How to Cook The All-American Feast,
 Vol. 9, No. 45
November 8-14, 2001 
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Happy Thanksgiving!as told by The Dinner Designer William Taylor
To Find Your Way Home for Thanksgiving, You May Need to Start Early.
narrated by Sandra Martin

William Taylor works the perfect job. He’s The Dinner Designer. Note that’s The, not A. For in the world of work, Bill Taylor is unique. Part chef, part showman, part culinary historian, this life-long lover of dainties and delicacies eschewed established training, preferring to be himself to becoming what he calls “someone else’s idea of me.”

“I invented myself, and I’m so happy because I do what I love,” says the 67-year-old Taylor.

Which is not to say The Dinner Designer has no roots. Taylor traces his love of food to his Canadian mother, “a great cook” who delighted her Billy with doll-sized loaves of homemade breads and treats from fancy parties. Before international cooking hit the American scene, Mama Taylor “could go into a Mexican or Chinese restaurant and know how they did it.”

When Taylor was in high school, his family followed his sister to Washington, D.C., where she’d been recruited as a wartime office worker. There, he says, “Mother and I always cooked together. We were famous for our parties.”

After touring post-war Europe with the military, the young Taylor went to work in Washington’s venerable and elegant Jelleff’s, a ladies’ specialty store. “The service was extraordinary,” he reflects, and 14 years there “taught me my sense of timing and presentation.”

A third influence, Taylor’s love of reading and history, reinforced the value of tradition. Thus his “thing,” Taylor explained when Bay Weekly caught up with him in Leonardtown at The National Oyster Cook-Off, which he was judging for the 22nd year, “is bringing back classic foods the right way.”

Want to know what Caesar salad or oysters Rockefeller really taste like? Hire Bill Taylor.

As dear to Taylor’s heart as the authentic recipe is the right setting. Thus for Vera’s White Sands, where Chesapeake Country becomes Polynesian paradise, Taylor designed an Asian-themed menu, from satay to curry to homemade coconut ice cream. For Sotterley Plantation’s luncheons and grand dinners — and later for the Riverside Inn at Solomons — he designed an elegant Tidewater menu. At the Baltimore Aquarium and Smithsonian Institution, he cooked and taught Chesapeake cuisine.

The Taylor philosophy boils down to this: We take the best of the freshest, do the least to it and rush it to the table the fastest — with a feeling of bounty and style that makes people feel good.

For all of life’s occasions, William Taylor has designed a dinner. Many are served, nowadays, at his home in St. Mary’s County for a select guest list of friends. He will, however, design your dinner, and serve it where ever you like.

But he won’t design your Thanksgiving dinner. That was done for you by your parents and grandparents. Taylor’s advice is that for Thanksgiving — especially in this year of patriotic revival — there’s no place like home. Here are his tips on finding your way back:

Dinner Designer, William TaylorThe All-American Feast
Thanksgiving is the only all-American holiday. It differs from Christmas in that there are no presents to wrap, cards to send or tree to decorate. You just do this marvelous, endless feast that unfolds like a three-act play. The first act is the gathering. The second is turkey and all the trimmings. The third is an equally great dessert buffet.

I’m a very innovative chef, but I won’t put my stamp on your Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is no day for culinary innovation. What you serve for this most traditional of American feasts is what your family served. Today you want the cohesion of dishes that taste like they are supposed to taste.

Most of us — whether consciously or not — learned from our mother and grandmother how to do it. What to serve. How to get it all out to the table hot at one time. Whether your family recipes are written down or in your head, this is the year get them out.

Prologue: A Word of Caution
Hors d’oeuvres are not for Thanksgiving. When appetizers are served, Americans have a tendency to eat too many. As a chef, I have a great objection to guests who say, ‘I shouldn’t have eaten so many hors d’oeuvres.’
Of course they shouldn’t have.

That’s why your mother served only those little relish dishes of celery and olives.

Neither should you serve soup or salad. They just fill you up. This is Thanksgiving. You don’t need balance on Thanksgiving. You need tradition.

But I will make one exception. If someone’s coming who will open oysters, set him shucking outside at a picnic table on the deck or patio. If the weather’s fine, people can wander outside to eat them. Otherwise, set four or six oysters on the half shell on small plates with little ramekins of cocktail sauce and — this is Southern Maryland — apple cider vinegar with chopped onion.

Act 1: The Table
Thanksgiving’s table must be up to the meal. This feast is not a buffet. Nor is this the time for the guys to get a plate and eat in front of football on television.

We all want to be sitting together. This is when a big table is most desirable. My table serves 14. If yours doesn’t, improvise. Use two tables. Use a banquet table or sawhorses. What’s underneath won’t show, because it will be covered with your best linens. Lace over linen is also good.

Your centerpiece should be very low so people can see and talk to one another. I use a stale loaf of Italian bread into which I cut holes for mums and candles. But the candles must not be aromatic or they’ll spoil the smell of dinner.

Set your table ahead of time. You don’t want to be thinking about your table when you should be thinking about your turkey.

Use your best china, setting the table with both dinner and bread and butter plates. No place plates or chargers, please. That’s pretentious. This is family. For tableware, set knife, fork and spoon. Don’t neglect the spoon, as is being done nowadays. You have it to push genteely, or to dip up gravy.

Set goblets for wine and water on the table. I like a sideboard with pitchers of iced tea and, for children, milk. And of course your best glasses.

Set your dessert buffet ahead of time, too, with finished pies plus dessert plates and forks, pie servers and, if you’re serving a crisp or cobbler, your nicest fruit bowls.

For the feast, everything but dessert must come to the table in serving bowls and platters hot and at the same time. So guests must come when you call. That should be mid-afternoon, around two o’clock, for this feast is a grand extension of America’s Sunday dinner.

“Finish your drinks,” I say. “You’ve got five minutes.”

And they must leave their cocktail glasses behind. When the curtain comes down on one act, you leave its props behind and move on to the next.

Act 2: Turkey and Trimmings
The Turkey
Buy the biggest, most beautiful bird your oven will hold. I do a fresh bird, but whether it’s fresh or frozen doesn’t matter. Who will know? Frozen turkey tastes just fine.

My sister would get up at 5am to put the turkey on. Nowadays, we don’t need to do that. I find that even a 20-pound turkey cooks in about three hours. New tender breeding has shortened poultry cooking time.

The later starting time has another advantage. Guests get to smell it, they get to think about it, then they get to eat it. So forget that fad that’s caught the public eye, deep frying. Save that for a nice day when everybody wants to be outside. This is Thanksgiving.

Roasting is how you cook the Thanksgiving turkey. That means heat — not water or oil — all around it. I rub the turkey with Crisco, set it on a rack in a baking pan, and cook it in an oven set at 325 degrees.

Don’t roast it breast down or when it comes time to serve, you’ll have a fit because the skin will stick to the pan and ruin your turkey’s looks. Don’t cover the pan or the wet heat will braise your poor turkey till it falls apart. If the breast browns too quickly, you can set a loose tent of foil over it.

Use a meat thermometer to determine precisely when it’s done. Your thermometer will say 180 degrees is the done temperature for poultry, but many people stop cooking at a little over 170 so the turkey will not dry out. The bird will continue cooking after you’ve taken if out of the oven.

Shortly after the turkey comes out of the oven, it comes to the table, where somebody — not necessarily the chef, but necessarily an able person — carves it. When, I grew up, it was uncles carving the turkey at the end of the table.

It must not be carved in thick chunks. Follow the old Southern tradition for carved ham at dinner: thin enough to read a book through the slices. Letting the turkey cool for a quarter of an hour after it comes out of the oven will make proper slicing easier.

There are two reasons not to leave the little bag of giblets in the neck cavity of the turkey. One, they’re an unpleasant surprise when you carve the bird at the table. Two, you’ll need them for gravy.

Don’t leave everything until the last day. On Wednesday, remove and wash giblets. Boil them up whole with the turkey neck and with chopped onions and carrots to make a broth. Strain, throwing away everything but the stock. Chill it.

Thursday morning, remove the top layer of fat. Just before serving dinner, pour a little fat from the bottom of the turkey roaster into a pan on a hot stove. Mix in a couple tablespoons of flour with whisk to make a roux. Add cold broth and whisk till thick. Pour into a warm bowl. Repeat, making your gravy in small amounts. The grease gets so hot and thickens so fast, each panful will be done in less than a minute. Rewarm in microwave before serving in your best gravy boat — with an underliner.

Dressing, Stuffing or Filling
Whatever you call it, you’ve got to have it on Thanksgiving. But I don’t put it inside the turkey. Not because I’m afraid of spoilage, but because even a big turkey won’t hold enough. I make it in a big pan. Here’s my recipe, but I’m sure you have your own.

Because we’re in Southern Maryland, I start my dressing by making a big pan of cornbread. It’s got to be yellow cornmeal. White won’t do. And you can make it ahead of time.

I crumble the cornbread into a big bowl, adding chopped, fresh sage and pecans and for, a 20-pound turkey, about six beaten eggs so it will hold together. And, of course, onions, chopped and cooked in a separate pan. Moisten the stuffing with plenty of turkey broth so it won’t dry out, and cook it in a pan in the oven with the turkey until it’s firm. It won’t take as long as the turkey; no more than an hour.

My mother’s mother used the neck cavity, where you found the giblets for the broth, in a nice way. She took sausage meat the stuffed the cavity. It was good to eat and added flavor and moisture to the turkey. But don’t use spicy sausage. We’re not doing Tex-Mex.

Once the turkey is done, I use a big ice cream scoop to place mounds of dressing around the turkey on its platter. The scoops make nice individual servings.

Potatoes, Mashed and Sweet
I don’t know why some people fail to understand that at Thanksgiving, two kinds of potatoes must be served: mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. As a child, I, too, hated sweet potatoes, but you’ve got to have them.

To mash potatoes so they have no lumps, cube them — skins on or off — boil them till tender in salted water. You don’t have to soak them, and you don’t have to drown them. Just enough that the water doesn’t boil away. If you’ve left the skins on, they’ll pop off easily. While the potatoes are hot, mash a few at a time in a big bowl with a hand masher. There are plenty of good recipes, but the classic uses cream, salt and pepper and a little grating of fresh nutmeg.

To serve, pyramid the potatoes in a bowl and top with paprika and a big chunk of butter.

Sweet potatoes I serve a little differently. Instead of a bowl, I use a pumpkin for a nice presence on the table.

And since it’s a pumpkin, I add a can of Libby’s pumpkin pie mix — not the pure pumpkin — to the sweet potatoes. You can bake them in their skins and mash them, but there’s nothing wrong with canned. I also add a can of crushed pineapple and a can of black Bing cherries, sweetening it all with brown sugar and spicing it with cinnamon and a little nutmeg.

William Taylor with a plate of Thanksgiving Oysters.
Oysters (Optional)
They’re gilding the lily, but as we’re in Chesapeake Country, why not? Scalloped oysters are simple and delicious. Layer oysters and cracker crumbs with cream and butter. Bake until set. Oysters are intelligent creatures. They will tell you when they’re done: They’re plump, with curled edges.

The Necessary Green Vegetable
People worry about which green to serve. I do a medley of Brussels sprouts, green beans, green lima beans and peas. The limas and peas may be frozen. Heat them gently in beef broth starting with the sprouts, which will lose their color if you cook them more than seven minutes. Season with lemon and a dash of nutmeg and, if you like, a dice of canned pimentos for color. Perhaps you’ll also want to add tiny white onions. They may be frozen or canned, but be sure they’re not pickled. Garnish with sliced almonds.

Serve from a silver platter with a slotted spoon. Or, if you’re feeling dramatic and have your timing under control, try a cornucopia. I twist one out of two sheets of heavy foil. Then I cover it with thawed strips of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry laid in overlapping strips. Wet the edges with water so they’ll stick to one another. Paint it with egg white and bake for 15 minutes. Serve it on the platter with the green vegetables spilling forth.

Cranberry Sauce
Of course you’ve got to have cranberry sauce. I cook the berries in cranberry juice and some sugar for a fuller flavor. Orange and walnuts? You do what you like. There’s nothing at all wrong with serving slices of canned cranberry sauce, too. Many people love it.

Good Rolls
Homemade yeast rolls and butter is the ideal. My mother always made Parker House rolls. If you’re too busy to bake, ask for help. It’s fine for guests to bring dishes to Thanksgiving.

Serve the rolls in a basket lined with a linen napkin. A very nice touch is to soften sweet butter and spread it into individual small scallop shells, served on the bread plate with individual butter knives. But you can also mound the butter into a bowl (Land o’ Lakes tubs of butter are good) so it looks like it just came fresh from the churn.

Exit to Kitchen
When dinner’s finished, it’s perfectly acceptable to train everyone to carry their own dishes — but not their napkins — to the kitchen. Meanwhile, you bring coffee and your best coffee service to the table or sideboard.

Act 3: Dessert
Throughout the afternoon, dessert will have been sitting out on it’s own table where you can see and anticipate it. Now it’s time to eat it.

Thanksgiving is not a cake day. Pie is a great American institution, and this is its day.

But you don’t have to do what grandmother did and make every pie from scratch. There’s not a thing wrong with Pillsbury crusts. Buy them two to the box, all ready and rolled out for your pie pan.

Of course you’ll have pumpkin pie. Libby’s pie mix is fine. Just follow the directions. I add more spices, a teaspoon of cinnamon, a half-teaspoon of nutmeg and ginger and one-fourth-teaspoon of allspice.

Save your energy for your apple pie, which must be made from fresh apples. I use a mix of perhaps five different kinds, as you would for cider. Make it spicy sweet, with cinnamon and sugar. Apple, of course, is a two-crust pie.

Serve at least three desserts. Another classic is a lemon pie. But if you’d like a variation on pies, try this cranberry crisp.

In a buttered baking pan, mix a bag of berries with sugar, a little flour to thicken and a little water. Make a topping of a cup each of flour and quick oats spiced with a teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg. Sweeten and mix in up to a cup of butter. Spoon over cranberries and cook about 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Bring hot to the buffet.

The crowning touch is a whole bowl of sweetened whipped cream. Serve in a crystal or silver bowl.

From the buffet, guests serve all they want and gather again at the table.

Only when everyone’s eaten all the dessert they can is it time for the guys to fall asleep in the living room — except the smart ones who join the women in the kitchen for the dishes social.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly