Why Cook on Thanksgiving?

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thanksgiving in the kitchen

Photo by Brian Auer

Historian Tom Albala asks a good question: With all the challenges and time compression of modern life, the decline of the home cooked meal and loss of kitchen skills, the diversity of diets and food restrictions, and the fraught relationships around the table, why do we still cook Thanksgiving dinner? Why not allow the corporations to do it for us? (h/t Elatia Harris)

Good questions but his answer is questionable:

We seek social standing or, more bluntly, applause. Cooking, like everything in life, is a form of performance. We all want to be rock stars…

When we succeed as cooks, we reap praise from family and friends. Even Facebook addicts get a rush from “likes” when they post a photogenic pumpkin pie, even though none of their Facebook friends actually tastes the food. Cooking and sharing food are inseparable. Our labor in the kitchen culminates not in profit but in praise. That’s the only reason we do anything, and it makes sweating in the kitchen worth it — the more so when kith and kin have traveled over the meadow and through the woods to gather around a holiday table.

I hear this view expressed all the time by my students —that all human motives are thoroughly selfish. A little thought would show it is obviously false. Human beings do all kinds of things that don’t bring us pleasure, from rescuing people in danger to caring for sick family members to taking on challenging work for little pay. Often these are thankless tasks for which we receive little recognition. The idea that all sacrifice has some hidden pleasurable motive is utterly implausible. Of course,  pleasure and related motives like the need for admiration are powerful as well, but they are not our only motives—we are more complicated beings than that.

What human beings do seek is meaning in their activity whether it produces pleasure or not. We want our actions to matter. And so we cook at Thanksgiving because it matters to others that we do so. Even if the meal is humble and ordinary, unworthy of rock star status, the giving of hospitality is still appreciated. It isn’t admiration that is received but thanks,appreciation, an acknowledgement that the cook or cooks devoted time and attention to sharing the pleasures of eating and celebrating the joys of life.

Of course, it is lovely when we are praised or admired. But the aim of Thanksgiving cooks is to make the celebration happen, to succeed in providing the care that was promised in the offering of the meal. A meal offered only as a means of “showing off” is unlikely to be appreciated as such.

On a side note, Albala attributes his view that pleasure is our only motive to the Ancient philosopher Epicurus. But I doubt that Epicurus would so heartily endorse cooking a Thanksgiving meal as a means to pleasure, regardless of the admiration it may generate. For Epicurus the ultimate aim in life was tranquility. Although we should pursue the satisfaction of our desires, if we have desires that interfere with the pursuit of tranquility they should be discarded. I’ve cooked many a Thanksgiving meal and I would not use the word “tranquil” to describe the experience.

So by all means cook your own meal at Thanksgiving, but do it because it is your care that people want, not bravura.

Thanksgiving Wine Pairing

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multiple bottlesWine pairing  for Thanksgiving can be a nightmare. How do you find a wine that will go with turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce, candied yams, the 4 vegetarian dishes you had to make for cousin Harry’s family, not to mention the gluten-free options for Aunt Emily. The short answer is you can’t. There is no wine that will work with the diversity of the typical Thanksgiving meal. Your best approximation would be Pinot Noir for the turkey and stuffing and an off-dry Riesling for some of the sweeter dishes. Both are modest in weight with good acidity and the Pinot will match the earthiness of the standard Thanksgiving fare. But that is just an approximation. Furthermore, there is always the “I-hate-white-wine” guest and the “I-only-drink-Merlot” guest who will not be satisfied.

The solution is to open a variety of wines and let people drink what they want. Include both light and heavier wines, whites and reds. And don’t forget the bubbly which goes with most foods. Between the family feuds, personality conflicts and football, no one pays much attention to the wine pairings anyway. (Which is a  good reason not to open your best bottles.)

Thanksgiving is a day when we like to have a variety of dishes on the table. Why not take the same approach with the wine?

As for me, I’m a guest this year so I’m bringing some domestically-produced Italian varietals and of course the Port. No meal is complete that does not end with Port.

Budget Wine: Mad Housewife Cellars Merlot NV California

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mad housewife merlotI like to visit the Mad Housewife on occasion just to see what she’s up to. Mad housewives can be entertaining as long as you don’t live with one.

And I can understand why she’s mad.

Murky aromas of simple black cherry with a soft vanilla background and faint hints of funky earth mark this medium intensity nose. Innocuous but nothing to get riled up about. But take a sip. Despite the light to medium body the palate resembles cough syrup upfront but turns abruptly sour on the midpalate with an acidic finish showing few tannins. Disjoint and distinctly unpleasant. It makes me mad as well. I’m with you mad housewife.

I love it when the marketing reflects what’s in the bottle. Oh. Wait. You mean the wine is supposed to calm the mad housewife, make her feel well disposed toward life, despite a rough day. No way. Not this wine.

You’re paying $8 for a label.

Score: 78

Price: $8

Alc: 13.5

Enjoyment and Contemplation

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table full of foodNow that food has become an object of discourse rather than a taken-for-granted necessity, it has also become the focus of myriad ideological crosscurrants—vegan vs. vegetarian vs. carnivore; paleo vs. rawfoodist vs. low-carb; debates about GMO’s, sustainability, global hunger, etc. But with all this controversy, we risk losing sight of what is important about food—the pleasure of eating. So I very much like this short essay by Miriam Ava:

Here’s the thing, though: If we become too invested in, or even obsessed with, our food choices we lose sight of what’s really important: that we feel good & enjoy life. If one focuses on counting calories; if one takes in the pain of others endlessly; if one constantly evaluates how this or that ingredient impacts the body; if one restricts oneself to the point of Puritan approval; if food has an overwhelming grip on one’s mind no matter one’s desired diet, then its offering of nourishment & enjoyment has been replaced by stagnation & fear.

I doubt that there is any meaning to life beyond the full experience of it. And that requires the maximum enrichment of our everyday activities. All objects we encounter have a kind of eloquence about them that we are obliged to recognize if we seek this enrichment. Our food is no exception; indeed food may be the most readily available source of this eloquence since the enjoyment of food is so accessible to us—all you have to do is eat with full awareness, a capacity we all possess if we can eliminate the distractions.

Of course a life of contemplation and awareness cannot ignore the moral questions that concern us. But when the table is set it is time to focus on what is before us.

Enjoy your day.

The Essence of American Food

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dinerIn Priscilla Ferguson’s otherwise interesting book about the language of food, entitled Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food, she gets seriously off track in her discussion of American food and national identity.

In contrast to the French whose sense of national identity is based on the refinement and promulgation of advanced cooking techniques, she argues that American food is about quantity exemplified in those competitive eating contests in which contestants have 15 minutes to wolf down as much of some disgusting substance as possible. Her evidence for this hypothesis is the generally large portion sizes Americans prefer, as well as the Thanksgiving celebration, which appears to be about the bounty of the harvest and the number of dishes we can place on the table at the same time.

She is, of course, correct that Americans have been known to celebrate excess. But the United States has also undergone a food revolution over the last 30 years that is fundamentally reshaping the way we think about food. And that food revolution is not a celebration of excess. Americans are increasingly concerned with nutrition, the freshness of ingredients, sustainability, flavor, and novelty all of which suggest a turn toward quality and away from excess.

It could be argued that this food revolution is influencing only a small minority of our population and that most Americans remain mired in the dross of Super-Size Me and Big Gulps. Indeed, statistics on obesity are still dreadful. But Ferguson’s conception of American food appears in her chapter on food and national identity—the issue is not so much what we are but what we take ourselves to be. To the extent we have a food identity, it is not primarily about the celebration of excessive eating, unless we have given over the formation of our national identity to the advertisers of fast food chains. In other words, the discourse about food in the U.S., which is in part Ferguson’s subject, is not centered on the virtues of gluttony. And I’m not sure it ever has been. We have never celebrated the winners of competitive eating contests like the French have celebrated the winners of Bocuse d’Or, the international culinary competition that the French (or the French-trained) tend to dominate.

National identities are about what we admire and strive toward. A tendency to overeat is one aspect of American life but it is not what we admire, strive for or self-consciously endorse.

What then does define our culinary identity? I would suggest it is mobile eating—our tendency to eat and run, and the efficiencies to be gained through time compression. Our culinary past is notable for its efficient time management—fast food is the obvious example but so are TV dinners and packaged food in general, which exists in part because of the time it saves busy families on the go. Even the emergence of some ethnic foods is best explained by their ability to save time. Sushi need not be cooked and can be prepared ahead of time, and burritos and tacos lend themselves to efficient production and quick consumption.

So is Fast Food Nation our Bible? Are we most proud of that long tradition of Tastee Freeze, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell? Hardly. These establishments serve a purely utilitarian function in our mobile, car-obsessed society but they are not what we most admire about ourselves and they lack the emotional attachments that identities require.

Instead, I would suggest the essence of American food is the diner. Diners serve “way-station” food, designed to give weary travelers a respite from the road, and their menus consist of classic dishes that make the refugee think of home. There is a pathos to diner food—a celebration tinged with sadness at the solitude of travel—that fast-food restaurants lack.

There is a reason why one dominant trend in restaurants in U.S cities is to refurbish the diner as a hip destination where we can reconnect with American food traditions.

Clos La Coutale Cahors 2010

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clos la coutaleMalbec from Argentina may be the hot new grape but in Cahors, a region in Southwest France,  they’ve been growing it since the Romans ruled. Although originally a Bordeaux varietal, the Bordelais gave up on the grape after the 1956 frost killed off most of the vines. But the folks in Cahors soldier on  with this difficult grape and succeed in making some remarkable wines. Fresh, soft, and fruit-forward when grown in Argentina, in Cahors, Malbec is savory and meaty with surprisingly robust tannins for a thin-skinned grape.

This Clos La Coutale is no exception. Red licorice, olives, and cardamom on the nose. With aeration, cedar notes gain prominence. The medium-bodied palate shows blueberry enlivened by medium plus acidity with sandy tannins that are beginning to back off after a few years in the bottle. Excellent depth and focus make this an interesting wine for the price but some tartness and bitterness mar the rustic finish. 80% Malbec and 20% Merlot, this wine has so much personality, even its flaws are loveable.  If you’re part of the Malbec craze, this gem puts some of the lesser Argentinean pretenders to shame.

Score: 89

Price: $17

Alc: 13.5

Budget Wine: Carnivor 2012 California

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carnivorInky with purple hues suggest this is not just Cabernet. The winery notes say Petite Sirah and Merlot were added. Very ripe blackberry and prominent vanilla, espresso, and wet leaf aromas, but with some odd though subtle grassy notes, give this an interesting nose. The concentrated palate develops more chocolate and is full bodied with low acidity. This wine strives to be plush but has a short finish for a cab, and almost no tannic structure. With significant residual sugar, it stops  short of syrupy but its dangerously close.

There is plenty of ripe flavor and is a good bargain if you find it under $10. If you enjoy jammy, fruit forward wines this will bring pleasure, but it’s a bit confected and the lack of structure limits its appeal.

Given the name, I would guess we’re supposed to think this is a wine to serve with meat. But the tannins are too soft to cut the fat of a steak and the bold flavors will overwhelm anything but barbecue.

Score: 86

Price: $8-$13

Alc: 13.8

The Right Way to Build a Culture of Food

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This articleteens in kitchen by four teen reporters provides hope for a culture of food in the U.S.

You may have noticed something different the last time you ate at your favorite restaurant or shopped at a local farmers market. Or perhaps you picked up on it while scrolling through your Instagram feed. Teens everywhere are diving into the culinary scene. For some, that means photographing every bite, but others are taking it one step further.

Between the cost of a trendy dining experience in Chicago and the intimidation of the foodie scene, breaking into this culture may seem like a challenge. But chefs and teens agree that becoming a true foodie is easier than you’d think….

Despite popular belief, most food aficionados don’t start at fancy restaurants. Why not develop your love for food at home?

Sophia Hampton, a senior at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, did just that. Today, she’s published in “Future Chefs,” a cookbook of original recipes by teens. Her delicata-crab hash with poached duck egg and kale Caesar salad made the cut.

Hampton started cooking because she didn’t always like the food her dad prepared—something most teens can relate to.

“I decided that if I was going to eat anything I actually liked, I was going to have to make it myself,” she said.

Hampton’s best advice for aspiring foodies is to get in the kitchen.

I agree wholeheartedly. Building a sustainable culture of food begins at home where personal creativity and concern for the pleasure of others can enhance the fascination with flavor on a daily basis. If teens really are finding their way into the kitchen, this suggests America’s food revolution is more than just a fad.

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