Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Festival #1: Holiday treat the stuff of legends

     Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. No tedious religious obligations, no gifts to buy. Just family and food and more family and more food. I used to always write a Thanksgiving column, and since I didn't do a special week this November, the way I did the first four months—just too busy writing to dream up a theme—I thought, for the next three days, I'd reprise a few of my favorite Thanksgiving columns. Though I really never topped this first one, 16 years ago. 
    A lot can change in 16 years. We don't live in the city, so there's no trip down the alley. Thanksgiving isn't held at my in-laws' place; both of them have passed away and are deeply missed. Now it's at our house. 
    Some things, however, stay the same — I still make the stuffing, with apple cider instead of wine. I will admit, as glad as I am that I don't drink anymore, I do heave a wistful sigh at Thanksgiving, and the gleeful tone of this column will tell you why. Nothing to be ashamed of—fun while it lasted, and fun of a different sort now, plus one more blessing to give thanks for.

     How big a scoop of stuffing are you going to heap on your plate when the platter is passed around Thursday?
     If you're like me, it'll be a prodigious mountain, a brown bushel of savory joy, towering above the pale expanse of turkey, dwarfing the mashed potatoes, obscuring the yams, mocking the cranberries.
     I'm a stuffing man. I'm not ashamed to shout it. My entire life the other 364 days a year is just a shuffling, time-killing, joyless trance, waiting until the magic day when Thanksgiving stuffing returns.
     Sure, you are offered simulated stuffing at other times. There is Stove Top. And I have partaken in it, and derived comfort, like a thirsty man in the desert sucking on pebbles. But it isn't the real thing. Real stuffing must be labored over for hours.
     I know, because in my family, I make the stuffing. I am the patriarch, stuffingwise; the granddaddy of dressing. It's the only thing I know how to cook. But, like the idiot savant who can only play Mozart piano concertos, my one skill is sublime.
     I never would have learned of my skill if it weren't for my mother-in-law. A saint, that woman. She can lay out a Thanksgiving dinner for 30 people in the time it takes most people to peel an apple.
     But even family can't just show up holiday after holiday, 10 times a year, year after year, stuff our faces and run out the door shouting thanks over our shoulders without a little guilt eventually setting in.
     So we began volunteering to shoulder responsibility for aspects of Thanksgiving dinner. My sister-in-law took over the pies. And I took the stuffing. Everyone laughed when I volunteered. My mother-in-law prepared a few pans of emergency stuffing, just in case I botched it.
     But I didn't botch it. I nailed it. Stuffing the way it should be, moist but not wet, solid but yielding, savory without any single spice drawing rude attention to itself and ruining the warm and comforting embrace that is good stuffing. Stoical relatives who could read every word I've written without uttering a compliment grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks, their faces wet with tears, babbling praise for the stuffing.
     For a period of years -- five? eight? more? -- the question would be floated during early November. "Is Neil making stuffing this year?" Then it gently transmuted into "Neil is making his stuffing this year?"
     But this year was the crowning triumph: Nobody asked at all.
     You have to have gone through the process of being absorbed into somebody else's family to recognize the bliss in this transformation. The wonder of being taken for granted, of being assumed.        
     Nobody asked whether I'm making my stuffing because everyone knew that I would. I always do. It's a tradition.
     No recipe. Nothing is written. I wing it. First, a couple of days before, I buy a bunch of challah breads; six, eight, depending on the size. These I dice into inch-wide croutons and toast on cookie sheets. Sure, it takes a long time, but so did the Sistine Chapel.
     Onions, celery and peeled apple, diced well and cooked until nothing dares to crunch. Chicken bouillon, for moistening. Oil, too. Mild spices: sage, thyme. And one secret moistening ingredient: red wine.
     I can't tell you how much red wine. Use enough but no more. I'm generally sparing with the wine that goes into the stuffing. The wine that, ummm, doesn't go in to the stuffing, but goes somewhere else, that wine I don't monitor quite as closely, if you catch my drift.
     No apricots. No raisins. No corn bread. Nothing fancy or strange. Leave that to Martha Stewart. If your family is burdened with the tradition of stuffing made from, say, White Castle hamburgers (which people actually use), OK, follow your creed, if you must. I will follow mine.
     Stuffing can't be ruined. You make so much of it, adding batch after batch of raw materials -- more croutons, more vegetables, more bouillon, more spices -- that should one element be overemphasized, it can always be corrected. You can always dice up more bread.
     One would think that the highlight would be the eating. Or perhaps the contemplating of the assembled plate: the bird, the stuffing, the cranberries, the yams, the mashed potatoes, the peas; like beloved actors in a favorite sitcom, each vital, each supporting the other, trotting out for another show, just like the one before, just like the next one.
     But preparation is really the top for me, the peerless thrill I wait for all year. The croutons toasting. The wine glugging, into the stuffing, into other places. On the TV, the parade, hosted by a pair of idiotic showbiz personalities whom I've never heard of previously and will never hear of again. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing.
     That moment is even better than the ecstatic reception my stuffing receives; relatives standing in their places, elbowing small children away, wrestling for the stuffing platter, those at the far end extending their plates out in one hand, the other hand making big arching gimme gestures, or simply pointing desperately at their wide-open mouths.
     The only other comparable moment is the walk down the alley, to the car. No one may carry the stuffing but me. It's heavy. It must weigh 15 pounds. There is the thrill of peril; the stuffing must not be dropped. The aroma steams up, mixing with the crisp bite of the November air. Celestial choirs of angels break into song. Thanksgiving is good. Stuffing is good. And making the stuffing is great.
                              —From The Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 23, 1997


  1. I'll be making "my" stuffing this year. I might try adding apple. That sounds good.

  2. Dang: sounds de-lish! I, too, and a Stuffing Man and, w/o meaning to stir up controversy, gotta have JELLIED cranberry sauce, fellas. Happy Holiday!

  3. After reading about your stuffing triumphs, I am ready to charge into the kitchen right now and dump the bag of Peppridge Farm Sage & onion stuffing cubes into the garbage can. I need to start with better basics if I am going to start to get similar raves. Thanks for the pointers Martha....I mean Neil.

  4. Do not buy the Peperidge Farm stuff. I make my stuffing from Challah too. But I don't worry about the size of the pieces that I rip apart from the bread and then leave in a bowl under a clean dishtowel for 2 days. It gets nice and hard, no toasting necessary.

    I also sautee celery and onions, but no apple and I do it so long it actually reverts back to almost crispness.

    Eggs, Chicken broth, salt and pepper. That's it so easy.


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