Thanksgiving: A manifesto, a menu, and a recipe for mincemeat

For me, being in control of Thanksgiving is synonymous with adulthood.

To some degree, my family of origin determined this association. The young’uns sat at the kids’ table in the other room until deemed old enough (or enough of your aunts and uncles hadn’t shown up at your grandmother’s house) that you were invited to eat at the adults’ table.

I worked so hard to be included. I began by making pies, developing a special talent for pistachio pie made from Jell-o pistachio pudding. I offered to help set tables. I mixed the Miracle Whip into my grandmother’s Jell-o salad. (Yes, I grew up in the Jell-o belt, which stretches from Alberta, Canada, to Northern Mexico and runs directly through Utah and Arizona.) I contributed what I imagined were thoughtful comments to adult conversations. But by some unwritten law, I sat with the kids until somewhere in my mid teen years. This was especially painful when my youngest uncle, only four years older than I am, was graduated to the adult table ahead of me. Was it the onset of pubic hair that made him fit for adult company? Maybe if I had shown more interest in the football games on TV the adult males would have claimed me as one of their own.

Years later, when I was newlywed but still young and poor, in our first act of adult independence Stephanie and I resolved not to travel to either of our families for Thanksgiving because we couldn’t afford it. To compensate, we racked up hundreds of dollars on our credit cards to buy early Christmas presents. And we invited lots of misfit friends over, the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel home either.

I cooked my first turkey. We had a problem with the kitchen faucet and asked a handy neighbor to come over and help. He forgot to shut off the water before getting to work and wound up flooding the entire kitchen, a geyser shooting from the kitchen sink. We threw towels on the floor and salvaged what food hadn’t been soused.

A few years after that, having moved across the country, we became friends with a couple named Mark and Pandora in Cambridge, Mass. Stephanie and I were in our mid-twenties, a year or two into graduate school. Mark and Pandora were a few years older, in their early thirties. They had two boys who were just older than our two girls. (Actually, we met them just before our second daughter was born.) Among their various other magnetic qualities, Mark and Pandora knew how to throw a holiday party. They had accumulated appropriate decorations and table settings for the corresponding occasions. They had the several courses down. (Many people have likened Mark to her highness Martha Stewart, but props go to Pandora for setting a table to shame MS and her whole media enterprise.) Mark and Pandora knew the right moment to propose a toast, to invoke a tradition. They knew just how rare the Easter lamb should be, just how many people to invite and where to place them around the table, and just which wine to serve with the patiently brined, perfectly roasted turkey for Thanksgiving.

Last year we drove from New York to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with them, our first together since they left the East Coast. It was truly an over-the-river-and-through-the-woods Thanksgiving, driving to and fro in our rented minivan. Snow fell as we drove; by the time we reached our destination a comfortable blanket had settled. The kitchen smelled like Thanksgiving. When we gathered for dinner the next day, each in turn declaring our thanks for something we appreciated (per Brewer tradition), I thanked Mark and Pandora for teaching us, back in Cambridge, how to be adults.

In 1999, the newly minted Northeast Corridor Social Club, along with a dozen and a half hangers on, convened in Tribeca for an enormous Thanksgiving bash. Slade, the consummate doyenne, was the host, at a fabulous two-floor loft she then occupied on Jay Street. She purchased a 9-foot-square table for the occasion, seating close to 30 adults. Mark and Pandora drove down with a brining turkey in ice in the back of their car. I made an enormous batch of squash soup (my traditional contribution for the next few years), aided by Bacon’s ex-wife, who advised me on the finer points of white pepper and how to make a perfect cream swirl in each bowl. Kids — including our three- and five-year-old daughters — romped in the basement, occasionally emerging to produce a mini-pageant. When dinner was over, a group of us paraded a few blocks south to the enormous, minimalist plaza at the World Trade Center, empty except for a channeling wind off the river and a few sleeping homeless people, huddled against concrete benches clutching cold coffee.

For at least ten years, from Mark and Pandora’s house in Cambridge, through Slade’s Tribeca soiree to the many times in between and after — Bacon’s and Andrea’s in DC, at our new place in lower Manhattan only a few months after 9/11 — we continued our process of becoming adults. And food played an enormous role. For this we give thanks.

In American popular culture, Thanksgiving is a holiday to be dreaded. The food itself is partly to blame. Over the last half century, marketers have worked hard to refine products that will simplify the Thanksgiving meal — boxed stuffing, powdered potatoes, gravy from a Kool-Aid packet. Ready-to-bake rolls. Frozen turkeys and pies. Cool Whip.

Perhaps some people really do enjoy these things. But my guess is they also conjure for many people images of the need for another wave of consumer goods: from the pharmacy — little pills and syrups and plop plop fizz fizz tablets and easy disolve tabs designed to relieve indigestion and heartburn.

The first wave of products is marketed at the women who are expected to prepare the Thanksgiving meals, offering them some reprieve. The second is designed for the overweight lugs who litter the couches across the land, moving only to register pleasure for a particularly dramatic play in whatever game they’re watching.

For others, Thanksgiving represents above all an obligation to eat with family, for better or worse. Though I love my family of origin and generally take pleasure in their company, and though (as my mother recently reminded me) I’ve never spent Thanksgiving at my parents’ home as a married adult, I understand the stereotypes that get played out in numerous mainstream and indie films, when all the adult siblings come home with various spouses and partners and kids in tow. The Thanksgiving plot is so readily available to fledgling writers because it epitomizes the scenario required for any good screenplay: too many forces struggling to occupy the same space.

Over the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve struggled to create something different. Our guiding principle when gathering for Thanksgiving is a love of good food. We’ve refined the menu over the years: I’ve dropped my soup (some complained that it amounted simply to excess starch and prevented people from gorging on main courses); in its place Bacon installed a round of martinis and oysters on the half shell. We prefer our turkeys farm fresh. We prize creativity in pies, though some prefer to perfect the traditional offerings, especially pumpkin and pecan. Someone usually proposes a new way to prepare Brussels sprouts. From there, we place confidence in the guests’ ability to create the perfect alchemy of complementary flavors.

These are not your average American dishes. We usually get along. No one even dreams of turning on a TV, unless it’s to entertain a restless child. You see, we also prefer good music.

This year was no exception. Moving into a new apartment did not deter us from offering to host. Though many of the regulars could not attend, others were able to come who for various reasons typically have obligations elsewhere. Among Great Whastsiters the group included Dave, Cedric (and his boyfriend G-Lock), Farrell and Trixie (and their adorable, firetruck-loving toddler William), Nathan, and the frequent commentor MF. Other guests inlcluded Dave M., a frequent at gatherings of this sort, and writermama and her clan (including daughter Stella, who was celebrating her 5th birthday. Five years ago, I firmly believe, at our 2001 Thanksgiving dinner I sent Stella’s mother into labor with an overspiced pumpkin soup). For movies, leftovers, and dessert the following night we were joined by Lane and Adriana and their son Jasper, who had entertained other friends for dinner the day before and who brought over a good portion of Adriana’s famous pecan pie.

This is not the menu of my typical Thanksgiving as a child:

Oysters and martinis. Dave ordered 3 dozen oysters from Wild Edibles before we learned that friends of friends from the former Fulton Fish Market had bequeathed us a free box of 100 oysters. We divided that box with friends, which meant that on Thanksgiving we had 86 oysters to distribute among 15 or 16 of us, including my daughter Anna, who joined the ranks of the adults by downing four of her own. Dave M., a near graduate of U of Chicago Law and a recent graduate of a bartending program at Columbia, stocked a bar that included Plymouth gin, always a favorite but especially appropriate considering the occasion.)

A 30-lb Farm-Fresh Turkey from Florence Meat Market. Yes, 30 pounds. It was alive a few short days before we ate it, never frozen. We cooked it breast-down on a bed of onions, carrots, and celery, then flipped it part way through, per Joy of Cooking. The new convection oven cooked it in miracle time.

Dressing of three different croutons, sausage, and dried cranberries from MF. She came over to the house beginning on Tuesday to prepare the ingredients for this dish. The time spent paid off nicely.

Mashed potatoes and a broccoli casserole from Dr. Cedric and G-Lock. They threatened to bring the potatoes from a box but pulled through with the real thing in the end. (Good thing, too, or they would have been punished severely.)

Oven-roasted Brussels sprouts from writermama, according to a recipe she obtained at the farmer’s market. I’m not sure what else went into the roasting pan, but they did have a delicious sprinkling of parmesan on top.

Hearty Swiss chard, sauteed in onion, garlic, and little soy by Trixie.

Two kinds of cranberry sauce, including a spicy cranberry-and-jalepeno chutney made by my bro Nathan.

Whipped parsnips and carrots from Dave B, who also provided his signature handmade rolls, the last thing to cook before dinner was served.

Whipped sweet potatoes topped with carmelized apples from my ladyfriend, ssw.

And for dessert:

Brandied apple and pecan pie (Trixie)

Three pumpkin pies (Cedric, G-Lock, and writermama)

Pear and pomegranate pie (Dave B.)

Coconut cream and banana cream pies (my lovely daughters; Molly and I made the recipe for cream cheese pie crust from J of C)

Chocolate cream pie (Dr. Cedric. He would not disclose the secret ingredient, but it did not seem healthy.)

As for me, though I don’t bake much, I do try to make a pie for Thanksgiving. For the last couple years I’ve returned to a childhood favorite, mincemeat. Was this a favorite because I thought it would gain me admission to the adult table? I don’t know. But the smell of mincemeat filling on the stove remains for me the quintessential Thanksgiving smell.

Mincemeat pie, I firmly believe, is one of those things (like oysters, eggplant, and country music) that separates the kids from the adults. I know that some of my adult friends profess an intrinsic dislike or a deep-seated fear of the stuff. Some people claim not to like raisins, period. Each to his or her own. But for me, it’s the richness of a mincemeat pie that makes me want to shout spontaneous thanks to whatever forces of good exist in the universe.

My grandmother, as far as I know, did not use meat in her mincemeat. I love the idea, though, of adding meat to a fruit pie, and for the last few years I’ve worked with variations from the Martha Stewart Cookbook. Here’s the one I used this year; I froze half the filling to save for another pie come Christmas:

2 1/2 lbs tart red apples — peeled, cored, chopped
1 lb ground beef chuck
1 lb dark raisins
3/4 lb dark brown sugar
3/4 lb dried currants
1/2 lb beef suet, chopped
1/4 lb candied citron, chopped
2 cups apple cider
2 cups brandy
2 cups pitted tart cherries
1/2 cup dark molasses
2 quinces, pared and chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons ground mace
1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Bring the above to a boil. Reduce and simmer for 2 hours, uncovered. Skim fat. Use to fill your lovely pie. I used a top lattice for mine (upper left on the buffet in the foreground):

mmmmm

Beware. Mincemeat is never the popular pie. It does not fly like pumpkin or pecan. It is not as subtle as brandied apple or pear and pomegranate (my favorites this year). It is extremely rich and should be consumed only in slivers. But nonetheless, it is part of my Thanksgiving and I want to perpetuate it. For me, it embodies whatever it is we want to carry from our childhoods into our adult identities — refined a little, upgraded, but a carryover from childhood still, the little something that reminds us that our self-creation as adults can only move so far from our places of origins.

For the record, though, we try to avoid kids’ tables at our house. We eat at a table equally set, kids and adults in common. Who knows what tastes will result.

22 responses to “Thanksgiving: A manifesto, a menu, and a recipe for mincemeat”

  1. andrea says:

    My quiet Thanksgiving weekend ends and I am choked up reading about your holiday as Bacon is off in the South Pacific and the two of us missed you all like crazy this year. The dinner looks wonderful! I’ll tell B about the 86 (!) oysters and we are so happy we get to see you all for New Years.

  2. Rachel says:

    I, too, missed you all this year. Your adventures in mincemeat reminded me of the mince pies I used to have as a kid spending Thanksgiving in northern Maine. The ones my dad’s mother made were also full of minced meat–roasted venison mixed in with all the raisins, apples, and other goodies you mention above. Talk about a pie for grownups! I felt like one of the adults if I managed to eat a sliver.

    This year E. and I spent the holiday at her family’s farm–dinner with chickens running around outside, rolling pastures for miles around, and farm cats peering in through the windows at the bounty on the dining-room table. Not your urban idyll, but an idyll nonetheless.

    Love to all–it sounds like a wonderful way to break in the new digs. I was with you in spirit.
    P.S. Pomegranates in pie! wow!

  3. Scott Godfrey says:

    In our 30s and 40s respectively, the lady and I finally became adults this year as we prepared dinner for Steph’s parents. It was just the four of us, and though I miss my own hard-drinking, raucous family, and remain wistful of the misfit Thanksgivings of my San Francisco years, it was truly one of my favorites on record.

    I am extremely thankful for having gotten to know you all (if not in-person).

    BW, it amazes me how you so consistently churn out such great posts.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Now that sounds like a delightful Thanksgiving. All those oysters! (For the record, there were oysters at the Indian Casino buffet, but nothing scares me more than raw oysters at a buffet…) Oh, I wish I had been there with y’all…

  5. celia says:

    How I envy having friends who actually delight in producing good food! The last three years I’ve cooked a full out homemade Thanksgiving by myself even though it was just two of us. This year we decided to eat with friends. When talking about the menu she kept interjecting phrases like “potato pearls”, “boxed stuffing”, “bagged corn”, and “frozen rolls”. *shudder* So I very kindly tried to take charge of the items I really wanted done right. Our brined Turkey was perfect, the homemade potatoes were nice and creamy, and the sourdough stuffing from scratch was a very nice new addition. We ate my pumpkin pie (starting from a fresh sugar pumpkin) for breakfast and lunch for two days. Yum.

    Though their frozen corn and rolls weren’t horrible, I would have much preferred homemade rolls and a more exciting veggie. But I must say: Never, never, never allow sweet potato anything to start from a can if at all possible. It was a crying shame to have that dish served at my Thanksgiving table.

    Your pies look sooo very good. I’m going to make a pecan pie today since the two pumpkin just weren’t enough to satisfy our pie desires. I wish I could have been at your table….

    *drool*

    (And I sat at the kids’ table even after I’d been to college.)

  6. Dave says:

    The pear/pomegranate pie was from a recipe in the Times a couple of weeks ago, which I see is now behind the Times Select firewall. The pomegranate is actually pomegranate molasses, which is actually not what you would think of as molasses but rather a reduction of pomegranate juice. You can get it at a good Middle Eastern grocery or spice store — mine came from Kalustyan’s, which is luckily just up the street from my office. The pie also had a healthy amount of ginger.

    But you can see from the photos that Bryan’s mincemeat was the real beauty — a perfect latticework. And so delicious.

    The oysters were great, too, along with everything else.

    And we missed our peeps!

  7. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Dave,

    Don’t sell your latticework short. It’s better than any I’ve ever done, and I’ve been making pies for years.

    From beyond the firewall:

    Pear-Pomegranate Pie
    Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

    4 Bosc pears (about 2 pounds), peeled and cored
    4 Anjou pears (about 2 pounds), peeled and cored
    6 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
    3 tablespoons tapioca
    3/4 cup light brown sugar
    1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    Flour, for dusting
    Dough for 2 9-inch pie crusts (see recipe).

    1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Quarter 6 pears. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, bring 3 tablespoons molasses to a boil. Let simmer about 2 minutes, until molasses thickens. Arrange half the quartered pears in a single layer in skillet. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over pears. Cook, turning occasionally, until pears are well caramelized on all sides (but not cooked through), about 5 minutes.
    2. Scrape pears and molasses into a bowl. Add tapioca and toss to combine. Repeat cooking process with remaining molasses, butter and quartered pears. Add second batch of pears to bowl; combine.
    3. Thinly slice remaining pears and add to bowl. Stir in sugar, ginger and salt. On a lightly floured surface, roll out both crusts to 12-inch circles. Place one crust in 9-inch pie plate. Scrape pear filling into crust.
    4. Cut remaining dough into strips about 1 inch thick. Top pie with strips, weaving them into a lattice. Crimp edges to seal. Place pie on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet.
    5. Bake for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking until crust is dark golden and pears are tender when pricked with a fork, about 45 minutes more. Let cool for 30 minutes before slicing.
    Yield: One 9-inch pie, 8 servings.

    All-Butter Pie Crust (With Variations)
    Time: 15 minutes plus one hour’s chilling

    1 1/4cups all-purpose flour
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    10 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably a high-fat, European-style butter like Plugra, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    2 to 5 tablespoons ice water.

    1. In a food processor, briefly pulse together the flour and salt. Add butter and pulse until mixture forms chickpea-size pieces (3 to 5 one-second pulses). Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until mixture is just moist enough to hold together.
    2. Form dough into a ball, wrap with plastic and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before rolling out and baking.
    Yield: One 9-inch single pie crust. Recipe can be doubled for a double crust; divide dough into two balls and form two disks before chilling.
    Variations: You can experiment with textures and flavors by substituting 3 to 4 tablespoons shortening, lard, beef suet, duck fat or an unsweetened nut butter, such as hazelnut butter, almond butter or mixed nut butter, for 3 to 4 tablespoons regular butter. All should be well chilled before using.

  8. Mark says:

    Oh how I missed being at your Thanksgiving Feast this year more than ever. We went over to see a distant relative of my wife’s, Cousin Bernie. He had emailed and spoke highly of his wife’s wonderful cooking, and since we just had a new baby the week before, figured it would be nice to be with family and have a nice meal without cooking ourselves.

    Boy were we wrong. The mashed potatoes were instant, made from those flakes where you just add water, but I’m pretty sure too much water was added. The main vegetable was overcooked green beans with onions (normally I like these two items, but not on this day). The rolls were from a bag of about 100 and hailed from the local Costco. About the only decent items were the turkey and the gravy.

    I hope Bernie doesn’t ever come across this website, because I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but that had to be the worst Thanksgiving since 1993 when I spent the holiday in a bar in Provo.

  9. Lane says:

    Bryan,

    I just saw your new photo on the contributors page. wow! that is some badass rock star image you’ve got going on. I don’t suppose it’s possible to use that on the dust jacket of the new book? NYU would be thrilled, I’m sure.

  10. Dave says:

    Wow, Thanksgiving in a bar in Provo. So depressing, but also so punk rock.

  11. Lisa Parrish says:

    One year Stella and I were in Phoenix for Thanksgiving, on the tail end of a weeklong trip to Grand Canyon, etc. It was the most depressing tableau you can imagine: We wandered aimlessly on long, flat city blocks, completely empty of people except for random gangs of teenagers cruising around. The whole thing had such an odd air of menace. Absolutely nothing was open, not even convenience stores or fast-food joints, and we were starving. We thought our thanksgiving meal might end up being fritos out of our Holiday Inn Express candy machine.

    We finally stumbled on an open hotel restaurant with a buffet, and nearly wept with joy at the soggy vegetables and dried-out turkey. We had a couple of glasses of wine and watched football on the big-screen TV, counting our blessings for Mr. Marriott, who had the vision to open hotels with year-round restaurants.

  12. PB says:

    I was chuckling reading this post, I kept thinking–now THIS this a Thanksgiving post. Just like all the wonderful memories of holidays past, present and future, the sensual nature of sight, smell and taste, the inclusion of your loved ones, the timing is perfect.
    By the way, my standout memories, Slade being grateful for “good sex” at one Thanksgiving and dancing to the mimi song in that dazzlingly Marlene D. grey dress (the cigarette in a holder off to the side) at another. Those bizzare brussel sprouts which I do not understand at all and the Thanksgiving at your house when 10ish Alex looked around the table, counted and said matter of factly, “half of the people at this table are gay and half are straight,” and then ran off to play. Thank you all for being the adults in our lives.

  13. bryan says:

    okay pandora. you are now on my list. whenever people tell me they don’t like a particular food i make it my mission to change their mind somehow. i can’t believe mark brewer hasn’t already won you over on this point, but then again he has some food aversions i’d like to tackle too.

    i’ve won over eggplant haters. i’m still working on an olive hater (don’t think i’ve forgotten about you, MF!). and I will win over the Brussels sprout hater. Oh, and Trixie. I’m gonna get you to taste that mincemeat and you will like it.

  14. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I hate gummi bears, Bryan. I think you need to make it your mission to win me over. I also hate sushi, filet mignon, and candy corn.

  15. i know you too well, dear. those are your favorite foods. no free gummis and hamachi for you.

  16. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Drats!!

  17. MF says:

    Bryan, I forgot to tell you… I ate the most unbelievable olives in London. They were large, light green olives from a small region in Italy and they tasted like candy. I went back to that restaurant just for the olives!

  18. PB says:

    brussel sprouts, looks like aborted cabbage embryos, tastes like Walker’s socks smell.
    I await a sauce that will change my mind.

  19. okay, p. if the sock smell is the problem, here’s the deal. get Mark to slice some in half and throw them into the next red wine beef stew he makes. what you need is a good soaking with some other flavors to complement the strong flavor of the sprouts.

    then, once you get that far, try some stovetop recipe that involves cooking them for a long time in chicken stock. get them nice and soft. my guess is that you never tried the ones i made for karen’s big bash back in 99 — brussels sprouts and chestnuts. i think the recipe comes from the new joy of cooking.

    then you’ll be hooked. writermama’s had a nice flavor from oven roasting that i really enjoyed.

    remember, as my good mother always said, tastebuds change. maybe yours have changed since the last time you tried those little aborted cabbages.

  20. Mark says:

    I just had brussel sprouts tonight for dinner. They did have a faint sock taste to them, but I see it as part of their charm.

  21. PB says:

    I am printing said recipe as we speak, will let you know. I trust you Bryan. You and your mom.

  22. […] All that time I’ve both benefitted and suffered from a sort of self-consciousness about my participation in friendships and friendship circles of my own, with their own ups and downs, tensions, reconfiguations, likenesses, differences, expansions, contractions — and, not least, their frequent celebrations. From camping to holidays to collective blogging, my friends test me and push me and expand my tastes and experiences and play roles in my life in a more dramatic way than I remember friends playing in my parents’ lives. (Of course that may have had to do with the fact that they had five more children than I do, but still — it’s hard for me to imagine my parents, at my age, caught up in some of the friendly dramas that pepper my life.) Hear that, Robert Putnam? You won’t find any of my friends bowling alone. […]