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Talking Turkey (And Pie) In 'Thanksgiving'

In the introduction to his new book, Sam Sifton lays it out: "Thanksgiving is not easy." Sifton knows whereof he speaks; he's now the national editor of The New York Times, but before he took on that solemn responsibility, he was the newspaper's restaurant critic and a food columnist for its Sunday Magazine.

Sifton cites Thanksgiving stresses like drunk uncles, tense travel, itsy-bitsy ovens, family feuds and, of course, the dinner itself. But he offers to help with that last bit. He's written an entire book on Thanksgiving dinner — not a thick book, but a thorough one — intended to get you through the last crumb of pumpkin pie.

It's called Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well, and here's one of Sifton's central pieces of advice: Forget innovation. Be conservative. "There should be no swordfish at Thanksgiving," he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "There should be no beef tenderloin at Thanksgiving. Ham is an abomination at Thanksgiving. There should be a turkey. Turkey is why you are here."

Another pearl of wisdom: Gather up enough pots, even if you have to borrow some. And stock up on basics, especially butter. "Butter is an incredibly important part of Thanksgiving," Sifton says. "There's very little you can't fix with butter. I like that moment during my gambol through the supermarket in advance of Thanksgiving, when I load in the 2 pounds of butter, and think, 'Well, maybe I'll take a third pound of butter,' and put it into my shopping cart."

You never know when butter will come in handy, he adds. "You can put it into your dressing because it seems somehow wan. You should have a lot of butter."

Sifton's turkey recipes come in two forms: simple and simpler. "This is a stressful holiday, and there's no reason to make the cooking more stressful than that," he says. Most Americans, be they recent immigrants or Mayflower descendants, subconsciously compare their Thanksgiving turkeys to the giant, golden bird immortalized in Norman Rockwell's painting Freedom from Want. "And ... in this book, at any rate, I want to make the argument that achieving that bird is enough."

More confident cooks can, of course, try tougher tasks. "You can even end up frying a turkey," Sifton says — though that can be a daunting undertaking. "If you YouTube 'frying a turkey' and 'disaster,' you will find just an enormous number of terrifying and, at the same time, hilarious videos ... But if you follow my simple instructions and don't drink to excess, and wear shoes, you can end up with a really delicious bird."

And to finish the meal, Sifton has one hard and fast rule for dessert: There must be pie. "A lot of people feel, having been traditional about the turkey, that dessert is the time to go hog wild and create some kind of parfait, some chocolate extravaganza, and I'm not sure that's the right way to go," he says. Every family brings its own cultural traditions to the meal, "but having that apple pie, American as apple pie, on this most American of holidays, it's just terrific, and I declare, a must."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Pick up a newspaper, go online right now, a few days before Thanksgiving, and here's what you can find: recipes for deconstructed pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes with blue cheese, instructions on steaming your turkey in addition to roasting it, advice on how have the fanciest, fussiest, most over the top Thanksgiving ever.

Sam Sifton of The New York Times has some advice of his own: calm down. He is the author of a new book, "Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well." Sam Sifton thinks nothing is better than a straightforward traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Welcome.

SAM SIFTON: Glad to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So one of the major themes of your book is forget innovation, be conservative, the old ways are the best. Does that mean no swordfish for Thanksgiving?

SIFTON: There should be no swordfish at Thanksgiving. There should be no beef tenderloin at Thanksgiving. Ham is an abomination at Thanksgiving. There should be a turkey. Turkey is why you are here.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now, your suggestions, you begin with the basics. The one I liked was gather up enough pots. And it may be necessary to borrow from friends and family. And then stock up on the basics, especially butter.

SIFTON: Butter is an incredibly important part of Thanksgiving. I like that moment during my gambol through the supermarket in advance of Thanksgiving, when I load in the two pounds of butter and then think, well, maybe I'll take a third pound of butter. You never know when you can put it into something. You can add it to your dressing at the last minute because it seems somehow wan. You should have a lot of butter.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Chapter Two of the book is "The Turkey." Now, you offer a basic simple roast turkey and talk us through that. And then you offer an even more simple roast turkey. There's a format at work here in the way you've written this book.

SIFTON: Yes, I'm trying to underscore the argument that I make at the beginning, that this is a stressful holiday and there is no real reason to make the cooking more stressful than that. Remember that Thanksgiving in America is set against the memory of that Norman Rockwell painting, "Freedom from Want." And no matter whether we're new Americans are lifelong Americans, we somehow on a cellular level think back to that image of that burnished bird. And I want to make the argument that achieving that bird is enough.

WERTHEIMER: But the idea is that you could start simple and then perhaps after you gain more experience escalate?

SIFTON: Yes, you could even end up frying a turkey.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Not me, man. I think someone would be killed if I tried to fry a turkey.

SIFTON: Well, if you YouTube frying a turkey and disaster, you will find just an enormous number of terrifying and, at the same time, hilarious videos. But if you follow my simple instructions and don't drink to excess, and wear shoes, you can end up with a really delicious bird frying.

You have this oil that is bubbling along - at 350, 360 degrees - and you lower into it a turkey the size of an infant. And it cooks it at this ridiculous rate of like three and a half minutes a pound. You're done...

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAPPING FINGERS)

SIFTON: ...like that.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I like your sides chapter, 'cause that's my favorite part of Thanksgiving. But I must say that I especially like the chapter on dessert. Now, you have a hard and fast rule for dessert.

SIFTON: Yeah, there must be pie. A lot of people feel, having been traditional about the turkey, having been traditional about the sides, they feel that dessert is the time to go hog wild and create some kind of parfait, some chocolate extravaganza, and I'm not sure that that's the right way to go. Remember that every family will bring to the Thanksgiving table something of its own cultural past and something of its own cultural present, because your parents happen to be Armenian or your parents are Guyanese - and that's going to be reflected in the meal that you cook.

But having that apple pie, American as apple pie, on this most American of holidays, it's just terrific. And, I declare, a must.

WERTHEIMER: "Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well" - it's a primer on maybe the best meal of the year cooked by you. Sam Sifton, thank you very much.

SIFTON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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