Twenty years ago, a few months after my dad died, Susan and I cooked our first holiday dinner for my extended family, at my cousin’s house in Virginia. It involved a twenty-two pound artisanal turkey that we drove south from Connecticut in the back of my Subaru; it rode in a massive, two-ply food-grade storage bag stretched to its limits like a water balloon, and nestled in an ice-packed Coleman cooler the size of a small casket.
The turkey traveled in its brine bath, which was comprised of water, salt, Grade B maple syrup, short-run Bourbon, and late-harvest Tuscan rosemary clipped from our herb garden. Susan and I made stuffing from slow-rise homemade bread— one kind with fennel pork sausage, one kind with turkey; one with chestnuts, one without (for the nut-intolerants)— and stoneground cornbread dressing for anyone who didn’t approve of the stuffed-inside-the-bird variety. We made two kinds of crackers from scratch— black pepper Parmesan, and garlic thyme — and three kinds of pies. We roasted and pureed poblano peppers for Smoky Butternut Squash Soup and garnished it with fried purple heirloom sage leaves; we decided it would be a lovely and surprising way to start the meal.
My family was surprised all right, especially my late, hot pepper-loathing aunt, who in all her 102 years preferred her food simple and her flavors bland; skinless, boneless boiled chicken on white bread was about as spicy as she ever got.
Susan and I sniped and snarked at each other that holiday; she was in my way, I was in hers, we were in a kitchen that wasn’t ours, nobody much liked anything we made, and if they did, they didn’t say so. The next day, as if to punctuate the weirdness of the occasion, twelve of us went out for dinner to a small Italian trattoria and arrived five minutes after the chef had cut his hand off with a meat saw.
The holiday, start to finish, was an unmitigated disaster.
Susan and I had done everything we could to make a dinner we were sure everyone would love, and that would go down in family holiday history as one of the best ever. We yearned for everyone’s approval. And therefore, in truth, we weren’t cooking for them. We were cooking for us, and that was something that we just never took into account.
For one thing, nobody much wanted roasted poblanos in their butternut squash soup; they didn’t want butternut squash soup at all. They wanted my aunt’s traditional mushroom and barley soup, preferably made by my aunt, who had been serving it at Thanksgiving for half a century. Nobody wanted homemade crackers — who the hell makes homemade crackers? — and no one particularly cared whether or not the bird was of fine pedigree and had schlepped south from New England in the back of my car or had come with its own plastic pop-up thermometer, straight from the local Safeway. No one commented on the fancy French chestnuts in the stone ground heritage cornbread dressing, and the only words muttered during the soup course came from my aunt, who said, as she coughed and dabbed at her running mascara, I can’t eat this.
Thank God––everyone gasped, taking their cue from the family matriarch and dropping their spoons. There was the simultaneous clatter of soup-silver-against-family-china: Susan and I got up and carried a stack of overflowing, gold-rimmed Lenox bowls dripping with thin, incendiary mush into the kitchen, where they were deposited in the sink, washed, and dried before the salad was tossed and the turkey carved.
This was the first year that things were different — my father was suddenly gone after a violent accident, his longtime girlfriend decided to celebrate with her own children, my aunt was no longer making the holiday meal on Long Island and ringing her tiny kitchen cowbell to call everyone to the table — and so Susan and I went over the top to prepare a meal that I was certain would jettison us into position as the new keepers of the family culinary flame. This meal, we believed, would just be a preview to let everyone know what they could all expect in the future: we were certain that it would be our table everyone would come to for the next forty years. Without children of our own, we would make our own traditions, like my aunt and her cowbells had. And so that first holiday after my father died, we were determined to feed everyone a family dinner that was unforgettable.
And it was. Just not in a good way.
In my family, women make the leap over the transom from child to adult with the creation and serving of their first big holiday dinner. Likewise, the first time we get up to help the other adult women in the family clear the dishes — I was fifteen and no one asked me or gave me a signal; it was just my time and I knew it — is a little bit like hitting puberty: you’re on your way to becoming a full-fledged member of the tribe, and everyone around you knows it. So cooking for my father’s family for the first time just two months after his death was fraught with need and hunger and expectation and grief: I wanted him back, to hear his laughter at the table, to feel his delight at seeing me finally as the adult that cooking for twenty heralds. I wanted him to look down from the heavens, and to be bursting with pride at the fact that I, the youngest of my generation, was providing sustenance for the people he loved. He would have thrilled at the fact that I’d made his family’s most important meal and the one that always brought us together around the table every holiday season.
Cooking this meal was my way of keeping him alive. The only problem was: he wasn’t.
When the shape of a family begins to shift and tilt — when there are fewer older people left and the younger ones begin to jockey into position to make their culinary mark on things — it’s very easy to get caught in a scrum of desire, assumption, and emotional desperation; the presumption is that you will pick up the historical cooking mantle like a baton passed from one generation to the next. You’ll get mired in making plans to wow and thrill, and you’ll never quite realize that these people you are so set on wowing and thrilling may actually have other plans. They may not want change at all; odds are, they probably don’t. They likely just want what they know and what they love. And the baton? It may never actually have been handed off to you after all. You and your kitchen ego just assumed it was.
A parable: years ago, in an attempt to get her very young son to eat fish for the first time, one of my beloved cousins tried to pass it off as chicken, which she knew he liked. As he folded his arms, pursed his lips, stamped his five year old feet and shook his head NO, his mother turned to the powers of logic.
This, she said, is a sort of chicken that we call fish.
Her child was unmoved; he knew better. He wanted what he wanted, not what she wanted to give him, regardless of how many times she told him it was the same thing. A chicken is not a fish; the only thing that’s the same about them is that they both can be dinner. Smoky poblano butternut squash soup is not your family’s favorite mushroom and barley soup; the only thing that’s the same about them is that they’re both eaten with a spoon.
Things may appear to be the same, but really, they’re not.
Twenty years ago, with my father’s place at the table empty, I made my first holiday dinner for my family, certain that it would render me an adult in their eyes, and certain that it would bring my father back. Susan and I cooked a meal laden with overwrought dishes that had no place on their holiday table; desperate for my family’s approval and acknowledgement, I received neither. It wasn’t my time or my place; it never would be.
Today, Thanksgiving is a different kind of holiday in my home; Susan and I know enough to keep things as simple as possible for the friends and neighbors we have around our table. We’ve learned the hard way that no one really wants anything extravagant or experimental; they want what they know, what’s familiar, what they love. And then they want a nap.
Back in 2002, after the holiday was over and everyone stopped talking about the spicy soup and the experimental dressing, Susan and I drove the seven hours home, took our coats off, and cooked what would soothe our souls: custardy scrambled eggs made in a double boiler, toast, and well-done bacon, just the way my father liked it. And then we started preparing for Christmas.
A Simple Roast Turkey
This is the turkey that Susan and I have now been making for years. It’s as elemental as can be and really, that’s what most people want.
We’ve cooked turkeys every which way: in a brown grocery bag (turns out to be highly unsanitary), draped with butter-drenched cheesecloth, deep fried, deboned and shaped into a melon (oh la la!). We’ve even wrestled with a hot twenty-fve pounder, breast side down, then breast side up, and on and on. But we think we’ve found the answer to achieving the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey — the easy dry salt brine.
Rinse a 14–16-pound fresh turkey (not injected or pre-brined) and pat dry with paper towels. Rub or pat 3 tablespoons kosher salt onto the breasts, legs, and thighs. Tightly wrap the turkey completely in plastic wrap or slip it into a very large resealable plastic bag, pressing out the air before sealing it. Set the turkey on a pan breast side up and refrigerate it for 3 days. Turn the turkey every day, massaging the salt into the skin through the plastic.
Unwrap the turkey and pat it dry with paper towels (don’t rinse the bird). Return the turkey to the pan breast side up and refrigerate it, uncovered, for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Remove the turkey from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature, at least 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 325°.
If you’ve decided to serve your turkey stuffed, spoon the stuffing of your choice into the cavity of the bird. (Put any extra stuffing into a buttered baking dish, cover, and put it in the oven to bake with the turkey for the last hour.) Tie the legs together with kitchen string. Tuck the wings under the back. Rub the turkey all over with 3–4 tablespoons softened butter.
Place the turkey breast side up on a roasting rack set into a large roasting pan. Add 2 cups water to the pan. Roast the turkey until it is golden brown and a thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 165°, about 3 hours for an unstuffed bird and 3–4 hours for a stuffed one.
Transfer the turkey to a platter, loosely cover it with foil, and let it rest for 20–30 minutes before carving. Serve the turkey and stuffing, if using, with the pan drippings.
This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.