Sam Sifton’s Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey Is Like Dolly Parton, All Dressed Up for the Opera

Published November 27, 2019

Photo Courtesy Sam Sifton.

Sam Sifton is the founding editor of NYT Cooking and a restaurant critic who boldly likens the “dense, fragrant craziness of figs” in Per Se’s garden salad to an opera’s aria. His palette is synesthetic, articulate, and daunting—especially for those of us who dwell firmly in the bodega’s prepared food aisle, who are perfectly happy, as Sifton puts it, “to eat from cans marked FOOD.” Despite his gift for rendering salads in kaleidoscopic, near-hallucinatory language, Sifton himself is quite a relatable figure. He may have eaten out six nights a week at establishments with unpronounceable names and a plentitude of micro-greens as a restaurant critic, but he’s no stranger to the bulletproof-windowed Chinese takeout grind either. (His order: orange beef, pork fried rice, egg roll, and a giant 40-ounce tureen of beer, please.) 

As someone who regularly reads NYT Cooking’s weekly newsletter over clammy Trader Joe’s wraps, I was slightly nervous to discuss Thanksgiving—the ultimate, and really the only true feast intrinsic to American culture—with a person who once described the veal loin at Del Posto as “wildly flavorful—a bass line for baby beef, an alimentary subwoofer.” I asked Sifton—emperor of the entree, gastronomy guru—to impart some Thanksgiving wisdom to the over-caffeinated urbanites with empty refrigerators among us. The result was the dose of Thanksgiving tough love we all need. Behold, Sam Sifton’s take on the symphonic textures, flavors, and perspectives that best serve us this holiday.

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VEITCH: What are some of the most important flavor contrasts in a full Thanksgiving menu?

SIFTON: If you think about what Americans really like to eat, it’s things that are sweet, salty, spicy, and crisp. Those four qualities mark the American menu more than any others. What’s often missing from the Thanksgiving table is the crisp. That’s why we put a premium on beautifully browned turkey skin, why some people like to roast their Brussels sprouts. We have sweet in the form of the cranberry sauce, and often in the sweet potato or butternut squash. Maybe a maple glaze. The salty comes from the gravy, incredible against that sweetness. As for spicy, we’re not there yet as a nation, but if you’re lucky enough to fall in with a person who cooks with a lot of spices, that’s frickin’ awesome. Texturally, it’s a holiday where we see much more pillowy food than we do ordinarily. Like, after 300 days of Cup Noodle, you’re not expecting that airy plop of mashed potatoes on a plate.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want”

VEITCH: What is missing from the conventional Thanksgiving offering?

SIFTON: Well, what is the conventional Thanksgiving offering, right? It’s what we see in that Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want,” in a sense. That’s the myth that we’re all coming up against, but I’ve never been to a Thanksgiving that looks like that. I’m the dictionary definition of “white guy,” so I should adhere to that Rockwell standard, but no American family does. I think that illustrates how rich the holiday is—the people we fall in with, friends or lovers or acquaintances, through whatever chain of events, bring all this new food to our Thanksgiving tables that speaks to that original myth in some interesting way.

VEITCH: What are your Thanksgiving cardinal sins?

SIFTON: One of them is that there has absolutely got to be a turkey. No salmon or whatever.

VEITCH: People are afraid of turkey.

SIFTON: Yeah, they shouldn’t be, though. What’s there to be afraid of? It’s a chicken the size of a toddler, and you put it in the oven, you cook it until it gets to the temperature it’s supposed to be.

VEITCH: That’s exactly what terrifies people! It looks like it could eat you and it takes forever.

SIFTON: Yeah, but what else are you going to do? You’re watching football. Just cook it.

VEITCH: There’s the Thanksgiving tough love I think some of us need.

SIFTON: Yeah, I guess it is Thanksgiving tough love. People profess to be terrified, and really what they are is lazy. Like, bro, you want scary? Deep fry it.

VEITCH: Are there other cardinal sins at Thanksgiving time?

SIFTON: Some of these things are controversial, but in my belief there really shouldn’t be any appetizers. If I cook all day, I don’t need you hoovering up a pound of nuts before we sit down at the dinner table and saying you don’t want any turkey. I also don’t see a place for salad on the menu, but I’m not going to fight you about it.

VEITCH: Is Thanksgiving susceptible to trends?

SIFTON: It is susceptible to trends because the media industrial complex, of which I am a part, needs to publish something catchy every year. So, all of a sudden you’re steam-roasting the turkey, or you’re abandoning it entirely and cooking a prime rib.

VEITCH: You’re a meat purist. Are the vegans coming for you?

SIFTON: Oh, the vegans are definitely coming for me. But there are more vegan dishes on my table than there were. Like, look. Kids go to college; they come back vegan. You gotta feed ‘em. We’ve got some delicious vegan options on NYT Cooking now.

VEITCH: I saw your new recipe for Mushroom Wellington on the site as a vegetarian alternative to turkey. In the introduction, you described the dish as “beautiful and fancy, Idris Elba in black tie.”

SIFTON: [Laughs]

VEITCH: I picture Idris Elba in black tie often.

SIFTON: So do I.

VEITCH: If a Mushroom Wellington is Idris Elba, who best embodies the perfectly dressed and roasted turkey?

SIFTON: Wow. You’re putting me on the spot. If a Mushroom Wellington is Idris Elba in black tie, who is this perfect American turkey? Jeepers.

VEITCH: All done up and ready to go.

SIFTON: Yeah, all wrapped up like Dolly Parton, ready for the opera.

VEITCH: That’s got to be it. Robust.

SIFTON: [Laughs] It’s Dolly Parton, yeah. Robust, exactly.

VEITCH: What music should people be listening to while they spend all day in the kitchen?

SIFTON: That’s a great question, and one that’s debated annually in my house. There are a lot of Christmas music enthusiasts in my home.

VEITCH: No.

SIFTON: Yes.

SIFTON: There’s a big debate about when that season begins. One of the kids believes that it should begin on Thanksgiving Day. And that kid is wrong.

VEITCH: Keep an eye on that kid.

SIFTON: I’ve thought in the past, like, maybe we should be playing Americana, or folk, or Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” because that’s what the hippies played while they raised us. But I don’t know man, I’ve been listening to a lot of West African rock and roll lately. That seems like a pretty good soundtrack for an American Thanksgiving.

VEITCH: I couldn’t agree more. I’m looking for a way to get my dad away from SZA this year.

SIFTON: Oh, my God. Okay, boomer. No more SZA.