I definitely think Thanksgiving is better than Passover. Although the latter has the edge in terms of length, elaborateness and specificity of the ritual meal, the former pulls ahead with better food (despite lacking charoset), and none of that “thank you god for bringing us out of Egypt by your mighty hand” business.
I stopped going to synagogue in high school (other than weddings and bar/bat mizvahs—benei mitzvah for those of you who like proper Hebrew pluralizations, cause yeah, I still got it), stopped fasting for Yom Kippur in college and was never very good at a week without leavened bread, but it took me several years after that (and a little Richard Dawkins) to realize in the middle of a Passover seder that maybe I shouldn't be intoning these words about god's mighty hand that I so very much didn't believe in.
That kind of ruined Passover for me. Which is a shame, because I love a good ritual meal. The rules, the organization, the tradition. The way my mother makes literally three times more food than is needed for any large group.
Thanksgiving (and Passover) were originally my paternal grandmother's domain. Twenty or so of us piled into her Long Island studio apartment, kids at the far end, where my cousin and sister and I folded white cloth napkins onto our heads and called them Pilgrim hats.
But holidays and grandparents' homes don't last forever, because grandparents don't either. (Sorry, I couldn't think of a less morbid way to say that.) Thanksgiving at Grandma's devolved into Thanksgiving at Grandma's with catered food, then Thanksgiving with that side of the family at a restaurant, until we were dispersed among our other sides of our families, occasionally reconstituting in a cousin's apartment, two uncles instead of five, eating on the couch with our plates in our laps, watching the new twin babies in their playpen, keeping the dogs off the furniture while my dad tried to feed them scraps.
That year my stepmother made the turkey, and they brought it in the car from Long Island in a cardboard box.
My mom hosted Thanksgiving two years ago, and I, newly really into cooking, volunteered to cook. My mother's kitchen is a beautiful place to work, and the holiday, and cooking on my mother's dime, afforded opportunities unknown in my little apartment kitchen. Like two ovens, and buying a single vanilla bean for five dollars.
I cooked all of the sides and a pie (on health food store-bought pre-made crust, because it turns out that normal pre-made crusts are all made with lard, though I've since learned how to make my own pie crust, and it is easy, the two tricks being a food processor and frozen butter), but as I'm a vegetarian, and feign flesh-squeamishness even to get out of washing chickeny dishes, my mother made the turkey. She also made an outside-the-bird vegetarian stuffing for me, because that's what moms do—they take care of you, and make sure you have enough meatless food to eat. I've had to talk her out of dishes of tofu and tempeh at many a Thanksgiving, because, God, I could live on Thanksgiving sides for years unsupplemented. No tofu? More room for pie.
My mother's turkey method can be disconcerting at first. I won't even get into our modern fear, probably justified, of hot plastics leaching hormone-mimicking chemicals into our food. My mom won't microwave soup under plastic wrap, but she will roast a turkey in a giant plastic bag.
Yup. The secret to moist, easy turkey is a giant plastic bag.
It is called a roasting bag, and we will assume it's specially made to be safe for the many hours in the oven. It's at least specially made for the oven. You put in your turkey, and the other stuff you want cooked with it, put the bag in a roasting pan, and off you go. I don't eat the turkey, but I've seen how easily it falls apart when it's carved, and I can promise, that shit is moist.
Thanksgiving's back at my mom's house this year. I basically forced her to have it with an October phone call—“What's going on for Thanksgiving?” “I don't know.” “Well we are having Thanksgiving, right?”—by combination of guilt and another volunteering to take care of everything but the bird. I'm not going to think about how I'll make four sides, cranberry sauce, and, really, two pies? All in the 20 or so hours I'll have from arrival Wednesday night to dinnertime? (I'll probably have to DVR the parade and the dog show, but sacrifices must be made.) But my mom will be ready, the turkey probably stuffed and bagged and waiting in the fridge, and she'll throw that baby in the oven—the one of the two I'm not using for, eesh, four sides and two pies—and then she'll go take a nap or something while my stepfather runs the local 5-mile Turkey Trot. And you can freak out all you want about roasting a turkey in a giant plastic bag, but it is going to be—for the meat-eaters—seriously good.
Here, in my mom's words, are the directions.
I had this kind of turkey for the first time at your aunt and uncle's so I want to give credit to Harra. It was life-changing!
1. (10-15 minutes) Make your favorite stuffing and set aside for a few minutes or saute ingredients for the stuffing while you prepare the bird for stuffing.
2. (10 minutes) Spray the bag with oil and dust with flour according to the directions on the Reynolds Turkey Bags.
Place the empty bag in a roasting pan that can support a heavy bird. I purchase discardable foil pans that have supports and handles. Not reusable but it's once a year and foil is recyclable!
I always put the roasting pan on a cookie sheet just in case it springs a leak. It also helps to move the roasting pan in and out of the oven. It can get pretty heavy.
Wash and dry the turkey, removing the giblets inside the bird.
Rub the turkey with black pepper and kosher salt, inside and out.
Place the turkey in the bag.
3. (5 -10 minutes) I stuff the turkey with my stuffing.
4. (10 minutes) Sprinkle the turkey with: white wine Worcester sauce, soy sauce or tamari or teriyaki, white wine (anything that's open). Sprinkle generously so that there is liquid on the bottom of the bag.
Throw in vegetables all over the bag—on and around the turkey; your choice, but my favorite are carrots, onions, celery, turnips, parsley, scallions, dill. (Tip: don't cut up the vegetables too small. They retain flavor better if they are bigger chunks—you probably won't eat them anyway.)
5. (2 – 5 hours) Close the bag and roast at the suggested temperature and suggested time from the insert from the box of turkey bags.
Don't forget to cut open the bag about 15 minutes before the end of the roasting time to brown the turkey.
If possible, make the bird the day before and refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove as much fat as possible while everything is still cold (the fat will harden at the top of the liquid when cold).
Pull the bag out from under the turkey and discard.
Cut up the bird and place back into the liquid in the same roasting pan. If you want to freshen the liquid with more Worcester and wine, go ahead. It's your bird!
Reheat for an hour or so before eating.
The turkey will be exceptionally moist and tasty; as well, as it will be easier to remove from the pan. And it serves hotter if you don't have to carve it up in front of company.
Credit to your dad's side of the family: Arrange the white meat on one side of the platter and the dark meat (thighs, drum sticks, wings) on the other side for easier selection by company. (You ARE sharing this, right?)
Jaime Green recommends Field Grain Meat Co's non-meat products (Celebration Roast or Apple-Sage Sausage) for your vegetarian, not-gluten-intolerant, Thanksgiving meat-replacing needs, but she personally will just be going for more sides. Also her mom is awesome.