Decked out in the dandyish style known as Harlem Proper, chef Marcus Samuelsson celebrates his favorite holiday (and his fantastic new cookbook) with spiced turkey and chocolate-peanut pie.
I’ve loved Thanksgiving ever since I moved to the US from Sweden, where I grew up. I think I get more choked up about this holiday than even the average first-generation American because I know how hard it was for me to make my way here and become a citizen. But I also understand why so many immigrants start to feel wary in early November, wondering if they’ll have any place to go for the holiday. So I’ve hosted Thanksgiving dinner for all of my friends from other countries ever since I was just starting out as a cook and lived in a tiny apartment in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, with a kitchen so small that I would stand at the stove and my butt would touch the counter behind me.
On Thanksgiving, I’m all about the sides. Mine are relatively traditional, like roasted squash with pecans and cranberries, but I think the classic turkey needs a little help. Could we have picked a more difficult animal to cook well? I season mine with a Moroccan spice blend called ras el hanout (“top of the shop” in Arabic), which can contain more than 30 ingredients, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric. I baste it with a vibrant mix of four different citrus juices. If the meat ends up a little dry, that’s what the spiced pan juices are for. And I like to place little dishes of herbs like cilantro, basil and mint around the table. People can nibble them between courses to break up the heaviness.
Recently, my wife, Maya, and I bought a beautiful old brownstone in Harlem. That’s why the dress code for our Thanksgiving is now Harlem Proper. My friend Dard Coaxum is Mr. Harlem—he’s the one who taught me about Harlem Proper. Dard is always dressed in something sharp: a scarf, a bow tie, a vest. I like jeans and T-shirts as much as the next guy, but I love that uptown, people dress up. Harlem Proper is a tradition that goes back to the days of Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. Those guys may not always have had two nickels to rub together, but they dressed, every day, in beautiful suits. The women of Harlem’s heyday—cultural icons like Fredi Washington, Billie Holiday and Zora Neale Hurston—had a similar aesthetic. Harlem Proper meant that you were ready for anything: dinner and dancing on Saturday night, but also, if the night went long enough, rolling right from the club into church on Sunday morning.
Maya and I fill our brownstone with works from New York City artists like Derrick Adams and Julie Mehretu—and me. Every Thanksgiving, someone will point to one of the paintings and ask, “Who’s the artist?” They’re always surprised when I say it’s me. I learned about painting from my dad. Whenever he was stressed about something at work, or he and my mom were having an argument, we’d go out to a little island near our summer home and he would paint. I love the social nature of the restaurant business, but I also love the loneliness of painting, the feeling of being completely on my own.
At Thanksgiving in my house, you’ll hear the Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke interspersed with Billie Holiday and the Swedish rapper and reggae artist Timbuktu. At some point in the evening, I always play Eric B. & Rakim. They remind me of visiting America for the first time when I was 16. I traveled to New York with my high school soccer team, and Eric B. & Rakim were shooting a video in Times Square. We arrived from the airport and walked right into their shoot. It blew my mind. Hearing their music always reminds me of being that kid who dreamed about coming back to America and building a life here. It’s probably not on your usual Thanksgiving playlist, but when my friends and I are dancing to “I Know You Got Soul,” I remember where I’ve been, and how far I’ve come.
Marcus Samuelsson's Harlem Thanksgiving Day Menu