Is this a good place to admit that in all years I sat down at the Thanksgiving table when I didn’t eat meat, it never occurred to me that I needed an alternative meal? Because: sweet potatoes. Because: green beans. Because: stuffing and cranberries and dinner rolls and four types of pie! My plate was heavy. My face was stuffed. I mean, who’s really in it for the turkey?
Sara Jenkins is famous for making the Italian roasted pork street food known as porchetta trendy in New York. She’s also known for her way with pasta (and has a new book out with her famed food writer mom celebrating it). She’s had turns at a handful of great Italian restaurants in New York, earning them stars and accolades and has written at length for The Atlantic about Italian food. And almost all I ever want to talk about here? Her salads.
I have very strong feelings about stuffing, which, for once, I can express succinctly: GIMME. Well, that and a little bit of righteous indignation. Why do we limit our consumption of it to Thanksgiving? Why do we feign interest in all sorts of uninteresting things (dry turkey, thin gravy, occasionally awkward conversations with tipsy distant relatives) just to eat stuffing? Separated into components — croutons, broth, sautéed vegetables — we’d never reject them during all of the months that are not November, but together, for whatever reason, together in a casserole dish, it’s the fourth Thursday of the month or bust. I demand answers.
I am staunchly of the belief that if you really really crave something — I mean, if you’ve tried very hard to move on or distract that part of your brain/belly that rather rudely interrupts into your thoughts most days at 4 p.m. and screams “CHOCOLATE!” or “CAAAAAKE!” and it’s just not working — you should indulge it. I have no patience for baked doughnuts or sugar substitutes, and you can probably already guess that I cannot abide anything but cream in my hot coffee. Have a salad for lunch the day before and the day after, eat the steel-cut oats for breakfast, make hearty soups a regular part of your dinner rotation, but FTLOG, if you really want that chocolate cake, please, have that chocolate cake and then enjoy every last buttercreamed crumb of it.
Prior to last week, I only liked baked potatoes two ways and the first was so weird, I usually had the decency to keep it to myself. Many years ago, I had an internship a couple blocks from a lunch place with a baked potato sub-menu, full of odd and awesome topping combinations. My favorite involved a marinated tomato-pepper salad, avocado, cheese and — yesss — ranch dressing and it was amazing and wonderful and stop looking at me like that because I have missed and longed for it since. The second way I like baked potatoes is equally troublesome, the classic with “the works” involving heaps of cheese, butter, sour cream, bacon, chives and blood pressure medication. I no longer eat them the first way because the sandwich shop is 250 miles from here and also it has since closed; I usually resist eating them the second way because if I’m going to have all of the fat and calories of a golden, glistening and salted pile of French fries, I’d rather have them in said French fry format.
One of my probably most annoying insistences in the 15 years that I didn’t eat meat was that I suspected people didn’t really like it as much as they thought they did. Take bacon, no doubt the first thing that comes to mind when some leaf-horfing former vegetarian has the audacity to suggest that you could live without flesh. You love the way it’s smoky and salty and crispy and fatty, right? But how much of that has to do with the actual taste of pork belly, versus the way we’ve treated it to make it even more amazing? How much of Korean short ribs are about the unseemly delicious marinade, how much of Southern fried chicken is about that shattering crust, comprise mostly buttermilk, flour and grandma love? How much of barbecued ribs is about the gloriousness of the meat on the bone versus the long tenderizing, smoking and the sweet-salty-spicy stuff we mop or crust on top? [Sorry, I have to stop this paragraph right here so I can eat it.]
For reasons I cannot — for once, I mean, good riddance — articulate, I spent half the summer, the half I was gestating this tiny moppet, with a nonstop craving for broccoli cheddar soup, something I’d never actually eaten before. I think a comment got it started and even though I can no longer find it, I’ll never forgive it. Sure, I had heard of the soup, but it always seemed to be in that category of foods it was better not to investigate. I mean, just consider all of the ways our lives have been ruined by finding how ridiculous brown butter and sea salt flakes are in crispy treats, or what happens when you make saltine crack into an ice cream sandwich, or butter in tomato sauce. I didn’t want to know why a cheddar cheese soup base was an obsession of so many people.