Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Which We Cook Our Own Goose

Yesterday could have been scary. Not trip-to-the ER scary, or left-in-the-thunderstorm scary, but rather colossal flop embarrassing scary. I woke Saturday morning before it got light out, and reached over to pull the laptop from the night table where it sleeps. Unlike my car, the MacBook has neither a gender nor a name, but I like to keep it close by at night so that when I come up against a bout of insomnia, it can warm my lap and coax me through until the dawn.

I opened up the Times online, and there, courtesy of Mr. Perfect Face Mark Bittman, was a list of 101 ways I could prepare food ahead for the Thanksgiving Holiday. Because of the vagaries of our family’s travel schedule, and the fact that it was France, so it didn’t matter when we celebrated it, I was staring down my own personal Thanksgiving day right then. There was no more “ahead” left.

I had all the ingredients on hand (except for the last few that we could get at the Saturday market in town) but I had made precisely one dish: a somewhat burned and poorly-mixed pumpkin pie, which I knew I had yet to replace with a more serviceable one.

I suppose I could have counted the can of organic cranberry relish Gus had mailed to us as a “made ahead” dish, or the sausages and cheese (Epoisse, St. Nectare, Beaufort Comté) that some nice artisanal merchant had spent hours crafting on a farm somewhere nearby. Oh, and most importantly, the goose. Our friends – purveyors of the big fat goose, so enormous that it could no longer fly – had killed and plucked and cured and stuffed it with chestnuts and truffles and pancetta and all sorts of other yummies. Thus the centerpiece of the meal had arrived ready-to-cook the day before and was hogging the top shelf real estate in the refrigerator. But aside from the core and the nibbles, I was starting my own very first Thanksgiving feast entirely from scratch. According to Bittman, I was already way behind the 8-ball. Screwed.

And then, in the Styles section, I read another lengthy piece detailing all the ways in which families can be rude and insulting and horrible to one another during the big yearly eating extravaganza. Bill’s family tends to sit firmly on the mild, generous, and sweet side of humanity, but this article got me unnecessarily worried: what if things went suddenly and horribly awry? What if, disappointed by the failed dinner I imagined I might make, the whole family turned on me, turned on France, or turned on one another? We had already forced them to fly thousands of miles to see us. In the case of Bill’s sister Laura and our nephew, Finn, they had flown many, many thousands of miles, 13 hours on the plane from California. We had moved Thanksgiving five days forward and way, way East to an entirely foreign land.

It had better be good.

I addressed my (probably foolish) worries in a very predictable Launa-ish way: by making a detailed list. First I listed all the dishes (Thanks, Joy of Cooking), and then put in time order all the tasks and dishes and steps. “Set the table” came right after “wash the celery” and before “mash the roast squash with maple syrup and orange juice.” Bill's name for this approach is creating a "uni-recipe,” and as much as I laughed at the concept when he first employed it, I found that reminding myself of the actual steps involved tended to alleviate the worst of my Times-induced anxieties. (What is up with that, anyway? I leave New York, then let it make me crazy via the internet. Silly girl.) Generations of pioneer mommas have made Thanksgiving without the interference of the Times Online, or a “Minimalist” providing me with a hundred recipes for which I had none of the ingredients. If they could do it, I could, too.

As Bill explains it, with a unirecipe, you think of the entire meal as a single dish. When you make a unirecipe, it’s important to read all the individual recipes closely to be sure that you insert all the steps of the shorter recipes into the open spaces in the longest recipe. When I first read about goose in the Joy, I caught the first 1 ½ hour roasting period, but somehow missed the second one. Luckily, I caught my error before I ended up serving Grandpa Gus – a biochemist with a serious appreciation of the destructive power of all things germy – a raw and bloody mess of fatty goose skin and flesh. Once I charted out all the basting and flipping and resting and carving that good Mr. Goose would require of us, I could fit in the rest of the steps, including an apple pie made with Pink Ladies and sweetened with an intensely flavored forest-flower honey. Ooh la la.

Over the course of a few lovely hours, it all came into being. The crust, the pie, the squash, the goose, the celery, the salad, the potatoes, the beans, the nibbles were readied and heated and mixed and basted and coated with the big three of Provençal cooking: wine, olive oil, and honey. Since it wasn’t just the usual French meal, but also Thanksgiving, there was also a fair amount of butter lubricating things: a full-butter pie crust made in the food processor, plus butter in the squash and the potatoes and slathered all over the green beans.

It helped that I was cooking this meal in one of the most amazing kitchens ever. It has only the smallest amount of counter space, but is dominated by an enormous square table that serves dinner to eight just as well as it serves as headquarters for any major cooking project. I rolled out the dough there, and stacked up the ingredients. I used at least eight of the thirty knives lying around, including the enormous murder-weapon sized ones. I used the Creuset pots and the ceramic baking dishes and the whisks and wooden spoons and even the baster. I could find nearly any strange or quirky cooking tool I needed, (aside from a meat thermometer, which really would have made Gus’s day.) And as I cooked, Bill used the two deep sinks to stay a half step ahead of the most serious pre-dinner washing up.

I convinced Bill to chop off the grotesque long neck of the goose with the homicide knife, then we made a broth for the gravy out of the horrible long neck boiled in water with celery leaves, onions, a bay leaf, red wine, thyme and a lot of carrot chunks. I loved smelling it, boiling there on the stove for hours. Soon the potatoes and garlic cloves were sitting in water, ready to go. The green beans were snapped and lined up in a pretty blue pan, ready to be steamed in broth in the last few minutes. The kitchen was starting to fill up with the smells of goose and squash and maple, layered over the scent of the broth, the apple and cinnamon and all that happy dairy and olive fat. It smelled like home.

While I was cooking, I felt as though I were channeling every adult woman in my life, as well as my Dad and my father-in-law, as I had the dubious fatherly honor of taking responsibility for cooking a large hunk of stuffed poultry as well as all the sides. Although I have always been a reasonably responsible and effective adult, it has taken me longer than usual to find my domestic groove. It helped to imagine all of my culinary mentors dancing around with me to the R&B CD I was playing in the kitchen.

Like I said earlier in my account of this sojourn into this life as a stay-at-home-human, when you work full time and raise two kids, you have to let a few things go. This has been my year to get one or two of those things back. Watching myself juggle all the dishes and sieves and oils and vegetables of all colors and sizes felt a little like the first day I drove my car alone, or the first time I took a real exam in college, or the first time I taught an English class or ran a faculty meeting or belted out “White Rabbit” big and loud in front of a real band in a real bar. Whith is to say, I felt like a kid just pretending to be a grownup, but somehow pulling it all off.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bill and my inlaws were on hand to watch the kids and slice and dice things and cook the parts that I wasn’t so sure about (Laura was Johnny on the Spot for dish duty, Linda was totally clutch with the gravy, and Gus stepped in as the resident carver.) They all kept up a steady stream of encouragement and advice, and kept the pesky kids out of my short hair. Bill got the last minute groceries and picked up our mess of a house, then swept the terrace, set the long stone table outside with two yellow cloths, and put out the good dishes and silverware.

Yes, I said “outside.” For believe it or not, ye sad residents of New England, shivering under the chill of November’s Grey Sticks, we ate outside, in the sunny warm Provençal afternoon. Bill parked a big blue glass vase of irises at the end of the table, past which we could see the orange, green, and blue layers of the hillside, the trees, and the sky far beyond. It was a beautiful day.

And Bittman or no Bittman, it turned out that I had plenty of time and help and clear Joy of Cooking recipes all meshed together to get it all done, without ever breaking much of a sweat. And still sit outside with a few gobs of Epoisse, watching Grace and Finn place the last pieces in the jigsaw puzzle they had been doing all afternoon. And still take the time to hear Abigail outside with Grandpa on the driveway, zooming up and down the hill on her little blue-and-pink bike. I used to think that cooking was magic, or impossible, or otherwise somehow beyond me. Now I see that it is all about ingredients, and attention, and time. Since I had all three, it really wasn’t as hard as I had thought.

I cooked the goose until I was sure that it was good and done, and then loudly announced that I was giving it 15 minutes more, "just to be safe." I was weighing the value of easing Gus’s mind about potential microbes against the possibility of overcooking the meat, but I was confident that it would still be good, as I had basted and basted all afternoon, using a stainless steel baster to pour molten fat over the skin again and again.

(Sorry, squeamish vegetarians: I should have put a warning label on this post. But perhaps you should just assume that pretty much everything I will write from here on out will include foods made from at least half a dozen different sorts of animal products. As much as I have long worshipped the author Jonathan Safran Foer, even his newest book, Eating Animals, is unlikely to shake my deep, dark affection for eating things that used to be sentient….

((And speaking of JSF, the super-crushworthy young author of Everything is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I probably never told you my story about my close encounter with his genius at the French Consulate as we were preparing to come to France. During our second of three visits to the Consulate in Manhattan, we happened to line up just behind His Literary Excellency. I was nearly out of my mind, torn between my sick desire to find some brilliant and unusual way to tell him how much j'adore his writing and my other sick desire to play it cool and not bother the famous guy. The line was really, really long and boring, so I had over an hour to turn this dilemma over in my mind, and finally ended up leaving the poor guy alone.

It’s likely that I was in fact the only person in the room to recognize him. As supremely cool as he is, most authors are not exactly moviestars. But I have had awhile to work on this celebrity crush, since I saw so him frequently walking his dog in the Slope. He and his presumably lucky wife live around the corner from the school where I worked.

But now, as he was clearly moving to France just like we were, I would probably have him as a neighbor once again. He and his family would find himself, maybe even in Aups, without any English-speaking friends or neighbors, and when he saw me adorably addressing my cute children in English, he would invite me over for a pastis and let me have a first read of his next brilliant novel. Lucky girl that I was, I would become his new best friend, in France. Years later, back in Park Slope, we would continue to greet one another with bisous and “Salut,” and our dogs would romp together in the Park. Being the kind of guy who makes his own trips to the Consulate, rather than relying on his agents and handlers, he was clearly down to earth and cool, exactly the kind of guy who would be fun to hang out with in France.

In case you are wondering, I did have this weird and stalkerish fantasy totally worked through in my head during that hour long wait, although I was pretty sure that his visa would be taking him to Paris rather than to the French equivalent of Belchertown, Massachusetts.

But for reasons other than the more obvious ones, our friendship was not to be. For when he finally arrived at the counter, he had literally none of the proper papers copied or notarized. Nothing. He stood there with his passport and an application, apparently assuming that the French would be just as happy to see him as I was. As far as I can tell, the French are mostly happy about wine, olives, cheese, and the fact that they themselves are French. American wunderkinder are not on their list of things to get excited about.

He started pulling receipts and things out of his wallet, apparently believing that the necessary papers might have been stuffed in there somehow. Hadn’t the guy even looked at the visa website? Did he think this place was the damn DMV? When they refused to relent, he walked away, clearly seriously pissed off, but without ever pulling the “I’m a Fabulous Author, Give Me My Stupid Visa” card. I was very impressed with his restraint, but also reminded, yet again, that famous people can be just as spazzy and disorganized as the rest of us.

Or I should say, “as spazzy and disorganized as I would have been,” because of course I was there with Suave and Organized Bill, not with JSF, and thus suffered no similar embarrassment at the bulletproof glass counters. For Bill had been dedicating most of his spare brainpower to the Visa Problem for months before this visit.

In fact, recognizing the horrific difficulty of the Visa Problem, Bill had applied his full compliment of legal research skills to the project, rather than adopting our family’s usually laissez-faire attitude towards things involving papers and deadlines and rules. He had been documenting and gathering and translating like crazy, and probably had in his possession notarized triplicate copies of my fifth grade report card. While we didn’t get the visa that day, we did, pretty soon afterwards, with a minimum of embarrassment. The officials at the consulate even complimented him as they sent us away that day, in a sort of “We admire your skills” sort of manner.

The whole non-interaction had a dual effect: it seriously tempered one of my most enduring celebrity crushes, and also reminded me of yet another reason why Bill is so terrific.))

OK, apologies for the author-story digression from the vegetarian-apology digression. I can’t imagine that anyone else finds this celebrity story nearly as exciting as I do, and for that, my apologies. But to summarize and get back to the story: I love eating animals so much that even the ethical and literary brilliance of one of my favorite living authors can’t shake me. And then one time I saw him, when we were both standing in the same line. And now back to our irregularly-scheduled Thanksgiving food orgy.)

So, unless you are looking at our Thanksgiving dinner meal from the perspective of the goose, the story of my first major holiday meal is one of those potentially scary stories that wasn’t.

The goose itself was a total revelation. “That goose isn’t happy,” Finn remarked upon seeing it pulled from the oven, all dark and hot and bursting with little bits of bread and chestnut and pancetta. We all laughed at his unintentional joke, then Gus carved it apart into slices and drumsticks and crispy brown skin. With no disrespect to the all the turkeys I’ve loved before, I must say that Jess and Gerard's goose might have been just the tiniest bit better.

The stuffing was so delicious that we all spent the first several minutes after saying our Thankfuls merely sniffing it in amazement. The potatoes were buttery and light, all crème-fraichy goodness, and the squash was sweet and hot. I had basted the beans with the gooseneck broth and chucked in a nice hunk of butter to melt over them. The green salad started with mustard, white balsamic vinegar, honey and olive oil whisked in the bottom of a big wooden salad bowl, with beets and little pieces of white cauliflower put in it to marinate. I topped that with deeply colored lettuce, then let it sit in the fridge to wait for the end of dinner to be tossed and consumed. (As though a little vegetable on top of all that saturated fat would make it all better.)

There was a minor rebellion about the fact that there were only two drumsticks to be had (one of the three children in attendance, who will remain nameless, was really upset about this fact.) But other than that, I think we all really really loved being together out in the sunshine, eating delicious food and drinking a hearty red.

Or maybe that was just the rush of pride (and wine) to my head. For Bill’s kind and gentle and generous family praised my efforts and ate seconds and appeared to savor every single morsel. The sun moved around in the sky to shine on our table as dinner unfolded. There were lots of happy warm stories, but not a single cross word (unless you count a few sharp instructions to the kids to cease and desist their various kid shenanigans during the ramp-up to the meal, and the meal itself.)

We had the sunshine, we had good wine, we had France, and we had one another. Thankful indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I am not much of a meat eater. I am not much of a cook at all. But you make it all sound so delectable and decadent and tasty and terrific and well worth the work.

    Super duper yum, yum.