I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving this year due in part to its proximity to Christmas, in part to the price of a plane ticket, and in part to my reluctance to sacrifice two days of a relatively short break to air travel rather than relaxation. Fortunately, enough of my friends did likewise, so this didn’t mean I was in danger of spending the holiday alone, wishing I had company to be thankful for. What this did mean, however, is that we couldn’t depend on our families to prepare the usual feast — if we wanted to gorge on a deliciously traditional Thanksgiving dinner, we’d have to make it ourselves.
It was eventually determined that I would be in charge of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and the pumpkin pie. I decided to challenge myself to make the pie completely from scratch (crust and filling — no canned pumpkin purée for this guy!). Actually, I was in charge of the pie last year too and tried making the crust from scratch then as well, but it turned out hard and crispy, not soft and flaky. No matter, last year was the practice run: this year I would make the best pie crust ever.
I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to cook everything Thanksgiving morning, so I set about preparing the pumpkin purée and the dough for the crust the night before. I began by promptly slicing open my thumb. After bringing the dough together in the food processor, I turned it out onto the counter so I could shape it into a disc for refrigeration, but some of it was stubbornly sticking to the blades. Instead of thinking, “Gosh, those blades that just pulverized those frozen cubes of butter must be sharp, maybe it’s not worth getting every last bit,” I went after it. Even given my decision to get all the dough, I could have used a spoon or a knife or a toothpick or really anything in my kitchen other than my bare hands, but no. There’s no time for rational thought when you’re making the best pie crust ever. Thankfully, I wasn’t holding the blade unit (it’s removable) over the rest of the dough when the inevitable happened, so the blood ruined only the scraps I was trying to rescue rather than the whole batch.
Though the dough emerged unscathed, I now had the misfortune of being stuck with a band-aid wrapped around the tip of my thumb if I wanted to keep it that way (the darn thing would just not stop bleeding!). In case you haven’t had the pleasure, let me assure you that cooking with a bandaged digit is a nuisance. Cooking, more than most activities, sees you repeatedly dirtying and washing your hands and each washing loosens the grip of the band-aid, which I had to keep replacing for fear of losing it in whatever I was mixing — my friends would never have forgiven me had they found a band-aid in their food. (In case you’ve ever wondered how professionals deal with this, a friend who’s father is a chef once explained to me that he always had a supply of these on hand.)
Aside from my minor medical mishap, the rest of my preparations proceeded uneventfully. The pie filling turned out to be a breeze — seriously, forget about the canned stuff. I followed Melissa Clark’s advice and used butternut squash and nobody, including myself, could tell the difference. The mashed potatoes were exceedingly typical and not worth mentioning and the stuffing was good if a little dry; I decided I would make this too from scratch and wound up adding too little broth in an effort to avoid a soggy mess (speaking of which, I took a leaf out of Alton Brown’s book and used challah bread, which is egg based and so apparently withstands water’s campaign for sogginess better than other breads).
I arrived at my friends’ apartment, arms laden with dishes swathed in bath towels to keep the heat in, at the same as another friend who was joining us for dinner. As we rode the elevator to the top floor, he described to me his appetizer (“devils on horseback”): dates stuffed with blue cheese wrapped in bacon (because what isn’t better wrapped in bacon?). They were best fresh, he said, so the plan was to assemble them here while the turkey finished cooking. As I unwrapped and made room for my food in the kitchen, I heard him explaining his devilish dish to my friends in the next room, asking if it was alright if he left the leftover bacon here (“yes, of course”), at which point I swear I heard him say something to the effect of, “I’m the bacon fairy, you see.” I poked my head through the doorway to verify what I’d just heard, and, though it turned out my ears had deceived me, I was so amused by what, for a gay Texan, is an eerily apt description, that I honestly can’t recall what it was he actually said.
When the bird was ready, we wondered to whom the task of carving it should fall, as none of us had done it before. For some reason, everyone pointed at me. “I bet the Iowan is a natural at slicing up animals,” said the bacon fairy. And so the job was mine. At someone’s suggestion, I googled ‘How to carve a turkey’ and found a moderately helpful video from a chef at Whole Foods, the highlight of which was not any particularly sage advice about turkey carving but rather his urging to do the deed not at the table but “in private” in the kitchen. He made it look so easy, but I still managed to screw up step one. He said to start by removing the legs, so I grabbed hold of one and started hacking away, only to have the bone slide right out of the meat, which was still firmly attached to the bird. I gave up on doing a presentable job and after a good ten minutes of fumbling with a knife and fork, I had liberated enough meat for the meal.
We ate, played games, ate more, played more games, and congratulated ourselves on putting together such a delicious and massive Thanksgiving meal — surely this must be the final test of adulthood. Everything was amazing (if you doused the stuffing with enough gravy, anyway). The highlight for me was the pie; it turned out fantastic, both crust and filling (and blood-free to boot). If I hadn’t believed it before, now I was sure from scratch is the way to go. Here’s hoping I can repeat the feat next year.
I didn’t get home until shortly after midnight, at which point I just couldn’t bring myself to deal the mound of dishes in my sink, so I decided to break the rule I’ve been imposing on myself since summer about never going to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. Prior to my new self-mandate, I’d found myself in a nasty pattern: after dinner, not feeling particularly inclined to suds up, I would convince myself I was too busy to wash the three pots/pans/utensils I’d used to make my meal. The next night, three new dishes joined the first batch, and if I hadn’t had time to wash three the night before then I certainly didn’t have time to wash six now. And so a little village of cookware would accumulate on my counter: pans with bits of dried egg or vegetables, pots holding an inch of water, spoons sporting a coating of marinara sauce, and maybe a cutting board only partially visible beneath a scattering of breadcrumbs and dried broccoli florets. Even running out of clean dishes wasn’t sufficient motivation — “I only heated pasta sauce in this pot, surely it isn’t really dirty; what’s the harm in using it once more?”. I carried on this way, washing dishes on a weekly basis, until I came home one day to the smell of what could only have been the rotting carcass of a small rodent or bird. A quick tour of my apartment, led by my nose, uncovered the culprit: a pot, sitting on my stove beneath a second, larger pot, half-full of water of water I’d used to steam broccoli two days earlier. I still cannot believe how bad (and strongly) it smelled. Sufficiently disgusted at long last, I washed everything then and there and, determined never to let this happen again and thankful no one had been with me to smell my apartment that day, my rule was born. But today was a special occasion, and I reasoned that I wouldn’t fall off the horse if I left my sink full just this once. Ridding my counter of the dried remnants of the best pie crust ever could wait until morning.