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Talking Turkey with Sam Sifton

The Thanksgiving guru (and former New York Times restaurant critic) on doing the holiday right

There’s more to Thanksgiving than roasting—or frying or smoking or barbecuing—a turkey. The third Thursday of November can be a minefield of cooking fiascos and family drama, but this year cooks have help. Former New York Times restaurant critic and dining editor (and current national editor) Sam Sifton compiled his Turkey Day knowhow into Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well, a charming, handy primer for making it gracefully through the holiday.

Sifton, who spent years running the Times’ Thanksgiving helpline, provides detailed instructions on everything from how to cook your bird to how to set a table and how to (nicely) kick guests out. It’s not exactly a cookbook—there’s too much of the author’s witty advice—but the tome, illustrated by Sarah C. Rutherford, provides everything from a recipe for giblet, chestnut and oyster dressing to sound advice on holiday-appropriate drinking.

DuJour caught up with Sifton to find out about his dream kitchen, his own Thanksgiving rituals and what makes him an expert on the most American of holidays. 

You write early on in the book, “Thanksgiving, after all, always brings questions, doubts and emergencies. This book… is a Thanksgiving ambulance.” What made you feel confident you were prepared to be an authority on Thanksgiving?

I am the national editor of the Times, but a year ago I was the restaurant critic and many years ago, I was the dining editor. When I was a critic, I threw myself into the self-appointed task of being the Thanksgiving helpline representative for nytimes.com. I had seen as editor the hoops journalists needed to jump through each year to present something new for Thanksgiving because you can’t always publish the same recipe for roast turkey.

It occurred to me, given the level of response we got around each Thanksgiving, that this is holiday that really freaks people out. It’s a holiday that’s difficult for some and challenging for many, and it’s often the only meal of then year people cook for a large number of guests. So I put myself out there to answer questions. 

I’ve thought about Thanksgiving a lot and written about it a lot. I knew enough about Thanksgiving to do this. I found that the process of figuring out the answers to Thanksgiving woes was both enjoyable to me and instructive to the reader, so I thought, maybe there’s a book in that. 

The book reveals that you’re staunchly against certain things on Thanksgiving Day—appetizers being one. What’s your own Thanksgiving Day eating schedule? Do you fill up in the morning to avoid becoming ravenous before dinner?

Traditionally, I start cooking quite early in the morning of Thanksgiving Day. The process of doing it involves a lot of people helping, a lot of food around and a lot of tasting. This is one of the reasons why I’m against the idea of appetizers, because in my own experience of sneaking bits of cornbread or sausage from my dressing, tasting gravies and stocks and also my desire to be really hungry by the time the meal happens in the mid-to-late afternoon, I just don’t eat that much during the day.

A whole section of the book is dedicated to kitchen equipment, and you seem open to everything from fine cookware to aluminum turkey pans. What’s your own dream cookware? 

If I had my druthers, I would have more Le Creuset stuff. I have some really nice French roasting pans for Williams-Sonoma, but I’d like new, bigger, better, stainless ones—maybe copper-cored—that would be really great. Some new racks to go along with it would be great also. Maybe a new carving knife. Oh, boy. Cooking has become the 20th-century version of the 1950s basement woodshop; where Dad used to go down to build a radio or a go-kart. Now we go into the kitchen and roast a beautiful turkey, and getting really nice equipment to do that with is pretty enjoyable.

Is eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant ever OK? 

I think in New York City, it’s quite OK. The fact of the matter is that we live in incredibly tight circumstances. There are plenty of people who come to New York because they don’t want to live where they live, so they abandon their families and leave their friends behind and they come here to make their fortune in this vast, glittery city. In order to do that, they live in a small apartment and don’t have the wherewithal in that apartment to cook Thanksgiving. These are people who store sweaters in their tiny ovens.

Your family figures heavily into the book—from your father’s Brussels sprouts to your brother’s eggnog and the apple pizzas your kids like.  Any Thanksgiving tips for families that aren’t close or prone to getting along? 

This is one of the great issues of Thanksgiving, the social dynamics. I will sound perhaps a little spiritual, but this is something I really believe to be true. If a hated family member has traveled some distance to you or you to them on this one day of the year, you have to remember two things. One, you’re not going to change anyone on Thanksgiving, and two, all you can do is give thanks for being there and be gracious on this one day.

What are any non-food Thanksgiving traditions that you have?

If we consider drinking to be non-food-related, then I think it’s fun if you’re at a Thanksgiving party where people do drink. I love opening the meal with a sparkling wine—prosecco or Champagne or something—the ritual of it is nice. Completely apart from food and drink, I think it’s really a good idea to take a walk. For years, after the meal but before our dessert, we’ve taken a long walk with most of the people who were at the table.

If you could have one of your contemporaries cook for and eat with your family a Thanksgiving dinner, who would it be and what would he make?  

I think it would probably be pretty cool if Thomas Keller, that most American of chefs, were to put together a Thanksgiving feast. It would also be cool to do some kind of rotisserie turkey at Momofuku Ssäm Bar with David Chang. It would be fun to do Thanksgiving with Anthony Bourdain. I’d cook for him, he’d just have to show up and drink heavily.