Musings on Thanksgiving

by Bernard Brandt

Well, here I am of a Thanksgiving weekend, ensconced once again in my little hermit’s duplex in Pedro town, slowly drinking a breakfast Cafe Napoleon, courtesy of the corner mini-mart that has provided the filtered water and the two little bottles of E & J brandy.  The rest of the ingredients are at hand at my little domicile. My efforts at following the St. Philips’ Fast (starting Nov. 15th) have been shot straight to Hell by the previous week’s festivities, so I think that I shall just wait until the Feast of St. Andrew (starting November 30th), which is also my church’s patronal feast day, to get down to the nitty-gritty of the Nativity Fast. So it goes.

Still and all, it was an altogether wonderful time, this past week or so. Allow me to share with my three or four readers all of the details.

I suppose that it began on St. Philip’s day, November 15th, when I bought the goose. One of the nice things about living in Pedro (pronounced ‘pee-drow’ by locals) is that what with the community of Mexicans and Italians and Croats and middle-easterners, there is a healthy food culture here, and no-nonsense local stores that actually sell food that you can cook, instead of prepackaged yuppie chow, as at Traitor Joe’s or Whole Paycheck’s, or most supermarkets, for that matter.

One such store is Slavko’s, run by a local Yugoslav family here (don’t call them that to their faces, though, unless, like my friend Larry, you actually want a continuing argument. Folks here still tend to be a bit touchy about Tito and the Bad Old Days). But Slavko’s is one of the few places where you can actually get freshly cooked Colonel Sanders’ chicken in the old style, with the pressurized deep-fat fryers that the Colonel invented. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but most of the Colonel Chicken franchises these days have central processing units which mostly cook the chicken, which is then reheated at the local fast food places.

But in addition to excellent old fashioned fried chicken, Slavko’s also sells whole duck at $3.99 a pound, and whole goose at $5.99 a pound. I tried pricing things at Whole Paycheck (the less said about prices there, the better) and online, and my local store was the best value that I could find anywhere. I’ve already written about my encounters with duck cassoulet elsewhere, so let me tell you about my learning experience with the goose.

In point of fact, though, the whole deal was quite benign, and I would gladly do the whole thing again. In fact, I’m thinking of doing the whole thing again for Christmas day at Chez Brandt, the old ancestral manse. But that is another story.

No, what happened was that I walked the seven or so blocks from my house to Slavko’s, placed the order a week before, and on November 15th, I walked back, picked up the (11.5 pound) goose in a large plastic bag, and walked back home, but not before I shook the hand of the proprietor for his kindness in providing food of such great value.

As the bird was frozen, I put it in my freezer, and contemplated what manner of mischief I was to inflict on it. As that eminent philosopher, the Wicked Witch of the West, has said: “These things must be done delicately.”

Initially, what I had decided is that the bird would be ‘roasted’ in an oven, but not before it had been brined. I spoke with my nephew John, and he suggested a 3% of the total volume brine each of salt and brown sugar, with perhaps some olive oil, acid (like lemon or apple cider vinegar or wine), spices and aromatics, for 36 to 48 hours.

This seemed good to me, and so on Saturday morning (11/11), I took the bird out of the freezer, and put it in one of the vegetable crispers, with the idea of beginning the brine on that Monday morning.

But I was dis-satisfied with all of the roasting recipes I saw. Larousse Gastronomique, both old and new versions, were of little help to me. The best recipe I found for roast goose was one suggested by Gordon Ramsey, but, because I had lost most of my respect for him after watching Hell’s Kitchen, I decided to nix that one, too.

Finally, in desperation, I decided to try St. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’m glad that I did.  Because on page 285 of Volume I of the Sacred Scriptures, I found a recipe for Oie braisée aux Marrons, or braised goose with chestnut and sausage dressing. A fair copy of that recipe can be found here.

And so, on that Monday, after a brief consultation with my nephew John, we decided to skip the brine, and proceed directly to the braise. But the recipe required two pounds of chestnuts, and I didn’t want to take out a loan to buy them at Whole Paycheck (and, in point of fact, whole chestnuts aren’t even available there). Fortunately, another excellent local store, Top Valu, was selling whole chestnuts at $1.99 a pound. I also bought two pounds of great Colombian green coffee for $9.99 at the nearby A-1 Market, where I also saw that they were selling chestnuts at thrice the price of Top Valu. So I praised the coffee, and kept silent about the chestnuts.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, after a late start, I managed to get over to my mother’s house by 1 p.m., to serve as kitchen bitch, prep monkey, bottle washer, and slave third class to my brother Bill, who was hosting Thanksgiving dinner again this year. By the time I had arrived, though, Bill had done much of the prep work and cooking for the dinner, including the creamed onions and other garnishes. So I contented myself with cleaning up the house, and repeated cleanings of the kitchen and garbage bins, as well as clearing the back yard of dog exhaust from my nephew John’s cute little Shiba Inu, Legion. And yes, my nephew named his dog after the demoniac mentioned in Mark 5:9. That’s kinda how my family rolls.

Sometime after 4 p.m., John showed up after work, and Bill, John, and I set up Bill’s rotisserie and cold smoking unit. The former item was an open box of 6″ x 3′ x 6′ feet of steel plate that Bill, master mechanic that he is, had designed, cut, and welded, together with the frame that supported the electric rotisserie. The latter was a stainless steel trash can with lid that he vented on the bottom, arranged with a hook on the inside of the lid, and connected from his state-of-the-art Traeger to the trash-can vent with about twelve feet of HVAC venting. I have remarked elsewhere that I am afflicted with a genius level IQ. But, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, genius is as genius does. I don’t at all mind saying that my brother Bill is the real brains of the family. Alton Brown has nothing on my brother.

I’m afraid that I had to leave at 5:30 p.m. or so to get to church, and so I missed out on helping to peel the ten or so pounds of Granny Smith and Braeburn apples that Bill used for his ‘little’ apple pie which he baked that evening. But he was kind enough to give me small slices of the blueberry, cherry, and pumpkin pies that he had already baked. Bill, although (like most of my family) he is somewhere on the ‘spectrum’, and is pretty much illiterate, is also a true genius at cooking and baking. Without benefit of reading recipes, he independently came up with a perfect pâte brisée crust. His pies were magnificent.

But instead I walked that evening to the nearby Green Line, got off at the LAX/Aviation terminal, waited a few minutes for the Beach Cities 109 line, and then walked a block from there to my little church at the end of the world. There, I met my choir director and friend Gabriel, found out that we would be the only ones singing for our liturgy of Thanksgiving that evening, and we soon cobbled together an affair where we sang melody/ison, or melody/alto, or tenor/melody for the forty or so pieces that compose a Divine Liturgy. No one of the ten or so people there threw rotten tomatoes or bad eggs at us afterwards, so I suppose that it was a success. And, as I always say, any liturgy you can walk away from is a good one. But I got to sing thanksgiving to God for His many blessings to my family and my country, which I suppose is the whole ‘reason for the season’.

Afterwards, Gabriel gave me a ride from church to chez Brandt, six or so miles away, so I didn’t have to use the minimal transit available at that hour. On the way, he gave me any number of pieces of good advice as to cooking one’s goose, particularly, to expect to have to pull a lot of rendered fat from the bird while it cooked.

When I got home, I admired the humongous apple pie that Bill had baked, talked with him and John for some time, and then went to bed, but not before I watched them connect the HVAC venting to the Traeger and Bill’s makeshift cold smoker, and put the huge brined turkey into the cold smoker.

In the early morning, the sky was blue and beautiful, and the grass of the back yard was bedecked with the dew of that morning. But, alas, the excrement had quite literally hit the HVAC unit. More to the point, though, sometime during the night, the Traeger had stopped its job of smoking, and the bird was innocent of the smoke ring which would indicate that the smoke would provide any protection against ambient bacteria.

In short, the bird that both Bill and John had worked so hard to prepare was ruined. Because of the risk of bacterial contamination, it could not be safely served to anyone. After a brief consultation, they decided to trash it.

For most people in my experience, that would have ruined Thanksgiving for them. Not so for either John or Bill, however. After a minute of thought, Bill went to the local market, which happened to be open, and got a turkey on sale within a few minutes. I started the almond wood fire which would be used to provide the coals for the rotisserie. John started tossing around ideas for the rub on the turkey, and by the time that Bill had gotten back with the bird, he had compounded a damp rub of salt and spices that he mixed with apple cider vinegar to make a slurry or paste, which he then applied to the skin of the bird. Within an hour, we had the bird on the rotisserie, to cook low and slow.

We three then proceeded to finish the prep work and the cooking for the evening meal. Periodically, Bill would call for the kitchen to be cleaned. I did so. More of the family and some friends came in over the course of the afternoon, and they each contributed to the cooking of the feast.

For my part, I peeled the chestnuts, made the dressing, stuffed the bird with it, and ten minutes later, the bird was in the pan, and the pan was on the outside grill on high heat, to brown the skin of the goose. Forty minutes later, the skin was browned, and the pan was briefly removed to drain the bird of about a quart of rendered goose fat. Then the braising liquid was poured in (1/2 cup of brandy and 2 1/2 cups of water to replace the white wine, as we wanted something that my mother could eat, and most white wines have added sulfates she can not tolerate), and the goose went in to simmer at 325 degrees for two and a half hours.

The goose was cooked about a half hour before dinner, so I helped out with getting everything to table, as did everyone else. The feast was wonderful, and just about everything turned out well

Now, the reason I’m mentioning all this is not to virtue signal (well, maybe just a little…) but to say to folks that all you need to do to have a great Thanksgiving is to give thanks, and to have something worth being thankful for. Maybe even helping out, so as to spare those who are working hard at it to help them to keep things, like maybe a family, together.

I suppose it’s worth a thought.