It was a bachelor Thanksgiving for me as I had to work again this year. I would like to be able to say I’ve gotten used to working on Thanksgiving, but I can’t. Even though I love my job (bitch though I may, I truly do), people in my business generally have to work when others play. Thanksgiving is still my favorite Holiday though, and I always miss being at home for it. I also selfishly hate traveling on Thanksgiving; not just because of the time and hassle involved in holiday travel, but because I just don’t trust anyone to make as good a meal as we do every year. Those who have joined us in the past (and all those who may in the future) all agree that we make a pretty strong bird.
So, my girls took advantage of the fact that I am working this year and hit the road to see my wife’s family in L.A. My wife will be assisting her mom and sisters with the dinner, rather than carrying the ball alone as she has in previous years when I didn’t get home until 6:00pm or so. I usually rush home just in time to carve the bird and whatever small roast we have coming out of the oven, and of course, to make the Gravy. She always does an excellent job with the Mise en Place, and indeed her cooking skills are one of the Big 5 reasons I married her. In years past I have come home to hear her tales of flaming turkeys on the grill (slightly blackened, but perfectly cooked), dropped birds (the “three second rule” was clearly in effect) and flaming, dropped birds (correctly employing the Stop, Drop, And Roll technique). But dinner was always 90% done and 100% perfect by the time I got home.
People think Thanksgiving Dinner is all about the turkey. Is it moist? Is it dry? Is it done? Will we die of Salmonella poisoning if we stuff it too soon? I respectfully disagree: Thanksgiving is all about the Gravy.
Even though I have a strong culinary background from working for many years with some very talented and famous Chefs, I think my deep respect for Gravy (notice the capital “G”) has its roots in my youth, with my Uncle Mike. Uncle Mike was known to us as “Big Mike” when I was a kid, so as not to confuse him with my brother Mike. We never called anyone “Aunt” or “Uncle Anyone” in my family, even though we had an endless supply of them on my Mom’s side. It was always a first-name basis, and calling any grown-up by their first name was kind of cool to an eleven year-old.
Big Mike was in charge of two things every Thanksgiving: Gravy and doing the dishes. The bird would come out of the oven and he would be there, ready with his flour and whisk, admonishing my mom and my aunt’s technique preparing the honored liquid. “Get away from that pan, you females. We don’t want pudding, and we don’t want soup; we want Gravy!” Ah! So making the Gravy can be as manly an art as carving the bird or the roast! And his Gravy was always spot-on.
Working in kitchens that practiced classic French cooking techniques right out of Escoffier and The Larouse Gastronomique, I went for years without seeing Gravy anywhere but on the Thanksgiving Table. Indeed, one very French Chef I worked for fired a server on the spot for asking for “some more Gravy” for one of his guests. “Eet ees not gravy, IT EES SAUCE!!!” So, the roux-based goodness of Gravy turned into an almost secret American thumbing-of-the-nose at Paul Bocuse and Jean Troigros; an honored, guilty-pleasure tradition for a fledgling Chef di Partie like myself.
My favorite diatribe about gravy comes from Richard Gehman in his book, The Haphazard Gourmet, where he says “the only person who makes better gravy than I do on my on-days is me on my off-days…how is it possible for the hand of mortal man to make anything so godlike? I am the gravy champion of the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and-I think- Africa. As soon as we get to the moon, I will be Moon Gravy Champion, too. Cookbooks will leave their gravy sections blank simply because their writers will know how useless it would be to attempt to describe any gravy but mine. Gravy, in fact, in the future will not be referred to as gravy at all, but simply Gehman.” But, as good as Mr. Gehman’s concoction may be, it could never be so dramatic a preparation as my “Exploding Gravy” was last year.
Every year we brine our bird and cook it on The Big Green Egg, so it yields no pan drippings (they’d be too salty anyway). So we will cook a small pork or veal roast to add variety to the table, but also for the all important “Browned Bits” and the fat for the roux. My Gravy is based on turkey stock, which I make from the neck and wing bones; and a brunoise of giblet confit, slow cooked in the melted fat from the bird’s neck and thighs. But the pan drippings from the roast are crucial.
Last year when I arrived home after working all day, the pork loin roast was sitting at rest on top of the stove waiting for me to work my magic. All the metal roasting pans were busy with roasted root vegetables, roasted potatoes, etc, so the pork roast was in a Pyrex lasagna pan. Okay, not my first choice, but serviceable.
I set about the one task left for me, still wearing my slacks, dress shirt and tie. Mr. “Fifteen Years in Professional Kitchens” here, puts the glass pan over direct heat, scraping, whisking, and deglazing, until this particular piece of cookware, having been heated and cooled a thousand times over the years, finally gives out and explodes with a sickening “POW!!” into a thousand pieces, none bigger than a dime. The pan literally disappeared before my eyes, suspending the almost-finished Gravy in mid-air for a brief second, before splattering it evenly across the stovetop, the front of the oven, and a good-sized section of the kitchen floor. Oops.
We all stood there in stunned silence for a moment until I sounded the alarm claxons for “9-1-1 Food Repair,” and we set about wiping, and mopping and cleaning. I quickly put together a second, fairly tasty batch (I always keep some ingredients in reserve) in a more suitable vessel. The drama and trauma in the creation of the first batch somehow carried over to the new, and made it seem all that much better. The Stuff of Legends, and Big Mike would’ve been proud.