In more than 10 years at the New York Times, writer and editor Sam Sifton has held jobs including restaurant critic and culture editor. But it’s his time manning the newspaper’s Turkey Day food
help line that inspired his latest work, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well” ($18, Random House). The feast primer details both back-to-basic recipes (deep-fried turkey, spicy mashed sweet potatoes) and serving tips (please use cloth napkins!).
Why do a whole book on Thanksgiving?
I spent a couple of years manning the New York Times’ Thanksgiving help line. And I realized a lot of people have no idea what they are doing. There’s a lot of tension in the minds of home cooks.
In the book, you are a strong champion of traditional food, aka, no West Indian turkey or Southwestern mashed potatoes.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with having a West Indian turkey if you’re in love with someone who is from there, or if that’s your tradition. But I think a lot of the problem with Thanksgiving is the media. We need, as journalists, to deliver the new every year. So many people don’t know how to fix the basics of the meal, or how to set a table in the presence of candlelight.
Why have people forgotten how to cook or how to set the table?
We work harder now than our parents and grandparents did. We’re wired into our offices, and we never cook at home anymore. There’s a time famine in this nation that makes it hard to take the time to make a special meal.
How do I pick the right turkey?
Even the worst, super-frozen industrial turkey can taste pretty good. But the birds that you get at your local farmers market, the ones that are taught Greek and given massages, are going to taste different.
And what’s the best way to cook the bird?
I love the smell of a roasting turkey in the house, and that’s a great way to do it. But it does take up a lot of space, so I also think frying turkey is great and results in great crispiness and juiciness. Hot oil seals in flavor like a blister.
You’re anti Turkey Day appetizers except oysters. Why?
I think because restaurants serve appetizers, we’ve gotten into the habit of doing that at home, too. But on Thanksgiving, I reject that. It’s about doing family, friends, a turkey and a bunch of starches and vegetables. The idea that you’d cook all that and then sit on the sofa and consume half a wheel of brie is just repugnant.
Why is setting a nice table important on Thanksgiving?
Setting a good table is like a secular sacrament. It’s the stage on which the holiday plays out, where we metaphorically give thanks for the harvest. So put down a runner, give each person nice glasses and put out flowers. It makes the meal better.