At a potluck extravaganza, seven top Boston chefs take liberties with the tradition.
It began, like many good ideas, around a restaurant table. Seven of Boston's finest chefs were sharing an end-of-summer meal in a Chinese restaurant. "Thanksgiving," said one, more or less out of the blue, "why don't we do it together this year?"
"Terrific," said another. "No parents leaning on you, no crazy in-laws. It's a great idea."
"At my house," said Lydia Shire, who owns a perfect over-the-river-and-through-the-woods farmhouse from the early 1800s in the town of Weston, Massachusetts.
"Fine," said Todd English, "I'll do the lobster."
Lobster? For Thanksgiving?
"In my family," said the invincible English, "we always have lobster at Thanksgiving."
And thus a menu was born.
Actually, it wasn't such an outlandish menu. Todd got his lobster, which he serves in its shell with a warm, creamy nutmeg vinaigrette and a chestnut puree, insisting throughout that the Pilgrims ate lobster because they didn't have anything else. But there was also a traditional turkey--"liberally injected with a seasoned Muscat butter and stuffed with anadama bread and Mission figs and wrapped in the traditional fig leaves," said a disingenuous Lydia, whose creation it was. And there was a haunch of venison that Jasper White rubbed with juniper berries, fresh thyme, garlic and peppercorns ("a traditional French treatment," he said), then basted with marinade while it crisped and browned on a spit over the fire. And there was a six-pound boneless cod with a traditional spinach-and-bacon stuffing that Jody Adams roasted at home and brought to the feast. "We always have fish," she explained, "at least as a first course."
"We always have" may be the motto of Thanksgiving right across America, but what some people always have almost always strikes others as downright weird. (The first time I heard of sweet potatoes with marshmallows I couldn't believe grown-ups actually ate the stuff.) And when the participants are seven nationally known chefs, you can expect that even the most familiar parts of the meal will take on exotic flavors and textures. And that's great news for passionate home cooks like me facing one more predictable Thanksgiving menu.
Take, for instance, Chris Schlesinger's raw oysters, which he patiently extracts, one by one, and passes for sustenance to his pals as they hover around Lydia's bright red Chambers cookstove. What could be more traditional than oysters? But the sweetly piquant mango sauce that Chris dollops on each one lends a whole new dimension to the briny freshness of the bivalves. Or take Susan Regis's walnuts, coated in sugar syrup, then deep-fried, a technique she uncovered on her last trip to China. Or take Gordon Hamersley's pumpkin soup, golden and seasonal but made radically different by the addition of pears and curry and the lentil-flour crisps he serves with it.
Best of all, when you've got seven chefs dabbling with convention, there's no place for the familiar whine: "I don't like thaaaat. Do I have to eat it?" With so many choices, there's bound to be something the most finicky child will enjoy.
Of course, these are very special children. There are 10 of them, and they are quite clearly used to tasting everything, even the smoked-eel-on-gingerbread canapés Susan has concocted. "Not bad," says red-haired Sophie Hamersley, age seven, after a critical pause; clearly a person who's used to voicing forthright opinions--and being respected for them.
That this kind of cooperative, collaborative Thanksgiving feast should take place in Boston is no wonder. The city has a reputation for a collegial, almost familial atmosphere that's the envy of chefs and restaurateurs elsewhere.
You can even trace lines of descent, from Jasper (now at Legal Sea Foods) to Lydia (Biba, Pignoli) to Gordon (Hamersley's Bistro) to Jody (Rialto), for instance. The path goes like this: Lydia and Susan Regis (also Biba) worked under Jasper at Seasons Restaurant. After he left to open Jasper's, Gordon joined Lydia and Susan at Seasons. When Gordon started his bistro, he hired Jody, who later went to Michela's after Todd English (Olives, Figs) struck out on his own. If this seems complicated, just think of it as a chain of chefs reaching a generous hand out to others.
As in an old-fashioned country town, not only do Boston chefs know one another and one another's kitchens, they're also mutually supportive. If Chris Schlesinger runs out of sugar at East Coast Grill & Raw Bar, he borrows a cup from Susan Regis at Biba--I'm speaking metaphorically, but Boston is a metaphorical sort of town. There's a sense of community here, a generosity of spirit, that's remarkable in the sometimes cutthroat, back-stabbing, food-fighting restaurant world.
I feel that camaraderie at this particular feast. No one is in charge; no one's giving orders though it all takes place amid the inspired eccentricity of Lydia's kitchen. Everything's a bit chaotic, as it should be at Thanksgiving. Everyone is in motion, up and down, setting the table, bringing out platters, dashing back to the stove to reduce the sauce for the venison or to add butter to the mash of potatoes and Macomber turnips. The kids are part of it all, running bases and retrieving balls in a pickup softball game between the lobster and the soup.
I can't help thinking that this festive meal is about Thanksgiving in the best sense, about friendship and connections and spontaneous celebration of the good things, the things for which we all--chefs, spouses, children and the rest of us--ought to be, and are, truly thankful.
note: Without the combined talents and experience of these chefs, replicating this entire menu would be overwhelming. And without at least 20 people around the table, the number of dishes would be excessive even on a day dedicated to abundance. But there is a menu within this menu for everyone. --The Editors