Dear daughter: Let’s talk turkey

The book I’ve read and reread this week has a seasonal title, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well.” It’s delicious.

The author, Sam Sifton, a former restaurant critic for the New York Times, promises “a better turkey than anyone has ever served in your lifetime,” a smooth, thick gravy “so rich in flavor it transforms everything it touches” and “dressing that will make your guests swoon.”

This year, I am shepherding my daughter through her first full Thanksgiving meal preparation. It will be held in her new home with its large kitchen and sparkly appliances to a crowd of family and friends that seems to be getting bigger every day. With mom on site a day ahead of time, and Sam Sifton at her side when she removes a turkey the size of a small toddler from her refrigerator Thanksgiving morning, she will be ready. There is naturally a bit of trepidation. By the way, dear daughter, the book I am bringing has been referred to as “a Thanksgiving ambulance in book form.”

Our personal holiday history is filled with majestic aromas and thankful hearts. There is no religious aspect to that day, of course, but it has its own holy, happy feel. It was Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, who originally declared a national day of collective thanks-giving. He wanted to acknowledge the country’s need, then as now, for “peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” I think Lincoln’s words will be in our before-meal prayer this year.

But before we pray and eat, we must prepare. The basics, dear daughter, involve a heavy-bottomed pan that’s bigger than the bird you cook in it. There’s a lot of peeling and chopping and cutting, so I have ordered you a chef’s knife (8 inches, wide blade) as a gift. A heavy-duty plastic cutting board the size of a newspaper is preferred, but I could not find one that big. I did get you four smaller plastic boards that have embedded reminders about doing a lot of handwashing and avoiding cross-contamination.

It is not a day to spare the salt (kosher preferably — I have some for you). Plan on using a good amount of freshly ground black pepper. You will also need 2 pounds of butter (that, however, should be unsalted) to get you through the day. Yup, 2 pounds.

The secret of ensuring the aforementioned award-winning gravy is apparently an instant flour called “Wondra.” I have not used that before, but this year we shall — and it will probably launch a tasty new family tradition. I will assuredly bring Grandma Dee’s age-old, gravy-stirring utensil and a little wine for sipping while we cook.

Homemade turkey stock is advised, and I have made that ahead of time for you. And the herbs we will need (rosemary, sage and thyme) are in colorful, small clay pots you can keep on your counter until spring. I know there are food intolerances and sensitivities in our family this year, and we will honor them with side dishes that are gluten-free and creamy vegetables made with coconut milk. There will be low-sugar sweet potato pie as one of the desserts.

Together, let’s prepare a Thanksgiving dinner we will talk about forever. Let’s make a memory.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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