboard through a shredder and crumbling it over the top.
I do find that a weird dish, though there’s nothing wrong with the textural element. It’s hard to find texture in Thanksgiving, right? That’s one of the reasons we obsess over the skin, because we’re looking for those crisp bits. It’s why bacon shows up in some of the dishes.
Muchnick: How many people are you expecting this year?
Sifton: I think we’ll probably have close to 30, so a few turkeys will be made.
Muchnick: Different kinds or the same?
Sifton: I like doing different kinds and different techniques. Like most people, I have a number of ovens. Wait, like most people I only have one oven so I’ll roast one and then I’ll probably fry one as well.
Muchnick: As a New Yorker, one of the things that struck me about the book is that it presumes the reader cooks. But I have to ask you, as a former restaurant critic, what you think of dining out on Thanksgiving.
Sifton: My presumption is you do cook. I spend a lot of time talking to chefs about cooking Thanksgiving because in a previous life I ran the dining section, and Thanksgiving comes around like a cold every fall. So I had to deal with, “What are we going to do this year? How are we going to prepare the bird?”
I’m taking a digression -- I’ll be back to restaurants in a second.
If you write about Thanksgiving every year, it can’t always be the same. One of the reasons I hope this book will be interesting to people is that it doesn’t get involved with what the food media has to get involved in every year, which is fabulous new ways to make turkey. People don’t need fabulous new ways to make turkey; they need one way, the right way to make turkey.
Once they are comfortable with that, they can move onto other stuff, which brings me to restaurants.
When you talk to chefs about what it is they serve in their restaurants on Thanksgiving, it’s turkey and all the fixings, again and again. Even in places where you’d least expect it, like Italian places. I think that’s cool because it’s a chance for the overwhelming number of people who go out for Thanksgiving to go to their favorite restaurants and get the Thanksgiving meal.
Muchnick: So if you go to a restaurant, you’ll get food you could cook for yourself but don’t. It’s slightly better when they do it.
Sifton: Yeah, except there’s something better ... I mean, this is never the case with -- boy, I’m in a deep thicket of weeds here because I’m trying to decide whether I want to make a sort of prostitution analogy. But with Thanksgiving I think there are times when you can make it better at home.
Muchnick: Fair enough.
Sifton: Thanksgiving is really an all-day affair. You show up, you see your cousins, somebody is preparing the stuff, finally the meal is served. You take a break between the main course and the dessert to play football or smoke or drink or do whatever it is you want to do. I just don’t think that’s available to you in a restaurant.
Muchnick: What do you do to recover from eating 3,000 calories in one meal?
Sifton: The recovery process requires stomach stimulation, right? So one thing we can do is take a walk. Much more effective and important, however, is the application of alcohol to the stomach lining.
So Calvados after the meal, or a dry whisky or bourbon or something. That allows you to then eat dessert, which gives you the sugar rush that propels you to the couch for the football game where you fall asleep. Then the hunger awakens you and you have your first sandwich of the Thanksgiving weekend. I’ve made a study of it.
“Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well” is published by Random House (133 pages, $18). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Laurie Muchnick is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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