Gut Instinct: Provision Quest

This is not me. But there's something hi-larious about a hippie stuffing a turkey. Agree?

I awoke the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at dawn, girded for battle. “Baby,” I told my just-roused girlfriend, waving Gorilla coffee beneath her nose like smelling salts, “lace up some sneakers. We’re going on a provision quest.”

While the “black” Friday following Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of consumerism, with bargain-crazed shoppers stampeding for $29 TVs, the day preceding Thanksgiving is equally madcap for cooks sourcing last-minute stuffing. Let’s call it Hungry Wednesday. I’ve long avoided Turkey Day shopping by celebrating Thanksgiving in Dayton, Ohio, leaving culinary acquisitions to my parents. But last year, my clan decided to break bread in Brooklyn. At my apartment.

My girlfriend, who likes nesting as much as a robin in spring, thrilled at the prospect: “Now we can get new plates, and knives, and a dining-room table, and a couch, and a tablecloth, and…” “What about the turkey?” I asked, getting to the meat of the matter.

“I’m a vegetarian,” she said, perusing the Web for white plates.

“Then what about carrots and other vegetables?” “That,” she said, clicking on an ad for Martha Stewart–brand dishes, “is your job.”

Harnessing the anal-retentiveness that compels me to scrub our toilet with a toothbrush, I sourced all the supplies a week in advance. Then I successfully navigated the cold recesses of a turkey’s cavity—nice meeting you, neck and giblets!—and concocted potato sides that had diners beside themselves.

“It’s so nice not to cook,” my mom sighed, as blissfully as if she’d received a three-hour massage. “We should do it again next year.”

And so, 364 days later, my girlfriend and I rode a rickety 2 train to the Upper West Side. Hacking bronchitis had kept me from grocery shopping, so nearly every ingredient had to be bought on Hungry Wednesday.We began at Fairway (2127 Broadway, betw.W. 74th & W. 75th Sts., 212-595-1888) for Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and brown sugar, fighting through throngs with baguettes wielded like swords.Then we beelined up Broadway to Jewish-food emporium Zabar’s (2245 Broadway, at W. 80th St., 212-787-2000).Why visit the land of lox? Because corned beef and pastrami are integral to the Bernstein Thanksgiving.

My father was reared in The Bronx’s Riverdale; my mother in Washington Heights. They both developed affinities for corned beef, Kosher salami and peppery pastrami— foodstuffs as rare as liberals in southwestern Ohio. Ever the good son, I’d return home for Thanksgiving bearing mounds of sliced meats and salamis like baseball bats.While the turkey roasted, my parents and siblings would attack the bounty like buzzards to carrion.

“I’ll shop for cheese,” my girlfriend volunteered, wanting no part of Zabar’s deli. I understood. Here, buying brisket can be a blood sport. Fiercely territorial Jewish grandparents stake out counter space, clutching pink line tickets like toddlers to their favorite blankets. I grabbed No. 6. Since the meat men were tending to 92, I hit the bakery for onion rye. Soft and fragrant and coated with enough caramelized onions to cause terminal halitosis, the old-fashioned onion rye is a sandwich’s best friend.To give my breath the deathblow, I then grabbed several garlic-potato and onion-potato knishes fresh from the oven.

I broke off a garlicky hunk of bread-encased mashed potatoes. It was smooth, savory and as flaky as a Valley girl, a treat from a simpler time. I was wrapped in such knish bliss that I didn’t notice as the deli numbers sped from six to seven, landing at 14. “I’m six! I’m six!” I shouted. I dashed back to the counter, waving my ticket like a fly swatter.

“Six? What are you doing with six?” the deli guy asked. He shook his head, as disappointed as a dad whose son gets a D on his report card.

“The knishes…” I said, hoisting my halfconsumed carbohydrates. He was as unmoved a Buckingham Palace guard. “Sorry,” I said. “Could I please have a pound apiece of pastrami and corned beef?”

He nodded begrudgingly. Several minutes later, I held a bag of well-brined meats, as heavy as gold and nearly as costly. At $18 a pound, I thought, my parents best know I love them. After grabbing a bag of chewy Bell’s bialys and black-and-white cookies—linchpins of edible Jewish culture—I found my girlfriend, wrist-deep in cheddar and blue cheeses.

“Get everything you need?” she asked, dropping an extra-sharp cheddar block into my basket.

“Not even close,” I said, wondering what sweet words I’d utter to enlist her help in carrying the 14-pound turkey to come.

Gut Instinct: Pilgrimage and Progress

art19117nar In a feat of marvelous daring, damning narcissism and reckless idiocy, I decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen. Included would be four couples (counting my girlfriend and myself) and, to my pants-wetting terror, my family. They’d fly in from Ohio, their expectations higher than the cloud-cutting plane.

To my food-crazed clan, Hanukkah, Purim, Easter and Christmas are redheadedstepchild holidays. Culinary-centered Thanksgiving is our money shot. We whip up sweet-potato purée, garlicky mashed potatoes, mushroom-carrot stuffing, sour-cream coffee cake and both roasted cauliflower soup and turkey. Our annual menu is an edible antidepressant—eating it rights our mental ship, connecting us like Krazy Glue.And this would be our first Turkey Day away from Dayton.

“That’s great and all, but how will we seat 12 people?” my girlfriend asked, not unwisely. Like countless New York City apartments, our Brooklyn dwelling lacks amenities such as tables, chairs and, quite often, toilet paper.

“We’ll buy tables and seats,” I said. Money, you solve everything! “Plates and knives?” “Buy ’em.” “And don’t forget decorations. I want candles that look like Pilgrims.”

“Please don’t become a Thanksgiving-zilla.” “I’m not a Thanksgiving-zilla. I just like the holidays,” she said, as if it were a sexual position that could provide untold pleasure.

We outfitted our apartment with Target’s finest furnishings, spending money so wantonly you’d think Thanksgiving was a Scores stripper’s pseudonym. Following the locavore rulebook, I sourced veggies from the Prospect Park Greenmarket and ordered an 18-pound organic, free-range beast from Trenton, New Jersey’s DiPaolo Turkey Farm.

“Sure you don’t want a 22-pound turkey?” the saleslady asked. “Plenty of leftovers.”

“Does Thanksgiving really need more leftovers?” I replied. Besides, when a turkey crosses the 20-pound barrier, it verges uneasily into toddler terrain.And any creature that large deserves a name. Pass me little Billy’s crispy, crispy leg! More of Melissa’s breast meat, please! Days before Thanksgiving, I was fully ready save for my mom’s crème fraîche recipe—soured, thickened cream that gives our sweet-potato purée a rich depth. Clock ticking, I emailed her for guidance.

Hey, Mom: I’m making crème fraîche today. Do you know the proportions? Love, Josh Mom’s response came quickly and confoundingly.

Good afternoon Mr. Bernstein: My name is Steve, and I’m your mom’s human resources manager.Your mother regrets that she is unable to reply due to several meetings, and thus has instructed me to reply.You mother says that she will e-mail you specific measurements later this evening. Please note that some of what you are looking for may be found in specialty grocery stores. Per your mother’s wishes, please have it finished by tomorrow night. Thank you, and I wish your family a pleasant Thanksgiving. Had my mom been replaced by a robot? I understand that HR employees are emotionless automatons, terminating employees’ benefits without blinking a hardened eye. But this took the callous, confusing cake: Per your mother’s wishes,please have it finished by tomorrow night. I smacked DELETE and, like thousands of freshly fired New Yorkers, cursed HR. Hours later, my inbox held my mom’s rocket-science recipe: mix equal parts heavy cream and sour cream. Let sit overnight.

The night before Thanksgiving, I couldn’t sit. Or sleep. To brine my turkey (six hours in salt, brown sugar and bruised thyme and rosemary) in time for our 4 p.m. dinner, I’d have to awaken at 4 a.m. “Turn the alarm off,” my girlfriend sleepmoaned, mistaking my fleshy rump for the clock. I slumped from bed and stumbled into the cold kitchen. Sighing, I rolled up my sweatshirt sleeve and, clutching herb sprigs and carrots, rammed my hand into a turkey’s dark, dank cavity. Following the aromatic fisting, I submerged the bird in a double-ply garbage bag filled with salty brine. Filthy, salmonella-riddled work, but the saline bath worked its plumping, moistening magic.

The next morning, I slow-roasted the wellgreased bird to a burnished brown.The potatoes and stuffing turned out buttery and decadent. Friends arrived, bearing green beans, pumpkin pies and booze. And then came my parents and two siblings, taking seats at our new table, at a new tradition’s beginning.

“I love the candles!” my mom said, beaming at the melting Pilgrims. I told you so, my girlfriend’s eyes telegraphed, as everyone said their thanks and feasted until too full.