Thanksgiving ideas soon sliced up

November 20, 1996|By Rob Kasper

THANKSGIVING IS a time for families to gather and renew family feuds.

Some familiar "spirited disagreements" I get into with my kinfolk include: Do you cook the turkey on the grill or in the oven? Do you carry the whole bird to the table and carve it there or carve it up in the kitchen? Do you serve stuffing, cooked inside the turkey, or dressing, cooked separately? Do you pour red or white wine? And do you serve the same old side dishes or do you nouveau them up?

My stand on these issues has been as follows. You cook the bird on the grill. You carve in the kitchen. You serve stuffing and pour red wine. And you stick to the same old side dishes.

I have lost virtually every one of these arguments.

On the grilled-bird front, I blew my big chance a few years back. I had convinced the family that the smoke from the combination of charcoal and hickory chips would give the bland bird a zippy flavor. Moreover, cooking the bird on the grill, I told them, would free up the oven for baking pies, breads and casseroles. Oven congestion is usually a big problem on Thanksgiving.

I let the coals burn until they had achieved that much-desired ashy-glow state. I then tucked them on the sides of the kettle grill and tossed on a few well-wetted hickory chips. Finally, I placed the bird on the grill in the middle of the cooker, and put on the lid. It was your classic "indirect-cooking method," the one shown in all the barbecue kettle brochures.

A small, gentle stream of smoke came out of the vents in the kettle lid, and the smoke was the correct color, white. Black smoke would have been a bad sign, meaning the bird was burning.

Things were going so well at the grill that I wandered over to a basketball game that various family members were playing. Several hours and several sprained fingers later, I pulled the bird from the cooker. It was golden on the outside, but half raw on the inside.

Ever since that fateful Thanksgiving, the bird has been entrusted to the oven, not the barbecue grill. Barbecuing a bird requires a tender, a person willing to devote several hours to watching the fire. My family doesn't think I have the patience for the job. I am beginning to believe them.

Another drawback to the smoked turkey, according to several family members, was that it didn't "taste like Thanksgiving." I couldn't counter that point. A major appeal of the feast is the familiarity of its flavors. We expect that every Thanksgiving. One of the kids put it this way: He wants his turkey "Grandma-cooked."

Kids can be surprisingly strong traditionalists. I found this out when I tried to do away with the practice of presenting the great brown bird to the table, just like in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Once, instead of parading the bird into the dining room, I carved it in the kitchen. The kitchen offered several advantages. There was plenty of room to wield a knife, and plenty of opportunity to steal a few bites of golden skin.

When I presented the platter of sliced meat to the table, a howl of protest came from the teen-ager. It just wasn't right, he said. The meal should begin, he said, with the assembled diners adoring the glistening whole bird. A compromise was reached.

Now I carry the great brown bird to the table. There, it is admired by all, especially the teen-ager, the only Norman Rockwell fan I know who wears an earring. After the viewing, the bird is carried to the kitchen for surgery.

An accommodation has been reached on the wine front as well. For years I championed serving red wine, Pinot Noir, with turkey. Year after year, family members listened, sipped the wine and said they wanted white wine, Chardonnay. They finally wore me down. Now I buy a bottle of Chardonnay for the majority, and a bottle of Pinot Noir for the minority, which usually consists of me and one sympathizer. As I sip, I console myself with the thought that I have may lost the argument, but won "first dibs" on the red wine.

On the stuffing vs. dressing front, there is agreement. In our family, stuffing made from corn bread and cooked inside the bird is the only way to go. Occasionally, a well-meaning visitor will recite a bit of wisdom heard on a TV talk show. The visitor will say something like allowing cooked stuffing to sit at room temperature inside a cooked bird increases the chances that the harmful bacteria salmonella will grow on the stuffing.

Family members react to such a recitation with a tight smile. We point out that the kind of inferior-tasting stuffing made on TV talk shows may linger inside a bird, but our Thanksgiving stuffing disappears a few minutes after the meal's opening prayer.

Finally, despite my arguments against it, change has come to the Thanksgiving dinner's side dishes, especially the vegetables and condiments. Shallots have replaced creamed onions as the pTC bulb of choice. Fancy squash has replaced trusty old turnips. Garlic has crept into the cranberry sauce, which has become -- are you ready for this? -- a "chutney."

The initiators of these changes, a cabal known in the family as "the cooks," say their actions make sense. Side dishes offer a good opportunity to try something new at Thanksgiving, they say. Experience has taught them that most family members don't want any tinkering done to the big three: the turkey, the stuffing and the potatoes. But eaters are receptive to experimentation with the lower-popularity dishes.

I must admit these "cooks" make a good argument, and a good roasted turkey. But this Thanksgiving, I am still holding out for a spot on the table for the same old cranberry jelly, the one that jiggles.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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