Three weeks ago, while browsing the Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit, I was so taken by the golden turkeys, plump stuffings and creamy mashed potatoes that I invited six friends over for this year’s holiday repast. A minute later, I realized my mistake: A 26-year-old bachelor, I’ve never made a multicourse meal, let alone a full-bore holiday feast. Thanksgiving would be a challenge, if not a disaster.
No worries: I’ve been saved by Sam Sifton’s “Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well,” a trim guide full of well-tested recipes and no-nonsense illustrations. Sifton, the former dining critic for the New York Times and its current national editor, walks readers through the meal from buying the bird to kitchen cleanup. “This book is going to make it possible for you to cook Thanksgiving and not lose your mind,” he promises.
With strict guidelines and a respect for traditions, Sifton’s book might more aptly be called “The Elements of Thanksgiving.” It’s the culinary equivalent of Strunk and White’s classic writing guide. Like the authors of that volume, Sifton sets down rules that must be followed to guarantee success. Some of those bylaws seem to turn the tastemaker into a taskmaster, but that lends the book a certain charm.
For instance, one should always carve the turkey in the kitchen, not at the table; a first course should never precede the turkey — serve the whole meal at once; do not cook anything out of season; begin serving libations once guests arrive; and salad is always an unwelcome guest. He eschews marshmallows in any form at the Thanksgiving table, whether on sweet potatoes or dessert.
The glue of the meal is cranberry sauce and gravy. “Debate that all you like,” Sifton declares. “But they tie every element on the plate together.” And dessert should be the meal’s blissful, final amphetamine. “A proper Thanksgiving should close out with a blast of warm, gooey flavor — a burst of sugar that can give a guest just enough energy to make it from table to couch, the holiday’s final resting place.” Dessert must be a simple American classic, preferably apple or pumpkin pie with a breast of whipped cream. He disapproves of tartlets or parfaits and any form of innovative pastry.
Above all, Thanksgiving must be traditional, Sifton argues. It is important not to cut corners. It must be laborious. Only then will you truly revel in your accomplishment. Sifton is the prim teacher rapping a ruler in his palm. But for a nervous novice, that strict guidance is most welcome.
Smith is on the Book World staff.