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Sunday, 25 November 2012
Words and Photography by Felicity Spector
It’s all about the turkey. And stuffing, possibly several kinds, sometimes confusingly known as dressing if it's cooked outside the bird. And the cranberry sauce: if you’re lucky home-made, if not, it might be that bouncy kind that comes right out of the tin in a perfectly jellified cylinder.
Then there are all the side dishes: like mashed sweet potato with added maple syrup, topped with marshmallows grilled till they’re sticky. Regular mash. Green bean casserole. Brussels sprouts, better known as ‘butter delivery vehicles‘. A dish involving corn, usually with lashings of heavy cream. And gravy, possibly several kinds.
And that’s before you even get to dessert.
No wonder Thanksgiving preparations begin weeks in advance: food magazines and newspaper supplements are completely devoted to special recipes, and new twists on cooking the turkey, from brining to deep frying. The New York Times even sets up an emergency hotline, to answer all those last minute cooking dilemmas. This is one holiday which unites the whole of America around the dinner table to give thanks for the bountiful harvest. Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday back in 1863: nowadays it’s a two or three day extravaganza, allowing people enough time to travel home.
Most families have their own traditions, whether it’s Grandma’s secret recipe for apple pie, or a pot of greens that no-one ever really wants: if it’s not on the Thanksgiving table, it just isn’t Thanksgiving.
This year I was invited to a fabulous spread by a big Jewish family in New York’s Upper East Side. They ushered me into the overheated kitchen to view the preparations. A vast organic turkey was resplendent in the oven, crowned with a huge tent of foil. On the shelf below, a home made bread stuffing that had been several days in the preparation. There were heritage carrots braising in a gigantic Le Creuset pot, more veg steaming away on top. A starter of corn chowder was almost ready to go. There were two kinds of mash, and bowls of spiced pumpkin butter from a farmers market in Ithaca. Tragically, I had to leave for the airport moments before dinner was served.
On the BA flight to London, I opted for the turkey dinner, which managed to be a uniformly beige colour, and tasted of - well - not much. The pumpkin pie was a better effort, but I was craving a proper Thanksgiving feast.
Luckily, some of London’s top American cooks were laying on some excellent pop-ups, and I had managed to book into two of the very best. I went straight from my transatlantic flight to Beas of Bloomsbury’s atmospheric Maltby Street kitchen, inside a cavernous railway arch in Bermondsey. The invitation had helpfully advised: “Dress to eat! I'm talking elastic pants, clothes you can burn afterwards--nothing that couldn't be cleaned after a tumble in the washing machine!”
The food was all brought to the table in huge dishes for us to help ourselves: every so often Bea emerged from behind the ovens to encourage us to eat more. It was pretty hard to resist the array of favourite family recipes, the brined, spiced turkey, the three kinds of stuffing each one as good as the one before, the roasted sprouts and glazed carrots, the tart cranberry sauce which was a perfect foil to the sweet potato mash. Bea explained the green bean casserole to one couple who’d never tried it before. “Normally this would use the cheapest ingredients”, she said. “Green beans from a can, tinned mushroom soup, even tinned onions. But obviously we make everything from scratch, with a mushroom béchamel over freshly steamed beans, and we shred the onions down before frying them crisp.” The result was delicious, and a million miles from the old fashioned canned mush.
The food kept coming, and we kept eating, before remembering that there were five kinds of pudding still to come. Pumpkin cheesecake, anyone? Peanut butter chocolate cheesecake? Apple crumb pie? There was, miraculously, somehow room for seconds, although Bea had also laid on a few takeout boxes on hand to carry home any leftovers.
The next night, I was just about ready for dinner number two at Outsider Tart’s new Blue Plate diner in Chiswick: a beautifully decorated venue with hand written menus and candles on every table.
After a starter of apple cranberry salad with a moist and spicy pumpkin bread which was frankly a meal in itself, we lined up, massive plates in hand, at a counter which seemed to stretch on for miles. David Lesniak and David Munis, who run the place, had cooked up a total storm. Along with the turkey, the cornbread stuffing and the gravy, there was an incredible pumpkin mac and cheese, and a creamy corn pudding. I counted about 7 different vegetable sides, from braised root veg and autumn slaw to collard greens. The cranberry relish was so good you could eat it by the spoonful. Luckily jars of it will be on sale at Outsider Tart right through till Christmas. Everything was perfectly cooked, and I must confess to popping back for another spoonful of that mac and cheese.
After a decent pause, we ventured back for dessert: you could choose between three kinds of pie, including an apple one, rich with brown sugar, and a pumpkin one with orange and cointreau. I opted for the pecan pie, which the boys make with sorghum syrup, hard to find over here, but which gives a fabulously deep flavour: it was crunchy, sticky, and not overly sweet, with a light, buttery pastry that melted in the mouth.
I had felt cheated, flying out of New York before that sumptuous Upper East Side dinner was served; but after those magnificent efforts from Beas and Outsider Tart, I think I’ve found my Thanksgiving spiritual home. Roll on, November 2013. I’m booking my place for next year already.