I have a fairly serious theory about Thanksgiving dinner, and it's this: don't mess with it. What most people make for Thanksgiving dinner is what their mothers made, and you stray from this at your peril. I believe that the yam was stuck into Thanksgiving dinner to satisfy mankind's atavistic urge to change things; yams give that urge a safe focus. Yams are delicious no matter what you do to them. And they're powerful: if you make them slightly differently from one year to the next, no one is really going to complain, because yams are so fundamentally yammy that they survive experimentation and novelty, which are, as I just said, the enemies of a successful Thanksgiving dinner.
Anyway, the point is that I pretty much keep to the ways that were pioneered in the olden days of Beverly Hills by my mother, who was one of the first people I know to recognize that you can't do much better than Pepperidge Farm stuffing and Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, and who introduced scalloped oysters into our Thanksgiving ritual with great success some fifty years ago. I make scalloped oysters every Thanksgiving. No one eats them but me but I don't care.
The only aspect of my Thanksgiving dinner that has changed over the years is my method of cooking turkey, and it's about to change again. The year everyone brined their turkeys, I brined my turkey and saw that it was good. The year everyone insisted that deep-fried turkeys were some sort of breakthrough, I resisted, knowing that the deep-fried turkey was a stupid foodie episode that would soon pass. (I hoped it would soon pass because I have eaten deep-fried turkey and it's overrated; what's more, deep-frying a turkey is dangerous, more dangerous even than cooking beef fondu, which once famously burned someone whose name I forget on the Upper West Side in the l960s and was never served anywhere ever again as far as I can tell.) This year I discovered a new way to cook a turkey in the November Gourmet and it sounds worth trying -- you just season a 16-pound bird, stick it into the oven at 450 degrees and take it out two and a half hours later; you don't even have to baste.
Anyway, I was feeling smug and smart about my Thanksgiving dinner until this morning, when I opened my copy of Women's Wear Daily and discovered that I have completely missed the boat and ordered the wrong turkey. Women's Wear contains several interviews with major food people, all of them discussing what they're making for Thanksgiving dinner, and as a result, I realized that I am supposed to be cooking something called a heritage turkey. Until an hour ago, I had never heard of a heritage turkey. But I just Googled it and discovered that a heritage turkey is the turkey equivalent of an heirloom tomato with a little bit of the free-range concept thrown in: it's a bird that's been allowed to walk around, that hasn't been bred to have an oversized breast, and has been allowed to have sex, whatever sex is where turkeys are concerned (I've always been confused about sex and poultry and exactly how eggs fit into the equation). I feel bad about not having known about heritage turkeys until it was too late. It's not easy being up-to-date, and I've given up on most things, but I always thought I was capable of staying on the cutting edge in the Thanksgiving turkey area and now I see I haven't at all.
By the way, the other day I bought several heirloom apples, which I also had never heard of until this week. They were extremely expensive and absolutely inedible.
Another dish that's part of my Thanksgiving tradition is a jello mold. I understand that no serious cook would ever serve a jello mold, but I happen to love a jello mold; it's so deeply American, so homely, so possibly ironic and yet not, so full of narrative. I am jello, it seems to be saying, and on this fabulous holiday, when we all get to be Wasps, I bring you just that much closer to Waspdom. I am not just jello, it's saying, I am the food equivalent of a red state, but in a good way. I am merely jello, it's saying, but I'm here to remind you that a modest thing like me can make its way into the greatest meal of the year. I'm sure my jello mold is saying other things too, but I can't think of them right now; anyway, the turkey that is not a heritage turkey has just arrived and I'm going to go brine it.
A magnificent episode in jello molds, boasting a color that does not otherwise exist in nature.
1 small pkg. lime jello
1 cup water
8 oz. Cream cheese cut into small bits
1 cup baby marshmallows
l 16-oz. Can crushed pineapple and juice
Add l cup boiling water to jello and stir. Put into a blender with the cream cheese and marshmallows and blend. Add to pineapple and juice, and put into a Teflon jello mold. Unmold before serving.
APRICOT JELLO MOLD
The queen of all jello molds.
4 small pkgs. apricot jello
3 12-ounce cans apricot nectar
1/2 pint sour cream
l large can halved apricots
8-, 9- or 10-cup mold
To l package of jello add 1 1/2 cups boiling water and juice from one can of apricots. Pour half the mixture into a ring mold or Bundt pan, preferably teflon. Lay drained apricots top side down into mold. Put into refrigerator.
Throw away the other half of the jello mixture.
Heat l can nectar to boiling and add one package of jello. Mix well. Cool slightly and when mold in refrigerator is set, add this next layer. Again refrigerate.
Heat the second can of nectar to boiling and add another package of jello. Then add in sour cream gently to avoid air bubbles. Add this layer again when other layers are gelled.
Heat the third can of nectar and add jello. This is your last layer. Add when the last layer sets and put back into refrigerator.
Unmold before serving.
l pint oysters
6 TB cream and the oyster liquor
1/2 cup bread crumbs mixed with l cup cracker crumbs
1/2 cup melted butter poured over the crumbs
Grease a small baking dish and cover it with a layer of crumbs, then a layer of oysters, then a layer of crumbs, then a layer of oysters, then a layer of crumbs.
Pour the cream and oyster liquor over it, bake 20 minutes at 400 until bubbling.