Thanksgiving can be a teaching moment as well as a culinary celebration. The first Thanksgiving, the lore goes, was a harvest celebration with English pilgrims and Wampanoag American Indians. They ate turkey, oysters, venison, corn and other native foods of Massachusetts. Our family likes to stay close to those native foods. The pilgrims did not stuff their turkey with corn bread and jalapenos, and neither do we. It is not the time for the new. Thanksgiving celebrates the old ways.
I was born in Queens. I went to high school and graduate school in New York. I lived for 14 years in Massachusetts with three little children and a wife, and then without a wife. Maybe this is the reason we have such traditional Yankee Thanksgivings even here in California, where we moved 13 years ago. Our family feels that Thanksgiving is not the time for experimentation.
Although I fondly remember Thanksgivings during my childhood, teenage years and 20s, it was about the time I met my former wife, Najwa, in 1978 that Thanksgiving became very special; something more than a holiday in November. Thanksgiving resonated with us because it was a truly secular holiday for us non-religious people. We gave thanks, of course, and when children came we stuck cutouts of pilgrims around the house. More important, our Thanksgiving menu was born, and the expectation of certain dishes became set in stone. It was a very New England Thanksgiving.
After we divorced, the kids went back and forth for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the menu remained identical in both households year after year. In our house, we never make Thanksgiving food any other time of the year. Although we add dishes to the repertoire, one can only be removed by common consent. Recipes may alter slightly, but the food is the same. Finally, I made a little loose-leaf book of recipes for us to use.
Just a few years ago, after nearly 20 years of divorce, Najwa and I started having Thanksgiving dinners together again. Luckily, the kids, my girlfriend Michelle, Najwa’s husband Larry, and the other usual suspects all get along. The food is the same. Our family has myriad ethnic backgrounds, but you will never see hummus, lasagna, burritos, or blintz at our Thanksgiving table. One does not eat those foods at Thanksgiving.
The foods we choose are absolutely mandatory for a New England Thanksgiving: turkey, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets, green beans, onions, corn, muffins, pies and more. Some years we omit some because they’re labor-intensive and we’re too tired or no one wants them. It is not much of an excuse, I admit, but I never want to make the pumpkin flapjacks because they’re too much work and tricky to get right. But they always get made because my son, Seri, wants them. He’s 21 now, so he makes them. He also makes the sardine-stuffed deviled eggs. We started with 12, but now we make about 48 because, incredibly, they all get eaten. We make eggnog from scratch. It’s ridiculous because it’s so rich that all anyone can do is drink a toast, yet we make it every Thanksgiving.
Najwa always makes the pumpkin pie and the pecan pie and the cranberry-orange relish. Corn muffins and corn sticks are always on the menu. Sometimes we make the cranberry butter, which none of us want until we see it in front of us and say, “This should always be on the table.”
I make the turkey and the stuffing. I do not brine the turkey, although I have once; brining just adds more labor than is necessary and you can make a spectacular roast turkey without it. My turkey is never dry and crumbly; it’s always moist, luscious and full of flavor with crispy golden brown skin because I don’t overcook it. You need a quick-read thermometer more than you do a brining bag for perfect turkey. Everyone goes nuts over the stuffing. It’s a bread stuffing made with sausage, celery, chestnuts, fresh herbs and bourbon. Half goes into the turkey and half bakes separately. We do that because everyone wants thirds on the stuffing. Making the non-stuffed stuffing taste like the stuffed stuffing is a challenge.
We also make green beans with pine nuts, gratin of four onions, maple- and apple-cider glazed yams or roast sweet potatoes, hash of Brussels sprouts with bacon and hazelnuts, and plenty else. At the end of the Thanksgiving dinner we go for a walk, a slow walk that seems to do nothing for digestion. Then we fall asleep early and the next day, poach the carcass. This is what we do.
Clifford A. Wright’s Pumpkin Flapjacks
The key to making pumpkin flapjacks is draining as much liquid from the pumpkins as possible. We first put them on our Thanksgiving menu in 1997 when I realized I didn’t want our traditional creamed squash dish because there was already enough cream being used in other dishes. Subsequently, my son Seri became crazy about this dish and finally, around 2006, I made him make it every Thanksgiving. When cooking down the pumpkin flesh, it’s important to make sure much of the moisture is evaporated; otherwise, the flapjacks won’t hold together when you cook them.
3 large eggs
1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup or more milk
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or vegetable oil
¼ cup fresh pomegranate seeds
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- If using a whole pumpkin (which you should), place in a 425-degree oven and bake until a skewer can pierce the whole pumpkin without any resistance, about 1 hour. Then cut in half, remove and discard the seeds and scrape out the flesh. Process in a food processor, in batches, then transfer to a strainer set over a large bowl and drain for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
- Transfer the pumpkin to a large flame-proof casserole and cook over medium heat until almost all the moisture has evaporated, 1 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally and being careful it doesn’t splatter too much.
- Beat the eggs in a large bowl and stir in the flour, baking powder, pumpkin, milk, cream, and season with salt and pepper. The pumpkin batter can be refrigerated at this point.
- When it is time to cook, heat a lightly greased large griddle over medium-high heat and drop about a ladle full (about ¼ cup) of batter on the griddle, pressing down the top with the bottom of the ladle to form 4-inch diameter flapjacks. Cook until the bottom is nearly black in sections, lowering the heat if it blackens too quickly (as in 3 to 5 minutes), then flip, using a metal spatula to gently loosen the flapjack all around and underneath. If the flapjack looks loose or as if it will break apart, let it cook longer. Once flipped, cook until the other side is nearly black, 6 to 7 minutes a side. As the flapjacks finish cooking, transfer to a greased oval metal serving platter or any pan that can go into the oven. They can be cooked up to this point on Thanksgiving morning and be kept refrigerated. When it’s time to serve, heat in the oven after the turkey comes out and is resting, for 15 minutes, sprinkle with pomegranates and serve.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.