Freedom from Want
In the closing of his 1941 State of the Union address, President Roosevelt described his vision for a better way of life through what he considered the four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want, and Freedom of Speech.
In the years that followed, famed artist Normal Rockwell, who was living in Arlington, Vermont at the time, painted a series titled The Four Freedoms. The paintings simultaneously stressed the importance of those values and simplified their complexity. While each painting gained great popularity, one stood out and became a cornerstone of American tradition.
“The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.”
It's the iconic vision of Thanksgiving: Family gathered, nice china, silver and linens released from their hibernation. The turkey, the cranberry, the gravy, Rockwell got it all. For countless families across the country, this is more or less how it's been on the last Thursday in November for the better part of a century.
When you get down to it though, why do we do it that way? Why do we hold steadfast to these ideals? For the amount of preparation that goes into such a meal, are we really getting the best out of it?
I tend to think not.
Since I was young, I've sat through the same Thanksgiving, year after year. The turkey, the cranberry, the gravy, all of it. I've worked in kitchens for just over a decade now, always seeking to create and learn and grow, so it's hard for me to sit down to the table and say that everything is great when I know I could do better (sorry, Nana!).
NYC chef and restaurateur David Chang wrote his thoughts on Thanksgiving in a piece for GQ in 2014. The piece is largely about how much he hates turkey, suggesting you should only feed white meat to your dog, and only then under the assumption that the dog isn't smarter than your dinner guests. He writes: “Ideally you’ll use this holiday to judge whether your family members are good people or not. Will they trust you to make Thanksgiving a way better holiday by dispensing with the Rockwell painting once and for all? Put them to the test.”
Having grown up with the traditional (red: 20th century) New England version of Thanksgiving, the menu itself has always been important to me; I have no interest in serving some kind of southwest-asian-fusion Thanksgiving. I stick to the basics, with a little bit of flair.
Most everyone has the memory of seeing a whole bird pulled from the oven, the skin blistered and golden and pulling apart in just the right places. That being said, roasting a turkey really isn't the best way to make good turkey. The skin, breasts and dark meat all cook at different times and temperatures, so for the sake of tradition you resign yourself to a much worse final product. Divide and conquer is the name of the game.
Meat fabrication is a tricky thing to describe without being able to see it. Luckily, the team at ChefSteps have a fantastic video showing the process. The only places I differ from the video is in removing the entire bone from the breast, and removing all the skin. With the turkey broken down, each piece can get cooked for optimum flavor:
In my family, there's only a couple of us that prefer the legs and thighs. Since I'm not cooking for my own family this year, what I really like to do is shred the dark meat and toss it into the gravy. The gravy tastes better, and everybody gets a little taste of the coveted morsels.
Or dressing, whatever floats your boat. Without a whole bird, I cook the stuffing separately (surprise surprise, cooking your stuffing inside the turkey isn't the best way to do it). Contrary to tradition, drying the bread in the oven is far preferable to leaving it out to go stale. The best part about doing the stuffing separately is that it can be fully baked days in advance and cut down on game-day stress.
Sausage is definitely optional, I tend to leave it. The other secret to really good stuffing is to save whatever fat rises off the turkey stock and braising liquid and smearing it across the top of the stuffing before reheating.
I'll happily admit that I love the can-shaped classic, but I refuse to argue that it's actually good. Fresh and frozen cranberries are widely available these days and require nearly no effort to make a great condiment.
Mashing gives you the greatest output from the smallest input, plus everyone likes mashed potatoes. Remember: Butter is your friend!
Having a good selection of vegetables is key, especially with such a heavy meal. At least one green, one non-green and one wild-card.
Candied Sweet Potatoes with Bourbon from Food & Wine (I swap the potatoes for butternut)
As with any big family meal, bread and butter is crucial. Nana would always have 2 or more pans ready to go, depending on how many relatives were in attendance and how much she actually liked them (she doesn't like many of them very much). Packaged, frozen dinner rolls can actually be pretty good, but I prefer them from-scratch.
Honestly, nine times out of ten I just buy a couple of pies. At that point in the meal, people are stuffed, lethargic, and ready to become one with the couch. But that one time when I do make desserts, I make the best of the best.
Caramelized Pumpkin Pie from Modernist Cuisine (notice the lack of a certain seasonal spice blend)
You've probably invited at least a couple people that you wish you hadn't, and a bit of alcohol goes a long way to keep things lubricated. A bottle or two each of red and white wine, and a case of beer generally does the trick.
J.R.R. Tolkien once said “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” and I think some extra merriment in the world would do us all some good. With everything going on these days, Thanksgiving is a great excuse to set it all aside for a minute. Gather the people that you care about, eat, drink, listen to music, share stories, and be merry!
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, from all of us at State14!