It’s hard enough existing in the moment without being overwhelmed. Taking the long view, which includes considering the past, present, and future, is rare. That’s why most food writing can be easy to resist when it doesn’t tell a good story. The other thing about food writing that’s worth considering is if it’s culturally relevant. I mean food isn’t art. Is it?
Food is something that everyone needs, makes part of themselves, often likes, and sometimes loves. Eating is necessary. Some of us are passionate about it. Few, if any, are indifferent to it. Many of us have favorite dishes. Sometimes, we crave foods, and fondly remember our best meals, and all that occurred when we ate them. Other times, we look forward to and plan our breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks with detailed urgency. Some of us recount our days’ activities to loved ones by describing what we consumed and how it treated us. Eating is not just about the food, but is it a cultural experience?
Holidays and food often go together, especially Thanksgiving. Norman Rockwell created an iconic painting popularly referred to as The Thanksgiving Picture, but really entitled Freedom From Want inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address better know as his Four Freedoms Speech. Thanksgiving, as Sifton notes, is America’s most universally celebrated, secular holiday. It’s a populist event that beckons a holiday season in the United States. Some people love it for its traditions, festivities, and time off, while others dread it for various reasons.
Sam Sifton understands this and in doing so takes the long view. For him food writing is storytelling. His new book, Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well, admirably and cheerfully tells the story of preparing and enjoying Thanksgiving from his perspective as a person who appreciates it and as a reporter who has covered it. In it he carefully walks the boundary between Thanksgiving as life changing art and workaday daily life.
Sifton’s writing style propels readers forward to keep reading. His prose poetically includes you in the action of what’s important to notice. The energy is palpable. The way he writes is the way you think. The words make sense as you read them. You wonder how he got inside your head. He tells stories so that you interact with the pages that they’re written on. Then you share what you read by retelling people what you cared about in the stories. In reading Sifton’s work he affords you a feeling of weight as if he has a gravitational pull on you so that you can’t deny him. You have to notice him or you’ll crash. Sifton’s way with words makes you feel as if you’re in the center of things. Only by having a relationship with him can you hold your own. It’s personal.
The book, Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well is only 125 pages, but it’s beautifully made with a homey jacket design featuring a gravy boat, straightforward chapter titles, a proud, live, majestic turkey image on the front and back of its hardcover edition, an index, and plenty of blank pages for taking notes at its end. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to save and keep, stain, and slowly ruin as you use it annually for it’s advice, reading pleasure, and recipes. Throughout there are black and white drawings of a ripe pumpkin vine, many of the ingredients recommended to cook Thanksgiving dinner, including the aforementioned turkey and gravy boat, and others by Sarah C. Rutherford, that are gemlike in their etched precision. Thanksgiving isn’t only about its traditional recipes (that are reliably written so that anyone can understand and appreciate them), it’s also about the holiday’s spirit. Consider what Sifton describes as he relates the experience of the first Thanksgiving turkey he helped to prepare. “But the aroma that wafted through the house for the duration of that first college Thanksgiving was and remains incredible to me. The piney rosemary combines beautifully with the butter and turkey fat and the zing of soy sauce and the sweet caramel scent of the sugars in the miring browning on the skin. It is familiar and exotic at once. And it results in a flavor of astonishing depth: the turkey meat sweet and pure beneath its lacquered exterior, the skin slightly salty and herbaceous.”
That turkey recipe called for a glaze of, “a kind of rosemary-infused teriyaki butter,” but reading it you could imagine that Sifton’s writing about a lover or a religious experience, not simply a holiday dinner with friends. It compels you to either cook it yourself to recreate the aroma, imagine it in your mind, or aspire one day to enjoy it, too. Experiencing it in the language he uses to write it inspiringly puts the reader in the know.
My favorite chapter in Thanksgiving is “Setting the Table, Serving the Food & Some Questions on Etiquette” because the effects are sacramental when table settings are correctly arranged by people who know how to do them properly. Sifton compares the Thanksgiving table to an altar that should look, “as resplendent as a silk-covered elephant sitting on a little stool,” a childlike image that’s gloriously regal, and innocently surprising. It’s a place where family, friends, and guests, breaking bread together, putting aside their differences, and caring about each other commonly come together in groups to take time to give thanks. Whether they do it or not isn’t as important as that it’s official. Since, it is, Sifton recommends that they try their best.
Sifton rules out appetizers and salads on Thanksgiving. Only oysters are the exception to consume while everyone’s arriving, the turkey is resting and the platters of side dishes are being blessed with a final warming. Sifton calls oysters, “a brilliant solution to the fidgety issue of serving food in advance of the Thanksgiving meal.” Their openings are anticipated. People enjoy watching the process and trying it themselves. “Consumed with a sparkling wine, outdoors if possible, oysters provide a direct and visceral connection to aquatic harvest, and to the true history of Thanksgiving in America.” Oyster eating is light, whets the appetite without being filling. It’s conducive to relaxing, being yourself, and having a good time.
The message of Thanksgiving is that, “Everything will really be all right.” Each chapter includes Sifton’s proven recipes that are preceded by illuminating and personal descriptions of his experiences with them. The recipes’ authenticity and their descriptions’ plainspokenness afford the book with a hip and friendly guide whose vulnerable and thoughtful voice expertly narrates the conversation with the reader. Planning, table service, and hospitality are Sifton’s solutions for having a happy Thanksgiving that’s accessible to everyone, and artful in its storytelling.