Not many people know it, but the Perfect Meal was discovered in New York City in 2005.
It was a freezing night on the Upper West Side and a special occasion. I was 13, which forced me to choose the restaurant. I chose an upscale bistro in our neighborhood with a nice tile backsplash and real candle sconces. The mandate of our parents had been radiant – order what you want. I splashed with steak, medium rare, plus a Caesar salad. My sister (smarter than me) closed her menu with a bang. “I know what I want,” she said. The waiter looked at her, waiting. “I would like fries and mashed potatoes, please.” I think someone must have gasped. We were so amazed.
Well over a decade later, I am still impressed. This is a frequent topic of discussion – remember the time she ordered fries and mashed potatoes? A feeling of texture! It was so daring. It was so inspired. Some have tried, none has succeeded: there has never been a better dinner.
The combination is one that I keep coming back to as I think about what relates to an unorthodox, never-repeated (hopefully) Thanksgiving. Like many people, I am planning a reduced celebration. Instead of the usual 20, it will be just the two of us – my boyfriend and me. And it will be a little sad, of course. We will have less dishes to clean at the end of the night, but also less dishes, period. There won’t be four classes. I won’t make three kinds of pie. I won’t be stuck between people I love, a little drunk and red.
Where I once saw proximity and warmth, I now see aerosolized particles. It’s not appetizing.
I could despair. But instead, I decided to innovate. Because with this sudden break in tradition comes new opportunities. And when was the last time in this season of sameness and isolation – so lacking in joy, improvisation and decadence – that something Fresh and exciting even felt possible?
It’s 2020 and the old rules are void. We are too raw for the restrictions. We are too fragile to know what to do or how to fold our towels. The once tolerated and never loved staples are out. There are several varieties of potatoes. We eat the garnish of the pan of green beans, not green beans. We shine the ice cream from the container for dessert. And we have – repeat after me – side dishes for dinner.
Let’s be clear about this: I’m not one of those people who hates the most typical and ridiculed Thanksgiving foods – the bird itself. I actually like it. (The story goes that when my mother was pregnant with me, she had a sudden and intense craving for turkey that she tore strips of white meat from the carcass and ate them with her bare hands. It was remarkable because that – except for that mistake – she’s been a vegetarian since 1972.) But turkey requires a lot of attention. It takes time and effort and valuable real estate near the center of the plate. You have no one to show yourself to and no one else to please, so shut up the inner voice that claims it’s not Thanksgiving without it, and listen. Listen to this? It’s me who whispers “gratin”.
Freed from the main course dogma, I planned a meal consisting of all the dishes that under normal circumstances could get lost next to a bun or buried behind the dip that no one likes. This week there will be no sauces and sauces, but there will always be stuffing because I am not a monster. In no particular order I will also concoct for you: the aforementioned Hasselback potato gratin (care of J Kenji López-Alt, whose recipes I consider infallible); roasted Brussels sprouts glazed with sweet miso; a whole roasted cauliflower because we can make this meal without animal protein, but we cannot make this meal without drama; a salad whose most important ingredients are kale and pecorino cheese in almost equal parts (a bit like this one, but with more cheese); stuffing, plus chestnuts; single dead roasted carrots; and these dates, absurd for their addictive qualities, loved because their production is a three-step process. For dessert, we’ll eat zero pies. (But I could make brownies, if I’m feeling emotional.)
It sounds a little scary, flouting the conventions we know and love. But it’s also a little galvanizing, isn’t it? A piece of sacrilege. The lure of breaking the rules that doesn’t risk infecting another human with a deadly virus. It’s gonna be so much fun.
I’ve heard the counter-argument – that when so much is uncertain, the menu should stay the same as ever. But I am not convinced. And more importantly, it’s not either the Ina Garten, who in a recent interview with The New York Times said, “I hope people give themselves permission to do whatever they want this year. “
I’m going to make this gratin, giving it the highest rating right in the middle of the table. I’m going to eat it with some of the best people I’ve ever known – one with me in the room, the others with Zoom, of course. And I’ll do what I can to recreate not Thanksgiving as usual, but that legendary 2005 dinner. Because in addition to the gratin, I will also make Ina’s mashed potatoes.