The first year I came to New York from my native England, I had Thanksgiving dinner with an Italian-American family in Queens. I was used to frugal Britain, where my mother would wash out plastic bags and pin them up to dry, and a leg of lamb was eked out for three consecutive meals, ending up as shepherd’s pie. We ate turkey only at Christmas, a week-long marathon that lasted until the bird made its final appearance diced in a thick white sauce with carrots and onions. So the amount of food that was consumed in just one afternoon in Queens came as a shock.
We began with hot antipasti (baked clams, scampi and stuffed mushrooms) and cold antipasti (prosciutto, several kinds of salami, sardines and salads). Then, a pasta course: tortellini with cream sauce. I was full by the time the turkey arrived, along with dishes that were new to me at the time: sweet potatoes (topped, to my horror, with marshmallows), cornbread and cranberry sauce. Unfortunately, I was sitting next to the patriarch of the family. He kept heaping my plate with more and more food. Since I had been brought up with the notion that leaving food on your plate was a crime, I made quite an impression as the young English woman with a buona forchetta.
After the turkey, there was cheese, because why not? Then pumpkin pies, pecan tarts and chocolate cake, followed by slabs of hot cheesecake. By this point, I was close to tears. No sooner had we started on the cheesecake, however, than the patriarch, who was in his 80s, turned to his wife with a stricken cry.
“Maria! You forgot the stuffed artichokes!” The diners put down their forks and pushed their half-eaten plates aside. They fell upon the artichokes, which were the biggest I’d ever seen, their jumbo-size leaves overflowing with bread crumbs, chopped anchovies and a great deal of garlic. Then we went back to our dessert.
SINCE THAT DAY I’ve eaten many a Thanksgiving feast, but never one of quite such excess. I also learned that Americans find it not only acceptable but in some circles even good manners to leave some food on their dinner plates.
There was food left on the dinner plates, alas, the year I cooked a wild turkey at my house in Connecticut. A flock of wild turkeys used to parade across the garden into the woods, but one afternoon a dog ran out of the bushes and attacked one of the birds, ripping out its throat. Minutes later the owner arrived, full of apologies. Since the turkey was dead, he said, we might as well eat it.
“Think of the money you’ll save!”
He insisted on plucking the bird for me and spent the afternoon singeing turkey feathers in the backyard. It was all for naught. The bird emerged from the oven with a beautiful burnished skin, but when we tried to carve the meat, it was as tough as a rancher’s saddle.
ALSO IN CONNECTICUT, I encountered the most unusual Thanksgiving turkey I have ever seen. It was served at Arthur Miller’s house, in Litchfield County. His wife, the photographer Inge Morath, was a vegetarian. She’d lived in France, where one year, she told me, she decided to surprise American friends who were celebrating Thanksgiving in Paris. She created a turkey pièce montée, built out of fruits and vegetables. She said she got the idea from looking at composite paintings of animals and birds.
Using a couple of loaves of bread as the base, she put goose feathers in the end of one of the loaves to form the turkey’s tail. She sliced off the end of a corn cob, stuck a toothpick in it and speared it in the other end of the loaf to make the neck. The head was made from a small eggplant nailed by toothpick to the corn; the wattles were large, dried red chili peppers. Quails’ eggs made a spine, and the bird’s chest puffed up nicely as red cabbage and radicchio leaves were pinned to the bread and hung with red grapes. The eyes were made from two slices of radish with raisins in the center.
She added apples, pears, stuffed vine leaves, cherry tomatoes, kumquats, dates, figs, prunes, broccoli, pieces of cheese, black and green grapes, niçoise olives and all manner of vegetables and fruit threaded on skewers or toothpicks like little shish kebabs. With the turkey, she served a selection of dips: bagna cauda, yogurt with fresh horseradish, dill vinaigrette and curry mayonnaise. Eating this, who’d miss the real thing?
THE TROUBLE WITH real turkeys, as anyone who has roasted one knows, is that they get dry. But then a newspaper article claimed that for optimum juiciness, turkeys were best roasted at 500 degrees. The Litchfield County Fire Department had the busiest day in its history that year as smoke alarms sprang into action. Deep-frying is supposed to work—done out of doors, of course—but I’ve yet to try it.
Brining, however, is foolproof. Almost. After soaking his 20-pounder overnight in a tub of salted water, stuffing and trussing it, a friend put the bird in the oven in the morning. “You don’t even have to baste it!”
The guests arrived by late afternoon and we sat around, stomachs rumbling, trying not to fill up on cheese and crackers. After an hour, he went to take the turkey out of the oven. He returned moments later, his face in a ferment. His wife, flustered with all the preparations, had meant to turn the oven up. Instead, she’d turned it off.
Moira Hodgson’s memoir, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, will be published by Nan Talese/Doubleday in January.