Chef iconoclast Anthony Bourdain has a secret: He loves Thanksgiving—the more traditional, the better. In an exclusive preview of his new cookbook, Appetites, he shares his two-turkey trick and his three-day prep strategy for an epic and foolproof celebration.
Although I grow instinctively queasy at the notion of a cozy domestic scene, I am always supremely happy to cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner to the assembled blood relatives, co-workers, sporting enemies, friends and animals I call my family.
I begin preparing for it (making lists, ordering wine, lining up a few good turkeys) about a month in advance, generally while insects swarm around me in a country halfway around the world. When I started writing Appetites and thinking about the meals that mean the most to me, Thanksgiving came first. I love that it’s an inclusive holiday, without any overt religious overtones, and I love the taste of well-made stuffing, fragrant with sage and jacked with turkey grease.
Thanksgiving dinner evokes strong sense memories: the smell of onions and celery bubbling gently in butter and mashed-potato mountain majesties. Apart from the radically flavor-boosting addition of Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce to the gravy, Thanksgiving is not the time for innovation, experiments or anything approaching “fusion.” Give the people what they want, and make sure it’s consistent with what they remember.
Sure, turkey is rather bland—the Céline Dion of meats—but as a medium for good gravy and a foil for tasty side dishes, I love it, and I bet you do, too. My wife, a committed carnivore and adamant carb-shunner, would commandeer both drumsticks and all of the brussels sprouts with bacon if allowed. My nine-year-old daughter is wild about my cranberry relish, a straight-shooting, orange-spiked classic. Every year as I make it, she stands there right next to me, spoon in hand, angling for a sample. Why would I, in the name of ego-fueled creativity, mess with such reliable pleasures?
When talking large holiday meals, logistics—and a cool head—are of the utmost importance. I put this into practice, rather painfully, in the mid-1990s when, in something of a career slump, I agreed to make a Thanksgiving feast for a massive crowd of hard-drinking expats, out of the entirely ill-equipped kitchen of a bar on the French side of St. Martin. The power failed that morning, rendering the electric oven worthless, but I didn’t freak out or slink, defeated, to some hidden corner of the island with a gallon of rum and a shotgun (as appealing as that seemed). Instead, I talked the owner of a nearby charter company into letting me roast the turkeys in the galley kitchens of his unoccupied yachts, moving between vessels in a dinghy full of seasoned birds, making the rounds to baste, rotate and retrieve them. It was a sweaty nightmare, but, in the end, everyone ate turkey.
Most of you will never be forced to cook your Thanksgiving dinner across a series of boats bobbing in the Caribbean, but the fact remains that good planning matters, perhaps even more when you’re serving friends and family in your home, without the buffer of a front-of-house staff or an impenetrable restaurant kitchen door to hide behind if things go south. This is why I insist you make lists, shop early and, once you have all of your provisions, spread the work out over three days.
Also: Make enough room in your refrigerator and on your counters for two birds, all the trimmings and the wines. If your family is the type that expects two or three home-cooked meals every day, you might suggest they temporarily decamp to someone else’s house. Or hand them a stack of takeout menus. Or let them eat cold cereal—all the better to build up anticipation for the Big Event.
I know that for the vast majority of Americans, pies, cakes and puddings, all heaped high with whipped cream, are the essence of Thanksgiving, even more so than turkey. Me? I prefer a greedy hunk of Stilton and a bottle of excellent ruby port. But as I know I’m in the minority on this, I call upon my guests to show up with desserts, homemade or professionally baked. I suggest you do the same.
You won’t find me within five miles of the hellscape that is Black Friday, because I am reliably on the couch, in pajamas, eating slices of reheated turkey drowned in gravy with a heap of stuffing alongside, or perhaps a fat turkey sandwich dressed with cranberry relish or mayonnaise. In a cook’s life, Thanksgiving Day is for others; the next day is for you.