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In this holiday edition of Tabletop Wrestling, Hanna Raskin and Dan Person debate whether Thanksgiving hosts should serve appetizers.
Hanna Raskin believes hors d'oeurves are appropriate.
As holidays go, Thanksgiving is relatively uncontroversial (Thanksgiving table conversation, of course, is sometimes decidedly less so, which is why far too many family meals end in raised voices and tears.) Liberals don't fret too much about the commercialization of Pilgrims and turkeys, and conservatives don't really care how you phrase your holiday greeting.
But New York Times national editor Sam Sifton, who previously served as the paper's chief restaurant critic, is spoiling for a holiday fight with his new cookbook, Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well. The always opinionated Sifton maintains dressing doesn't belong inside a turkey, and nothing belongs on the appetizer tray.
As Sifton recently explained to Epicurious, "The host of your Thanksgiving meal did not spend more than a day--because it takes many days to put together a proper Thanksgiving--preparing this thing so that [guests] can come in and hoover up a pound of nuts or eat half a wheel of cheese and fill themselves up so that they don't even eat the main event."
Sifton believes appetizers serve an important function in restaurants, where they plump check averages and incite hunger. But that's not a critical consideration on Thanksgiving, when the smells of turkey roasting and gravy bubbling should be sufficient incentive for non-paying guests to hoist their forks.
"So no, get the deviled eggs out of here. No salad, no little tart, no crabmeat royale. Get it out of here," Sifton insists.
Sifton's rule makes sense in a restaurant setting, where chefs' efforts to come up with a first course for a prix-fixe Thanksgiving feast often feel strained. Daniel's Broiler this year is serving salmon spread and herbed goat cheese to guests who are no doubt anxious to move on to the mashed potatoes and cranberry relish. Sifton's right: That's a waste of time and stomach space.
But a home is not a restaurant. At home, appetizers are served for reasons that Sifton can't assert away. An appetizer is an expression of hospitality: It only takes a cracker to convey the hugely important message that "You will be feted and feasted in the manner you deserve - no matter how long it takes Aunt Claudia to get here."
And depending on the size of your Thanksgiving crowd, a short appetizer service may offer the only opportunity for friends to reconnect before being seated at opposite ends of a long table. As Miss Manners wrote in response to a reader who questioned his wife's decision to strike the hors d'oeurves from an upcoming dinner party, "It is a time to introduce guests to one another, and to rethink the seating arrangements when you notice who turns out to have had bad romances with whom."
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the appetizer course allows cooks to express their unique culinary perspectives without upsetting the traditional menu. As Sifton himself freely admits, he's a Northeastern WASP who's comfortable on pleasure boats. A lineup of turkey, gravy, potatoes and pie probably isn't too far removed from his forebears' diets. But for Americans whose immigration stories lead back to someone seated at their Thanksgiving tables, it's heartening to remember the old country while embracing a menu put forth by the new. It's very much in the spirit of Thanksgiving, a holiday which celebrates our crossings, to serve chopped liver or kimchi before the standard meal.
Even Sifton obliquely acknowledges the need to personalize our Thanksgiving meals by making an appetizer exception for oysters: "That may be my Northeastern bias talking, but there's something nice about being out in a chilly November yard, shucking a few oysters, before the meal," he told Epicurious. "You'd have to eat a lot of oysters to mess up a Thanksgiving meal."
So don't go overboard on the appetizers. This is not the time to serve bacon and cream sauces. Stick to salsas or pumpkin seeds or olive tapenade. But don't force your guests to go without.
But Dan Person thinks the extra course is unnecessary.
Hunger, in the form that the Pilgrims experienced when they gave thanks in what's now Massachusetts, is all but a historic relic.
Any way you slice the turkey, that's a good thing.
But it does pose one issue: without hunger, there can be no feast. That's why we are a nation striving to "build up an appetite," which for most of human history was a given. On Thanksgiving, road races have popped up across the country as a way for people to burn enough calories to justify eating the typical Turkey Day plate -- which typically clocks in at 3,000 calories.
In milder forms, people take long walks or abstain from lunch to make room for the gorge.
Given that, it seems completely absurd to consider whether we need to whet our appetites before Thanksgiving dinner with a few tasty snacks.
This debate should rather be whether we should eat dinner the day before Thanksgiving, or at very least skip Thursday morning breakfast.
It's not even like Thanksgiving food is a fine meal that could be made better by preparing the pallet with some choice morsels. It's turkey, gravy, gravy, gravy, green beans and potatoes. Take it for what it is, and enjoy it.
One thing that is abundantly clear is that we don't need appetizers before Thanksgiving dinner; we risk losing our appetites as it is.