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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Your Thanksgiving Table

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.


Bill said...

Well. I hope you'll take into account that I'm a beer lover before a wine lover and therefore not saying this to be contrary... but the advice for German Rieslings or gewurtztraminers with the traditional feast is sound, and wonderful, and has merit far beyond wine-writers-giving-up-but-not-watning-to-recommend-beer!

But many beer styles are wonderful as well, and many are a much better fit if you don't want sweetness in the beverage.

My personal choice? Most types of true (that is, non-Woodchuck/Woodpecker/etc.) cider, be they bone dry or somewhat fruity, still or fizzy. Heck, even unfermented sweet cider works. But a good Normandy cider -- heaven with harvest foods. And Vermont (where my family is, but where, alas, I won't be) has wonderful hard ciders, with orchards growing cider apples as well as sweet apples.

Anonymous said...

Try a chocolate stout with the cranberry sauce (that'll probably suit the turkey too ...)

As you rightly point out, this isn't food from a wine-drinking culture. What would the Pilgrims have been drinking with it? Home-brewed ale, of if they were fortunate, beer brought over from England ...

Lew Bryson said...

As I've since added in my ham postscript, I do enjoy a Riesling myself with some food. I just find it amusing how many times those three wines get recommended for foods that are largely acknowledged to not be the best partners for wine.

I like the cider idea, though. Might have to find some Etienne Dupont for next week. Or make some myself...

Lew Bryson said...


Not a huge fan of chocolate stouts, but that might just work. It is powerfully tart, though.

And you're absolutely right; the Pilgrims, at the apocryphal first thanksgiving dinner, would have been lucky to have English beer, and were probably drinking pumpkin beer, or spruce beer (they may have had the brewhouse up and running, but I don't know if they had malt with them or not. Bob Skilnik probably knows). Yeesh. We're so much better off.

Anonymous said...

Sparkling wines work well across the board on a feast like T-day, but beers such as you've listed or ciders work EXCEPTIONALLY well.

It'll be a few varieties of Farnum Hill at my house this Turkey Day, as it's been for 5-6 years now.


Lew Bryson said...

I've got a bottle of Farnum Hill Extra Dry that's got "Thanksgiving" written all over it: agreed!

Anonymous said...

Having had my palate rocked by the diversity of dry and semi ciders from the west counties of England (not to mention some Hereford Perry, lovely perfect with roast chicken on a cold night)only to return to the dismal cider scene here I must ask:
Where in heck did you purchase Farnum Hill in PA? I agree it's not the best of best cider, but it sure can be tasty and stand tall among it's Norman, English and Basque brethren. However, I've only seen it available on select drink menus in Philly, not on state shelves. Is it now available locally?
I also wanted to mention that the Foodery has a pleasant hard farmhouse cider theyve been carrying for bit called Scrumpy (an old somerset term for it) from Michigan i think, and organic. It was fairly tasty...far better than the Bulmers/Woodchuck/Magner headache swill, but not as dry as the Norman stuff or Farnum, more akin to a very young, still sweet but not cloyingly so English cider.

Lew Bryson said...

I didn't purchase the Farnum Hill in PA, sorry to get you excited. They sent me some samples last year, and I liked them, and I saved this one for an occasion. Thanks for the Foodery tip; I'll keep an eye out for that one.

Steven said...

Through that whole (outstanding) dissertation, I couldn't get the picture of Paul Giamati in Sideways out of my head -- overcoming his wine snobbery and realizing that he really wanted to drink his long-saved, precious, collector's bottle of wine (sorry I can't recall what it was, but it was white, gasp to follow) with something he really liked -- not what anyone told him he should pair it with: a big, greasy, cheeseburger from his favorite burger spot.

Point being -- find what you enjoy, feel no shame for enjoying it!

I imagine there will be a nice bottle of Chardonnay on our table, along with various beers from the pantry during the day; Dunkelweizen, Oktoberfest, Winter Skal -- hopefully some Celebration.

Anonymous said...

Pleased to see one of my long-gone favorites featured in the accompanying photo. National Premium was a great beer that I used to drive out of my way for anytime I drove through Maryland back in the 80s. Still miss the stuff!

Anonymous said...

maybe offer both and let guests choose their pref. T-day in my house is going down different this year. My in-laws are visitng from Italy. So on Thusrday that means Lasgana alla my mother in-law cosumed with a brunello (Fresco Baldi 2001). Saturday after t- giving is when we get down with a traditional t-day spread with a few Ital variations eg-pumpkin rissto that is definetly time to drink ales I willalso humbly put or a little Apfel Wein as I like it now and again.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit surprised no one has pointed out what must certainly be the ultimate turkey beer: dry, tart, traditional gueuze! I poured one at a Thanksgiving feast a few years back and had even inveterate non-beer people begging for more.

Beer, wine or cider, the key to my mind is dryness and bubbles. Brut Champagne, true lambics, Norman or Asturian cider all perform wonderfully.

Anonymous said...

So which version of Blade Runner do you watch?

Lew Bryson said...

I always watched the basic theater version, but...the kids got me the 'full spread' DVD set for my birthday earlier this year, so I've got my choice. Which one's your fave?

Steven said...

Director's Cut, no voice-over.

Lew Bryson said...

No voiceover? I haven't done that one. That's got to make a big difference.

Steven said...

It's not a pat of the DVD package you got? Surprising.

There's a big controversy over how the original voice-over was forced by the studio or not, whether Ford read it so deadpan because he really didn't want to do it -- yadda.

Good stuff in the Trivia section at IMDB.

Lew Bryson said...

It's got it, just haven't got round to watching it yet. I read all that stuff, and thought, "Eh..." But now I'm thinking, big diff. Now you got me curious.

Steven said...

I saw it at a film festival when it was first released -- totally forgot it wouldn't have the narration and didn't miss it at all.

In fact, now when I see the original cut the narration is sort of distracting.

Anonymous said...

Why stop drinking just because dessert shows up? This year I was too stuffed to have a proper dessert (pies, etc) so I took a handful of non-pareils and had them with a porter (can't remember if it was Ithaca Gorges or Sam Adams Holiday). They went together smashingly and I didn't have to stop drinking OR stop eating. That's America.

- Bill @ Beerjanglin'