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In the introduction to his new book, Sam Sifton lays it out: "Thanksgiving is not easy." Sifton knows whereof he speaks; he's now the national editor of The New York Times, but before he took on that solemn responsibility, he was the newspaper's restaurant critic and a food columnist for its Sunday Magazine.
Sifton cites Thanksgiving stresses like drunk uncles, tense travel, itsy-bitsy ovens, family feuds and, of course, the dinner itself. But he offers to help with that last bit. He's written an entire book on Thanksgiving dinner — not a thick book, but a thorough one — intended to get you through the last crumb of pumpkin pie.
It's called Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well, and here's one of Sifton's central pieces of advice: Forget innovation. Be conservative. "There should be no swordfish at Thanksgiving," he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "There should be no beef tenderloin at Thanksgiving. Ham is an abomination at Thanksgiving. There should be a turkey. Turkey is why you are here."
Another pearl of wisdom: Gather up enough pots, even if you have to borrow some. And stock up on basics, especially butter. "Butter is an incredibly important part of Thanksgiving," Sifton says. "There's very little you can't fix with butter. I like that moment during my gambol through the supermarket in advance of Thanksgiving, when I load in the 2 pounds of butter, and think, 'Well, maybe I'll take a third pound of butter,' and put it into my shopping cart."
You never know when butter will come in handy, he adds. "You can put it into your dressing because it seems somehow wan. You should have a lot of butter."
Sifton's turkey recipes come in two forms: simple and simpler. "This is a stressful holiday, and there's no reason to make the cooking more stressful than that," he says. Most Americans, be they recent immigrants or Mayflower descendants, subconsciously compare their Thanksgiving turkeys to the giant, golden bird immortalized in Norman Rockwell's painting Freedom from Want. "And ... in this book, at any rate, I want to make the argument that achieving that bird is enough."
More confident cooks can, of course, try tougher tasks. "You can even end up frying a turkey," Sifton says — though that can be a daunting undertaking. "If you YouTube 'frying a turkey' and 'disaster,' you will find just an enormous number of terrifying and, at the same time, hilarious videos ... But if you follow my simple instructions and don't drink to excess, and wear shoes, you can end up with a really delicious bird."
And to finish the meal, Sifton has one hard and fast rule for dessert: There must be pie. "A lot of people feel, having been traditional about the turkey, that dessert is the time to go hog wild and create some kind of parfait, some chocolate extravaganza, and I'm not sure that's the right way to go," he says. Every family brings its own cultural traditions to the meal, "but having that apple pie, American as apple pie, on this most American of holidays, it's just terrific, and I declare, a must."