I could get all wrought up about this...but I'm just gonna sigh. Craig LaBan, who seemed to be on "our side" with beer more lately (witness this brilliant little bit on rye beer from Oct. 31), has a piece in today's Inky about wine for Thanksgiving. And --
Well, wait. Some background. There are a few things I need to tell you about my experience with wine, meals, and wine people. Thanksgiving is a wine disaster almost as big as Thai food, ham*, and chili. You will never get a straight, consistent answer from wine people on what to drink with these foods. Why? Well, with Thanksgiving you've got a variety of traditional foods on the table, usually simple, and generally not sourced from wine-country cuisine.
At my house, it's turkey -- quickly overwhelmed by wine -- mashed potatoes, broccoli, mashed rutabagas (the big yellow turnips coated in wax), sweet potatoes (I skip those, sorry), filling/stuffing/dressing/ramming (whatever you call it), succotash -- can anyone give me a wine that goes with lima beans? -- and my Aunt Carol's favorite, scalloped oysters (this recipe is close, but use Ritz crackers instead of Saltines; we used to use Falcon crackers, but they went away...). Rutabagas and wine? We cook our succotash in thinned milk, and there's milk in the oysters, which is a bit yucky with wine.
So we drink beer, and it works well. Roasted fowl? No problem, we've got caramel touches in the leftover Oktoberfest beers or something like Brooklyn Local One or Rare Vos. Scalloped oysters? Cut against the richness and emphasize the brine of the oyster liquor with a dry stout (which ain't bad with the turkey, either). Succotash, rutabagas, spuds? Pilsner or pale ale. And the sweet potatoes work well with a bit of bourbon; I got no problem with that. Dessert? Don't get me started. The only thing that's a bit tough is my Aunt Alice's zingily tart homemade cranberry sauce, and you know? You don't have to drink with everything.
But wine people can't do that, and, well, I guess I understand. I'd rather drink my favored beer. It's just that they can't make wine work, and the gyrations they go through, every year, are kind of amusing, almost like the vegetarians trying to get around the turkey (some are more graceful about it than others).
I've seen wine people fall back on three approaches to this holiday. There's the Shotgun Solution, which is to throw a variety of wines at the table, while bitching about the boring menu that your mother insists on providing for your annoying, unsophisticated relatives. (Charming. When did Thanksgiving become the official opportunity for writers with dysfunctional families to make the rest of us feel uncomfortable about enjoying ourselves?)
The second approach, which grows directly, forcefully, out of the Shotgun Solution, is the Drastic Course Correction, in which you completely surrender and throw the entire traditional menu overboard -- screw your family -- and serve something else, anything else, so long as it goes with wine. So there.
The third approach, the Wine Above All Cipher, suggests you try "Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Beaujolais!" It has been my experience that when winefolk suggest these wines -- with Thanksgiving, with barbecue, with Thai food, with Tex-Mex -- what they mean is "Wine doesn't go well with this food, beer would be better." They just can't bring themselves to say it.
And Craig Laban can't, either, though he is more honest than most: "Thanksgiving, the most food-centric holiday of the year, is a wine lover's lament." And then he goes to work. "To begin with, there's the guest list: my relatives." He loves them, he says, and I don't doubt it, but like some of my relatives, they're not as into it as he is, and will drink the box wine with nary a care.
Then he admits that the real problem is the menu. "Thanksgiving is a beast of a feast when it comes to pairing wines...No single wine can handle all these flavors with equal aplomb -- which is liberating in a way. Because there's almost no wrong answer." At which point he hauls out the shotgun and blows eight suggested wines onto the table, keeping them under $18 a bottle...mostly. Keep in mind that a bottle is about four holiday pours, and compare that to the $9 six-packs of craft beer you'll find in most bottleshops, or even the $30 case of 24 bottles. Ouch, in times of reduced budgets (which was the subject of the lead story in today's Food section), wine don't come off so good.
He does stick largely to the traditional menu -- points for that -- but sure enough, there's riesling and beaujolais in there. That shouldn't come as any surprise, because there is no mention anywhere, not in the body, not in a sidebar, nowhere...of beer.
Which is too bad. Beer's come a long way in mainstream press, but when it comes down to the nubbin, to the big food-drink stories of the year, beer's still swept aside, ignored, not taken seriously. Do I really care? Yeah, some, though I realize that what probably happened was that LaBan was asked to write a wine piece for Thanksgiving, and did just that. But I'll have a glass or two of beer at my family Thanksgiving dinner, and we'll talk, and eat, and enjoy ourselves. I'm sure LaBan will too. And his family, whatever they're drinking.
Tip of the hat to Jay Brooks for finding that fine illustration!
*On the ham thing...we do a caroling party at our house most years, and I insist on serving a big roast ham. Beer's great with it, of course, but I'd like to have some kind of wine to go with it for the wine drinkers, so I asked wine people. Suggestions ranged from "Er...ham's tough to pair" to (inevitably) "Try a Beaujolais or a Riesling!" (To be fair, I do like a cold bottle of Riesling with a really hot pork and hominy chili I make...but beer's good, too.) The first year, I tried the Beaujolais and it was a disaster: clashed with the salt and the roasted crackly surface of the ham. However, I did get one suggestion that has worked out well...for me, at least: Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs, a rather tasty sparkling wine made with pinot noir grapes, that goes quite nicely with the ham. The only problem is that no one but me ever wants to drink it; damned sunny-day wine folk. Still, lemons, lemonade...after everyone leaves, and the family goes to bed, I make myself a big ham sandwich, grab what's left of the blanc de noirs, and watch Blade Runner. It's become a weird Christmas tradition for me, and I've invited Thomas to join me this year. For the ham and the replicants, of course.