Everywhere I go lately, people are asking me about birds. Do I cook the stuffing inside the bird or outside? Do I buy farm raised or Butterball (the one my mother swore by)? Do I know any tricks to keep people from talking politics and ending up mad? People see me and all of their holiday hosting anxiety comes pouring out.
My mother had a knack for making everything taste good, just like her mother. The Butterball turkey, sold frozen, needed three days to defrost. My mother would have scoffed at the idea of brining the bird overnight in the garage in a barrel of saline solution to tenderize, “who has a garage, we barely have a car!” And she wouldn’t have gone for putting it in a paper bag either. I can hear her doing a rant about all the newfangled approaches now. Like a lot of Italians, she felt our people had already discovered the best way to do everything with food, so any new approaches were automatically a mistake. Whether fashion or food, like Sinatra sang, she wanted to do it “My Way.”
My mother always stuffed the bird with the most delicious stuffing (recipe follows). She made a big deal of massaging the bird with soft butter and salt after it was stuffed. Then it would be basted with the drippings every half hour and the gravy was so good you could drink it. One criticism I would offer today — I never got the courage to tell her when she was still around — she should have made a roux instead of putting some flour and broth in a jar and shaking it up. A roux with equal parts butter and flour cooked first before the drippings is the “correct” way to make gravy, according to this Italian. “Who says, you don’t know everything?” she is saying in my head. She had a way of making me feel that my input wasn’t exactly valid. And even that is a trait I miss.
I will not be having my whole family over for turkey dinner. For many years, we would invite a large group of lonesome people at Rosalie’s on Thanksgiving and before that I would have my brother, my sister-in-law, and all their family with the grandparents — all of them. It was a ton of work. Days of shining the silver serving pieces, cleaning the chandelier over the dining room table, trips to the North End to buy dried figs, nuts prosciutto, ricotta pie, artichokes, pomegranates. I even had a seating plan with precious little place holders for everyone which my kids helped to customize with their art. My beautiful compote needed pounds of several varieties of grapes to be beautiful as a centerpiece and I had two Victorian silver grape scissors that also needed to be polished. Was I crazy? Thanksgiving is no longer allowed to demand so much of my energy.
Todd and I had a big house in Gloucester for a few years and we entertained dozens of his relatives and many friends and we had a blast. Having a great space filled with lots of people is a beautiful thing. I love my little cottage now, but this time of year we get the urge to be able to handle a larger crowd. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a bigger house? Good friends have invited us to a Thanksgiving eve dinner with 40 other people at their gigantic home. “Who ever heard of such a thing? You have strange friends.” You guessed correctly if you knew it was my mother’s voice in my head.
Norman Rockwell used to capture the feeling of American Thanksgiving with his magazine covers. They didn’t show lonesomeness or broken families — there was no suffering, just sanitized suburban American life on display. Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to spend Thanksgiving morning giving away turkey dinners. With a food pantry’s help, my daughter Sue and I delivered about 60 dinners to various people who were “in need.” We were not making very good time because Sue needed to chat with each person and wipe away many tears at every turn. “But mom they were all alone. But mom they wanted me to stay for coffee. But they seemed so poor.” We started at 9 in the morning and by 2 in the afternoon we were mentally drained, physically exhausted, and our hearts were broken. On the way home, with Sue looking like Rudolph with a red nose and still tearing, said “That was wonderful, I’m so happy we did that.” Me too.
Rockwell never painted a Thanksgiving like the one we celebrated last year — at least, not that I’ve seen. We were offered the use of a loft by a friend who lives in Brooklyn. The day before the holiday we hopped onto an Acela train with our two grandsons and their mom and steamed into Manhattan. The boys made friends with the conductor, who was wonderful — spreading his warmth and joy to everyone, and taking the boys for a tour of some parts of the train you don’t normally see, like the platform on the back of the caboose.
On a stop in Connecticut a woman came on board loaded down with packages and two tupperware pie carriers that go back to another era. “Someone’s going to get some nice dessert for the holiday,” I said as she sat down next to us. “Pecan pies,” she said. We had wonderful conversation all the way to the city while the boys were entertained by the conductor and their mother had a much-needed nap and Todd was off somewhere on his computer. My newest best friend and I said our goodbyes in the city and she wished me a Happy Holiday, Happy Life and handed me one of the tupperware carriers with a pie. It was the sweetest encounter ever.
We took an Uber into Brooklyn, dropped our bags at the loft and took a walk so the boys could absorb the funk of the only half-gentrified section we were in. They loved the graffiti in the neighborhood and the funky vibrancy of the street life. We found a butcher where we bought a four pound turkey breast which we roasted with veggies before we went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the next day.
It will surely go down as one of the best times. “Only you would go to Brooklyn for Thanksgiving.” I can still hear my mother’s voice in my head.
Helpful, delicious hint preparing the bird for the oven. Massage the bird with softened butter or olive oil. Sprinkle with a combination of fresh thyme and rosemary leaves chopped. A few slices of pancetta or bacon is nice, too. Pour 1 cup of Marsala wine, cider, Grand Marnier over the bird AFTER it is lightly browned. Baste every half hour with the drippings in the pan.
Stuffing Recipe (serves 10)
Chop a large onion and cook until lightly browned with chopped liver from turkey if you like
Add a pound of Italian sausage meat removed from casing and saute until lightly browned, stirring often.
Add a cup of chopped celery or fennel, including the leaves, saute for a few minutes to combine flavors
Place a stick of melted butter in a large bowl and add:
five fresh sage leaves, chopped
a sprig of rosemary and a few sprigs of thyme leaves chopped
Tsp. dried fennel,
Cup chopped walnuts or pecans
five cups of homemade croutons or Pepperidge Farm cornbread stuffing, or your favorite
two apples chopped
a half cup each of currants or raisins and chopped apricots or any dried fruit like cranberries
6 tbsp. flat leaf parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste.
Beat two eggs and combine with a cup of chicken broth in a large bowl.
Combine everything into the bowl with the eggs and toss gently. Add more chicken broth as needed to make a ball that sticks together when gathered in your hands.
Stuff the turkey cavity loosely with about a quarter of the stuffing, depending on size of the bird
Place remainder into a greased pan and place in the oven with the turkey about an hour before the turkey is done.
Bake uncovered until it is golden brown.
Cut into squares and serve.
Sauté neck and the giblet in tbsp of hot oil and brown all over.
Add a chopped onion and cover both with water and simmer for an hour with a bay leaf. Use this as stock for gravy
After the bird has been removed to a serving platter, remove several tbsp. of fat from the pan and discard.
Reserving au jus and drippings and a little of the fat.
Directly into turkey pan place at least a half cup of flour (8 tbsp) You should have at least 1/2 cup of liquid in the pan. Cook over low heat for several minutes, until browned.
Add three cups of chicken broth and one cup cider and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
Add cooked giblets, season with salt and pepper, stirring until thickened.
Add a half cup of heavy cream (optional) for silky gravy and simmer for a few minutes.
Add soaked and chopped porcini for a woody taste – a cup or so of other mushrooms is also nice.