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Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, by Sam Sifton

Much in the same way that a child might get excited about seeing Santa Claus for the first time, or an adult might be thrilled by meeting Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan, Pete Townshend, or Prince (insert hero of your own here), I came home this evening to one of the greatest moments of my life: A turkey—the first one ever at that—in my refrigerator.

Yes, that is correct. I have never cooked a turkey before. I have never hosted Thanksgiving before. I have not, so to speak, achieved manhood when it comes to cooking for the family, which in this case, for this holiday, extends to about sixteen folks. That, my friends, is about to change. I’m the proud owner of a 14.9 pound Bell & Evans bird from the Park Slope Food Coop. (Earlier in the day, when I was at work, Santa Maria sprinted over to the coop to get one as soon as the birds arrived for sale. She brought it home, and it is now on the top shelf of our fridge.)

I volunteered to host Thanksgiving this year for three reasons. The first is because I have never done it before, and I feel like it is time. The second is because I now have an apartment suited to the occasion. And the third is because Sam Sifton, a writer and a cook I much admire, recently wrote a how-to guide to the holiday, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well.” Were it not for this slender volume, handsomely illustrated by Sarah C. Rutherford, I would not have the confidence (I won’t say hubris) to take on the task.

Sifton may have given me one of the nadirs of my family-cooking tenure (it was his pizza recipe in The New York Times that I was following all those years ago when I wanted to emphatically demonstrate to my children my fallibility), but now that I am familiar with his limitations (what the world would call ambitions—it’s not his fault my kids don’t like San Marzano tomatoes), I am confident that his book will help me pull off this greatest of culinary holidays. Here’s his take on it:

Thanksgiving is not easy. The holiday is for many of us a day of travel, of traffic and stress. It is a day of hot ovens, increasingly drunk uncles and crowded dinner tables, of people arriving late or needing to leave early, of burned yams and spouses who forgot to buy the one thing—the one thing!—you asked them not to forget to buy. Thanksgiving can be a hard day to manage. It takes strength.

The cooking can be difficult. (That turkey is so big, and your oven so small.) The interpersonal dynamics are often harder. [Cue tears.] Either you are traveling somewhere to be fed, or opening your home to people in order to feed them. This is not easy, ever. You may be putting feuds on hold or building bridges between clans. You may be sharing family traditions or creating them or fighting against them or all three at once.

With writing like that, I know the book is gem. “Thanksgiving,” the book that is (and the holiday, for that matter), Sifton says is not “for those interested in cutting conrers. Shortcuts are anathema to Thanksgiving, which is a holiday that celebrates not just our bounty but also our slow, careful preparation of it. There is no room in Thanksgiving for the false wisdom of compromise—for ways to celebrate the holiday without cooking, or by cranking open cans of gravy to pour over a store-roasted turkey reheated in the microwave. Thanksgiving is no place for irony. We are simply going to cook. …  Put plainly, we are going to cook Thanksgiving correctly.

I’m all for that, and in the interest of increasing the odds of my success, I want to ask you, my dear readers, for your advice. All these years I have shared my culinary tips with you. Can you tell me the one thing that is most important to you for a successful Thanksgiving?

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