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Family Feast

Turkey anchors all Thanksgivings, but families flavor the meal with preparation and sides—like my mother’s marshmallow-topped sweet-potato tsimmes

Joan Nathan
November 17, 2011

When I was writing The Jewish Holiday Kitchen in 1979, I included my family’s modern take on a traditional sweet-potato tsimmes, which includes pineapples and marshmallows—unconventional ingredients in a Jewish recipe. The press loved the book, with one exception: In Kirkus, the reviewer suggested that my sweet-potato tsimmes with pineapple and marshmallows was more suitable for Thanksgiving than one for Sukkot, as I had categorized it. The recipe, she said, was quintessentially American. She wasn’t wrong, entirely: To me, the dish—both American and Jewish—was a must at Sukkot, back in my Sukkah-building days, when my children were young, and it was and is a must at our Thanksgiving table, too.

It makes sense that we’d have this dish on both occasions. Thanksgiving is in part patterned after the Harvest Home, an English celebration after the fall harvest. And Harvest Home was, in turn, modeled on Sukkot, a holiday that typically falls in late September or early October.

The inspiration for including the recipe was simple: my mother. She is a first-generation American who grew up eating this sweet potato dish at every holiday—Jewish and secular. Her inclusion of this tsimmes at non-religious festivals is similar to what I’ve see happening around the country for ages—new immigrants and people who have been here for generations integrating ethnic and regional character into their Thanksgiving meals. What anchors all of these meals is, of course, the iconic turkey. But what surrounds that centerpiece differs from community to community and includes everything from Armenian stuffed grape leaves to Vietnamese spring rolls to matzoh ball soup, or even a traditional tsimmes of sweet potatoes and carrots. These dishes tell you who you are.

Though the turkey is the holiday’s commonality, its provenance tells different stories. Turkeys today can be heritage breed, kosher, organic, fresh, pasture raised, wild, or frozen Butterballs, the favorite of the late Julia Child. That range of choices is a relatively recent development; until the early 1990s almost everybody bought a factory-processed turkey.

Last month I spent a day on the tractor with Joel Salatin, immortalized by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, at his family’s farm, Polyface, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Salatin, a fundamentalist Christian, raises two kinds of free-range turkeys in his pasture and slaughters them humanely with a quick cut across the neck, “in the biblical way,” he explains—that is, according to Jewish dietary laws.

Across the country, many people are turning to farmers like Salatin, who thinks hard about the life and the death of his animals. Kosher producers like Wise Organic Pastures, Kosher Valley, and the two-year-old Grow and Behold Foods are following Salatin’s lead. “I feel like a turkey hunter before Thanksgiving,” said Naftali Hanau, Grow and Behold’s CEO and founder, who has been running around the country trying to find pasture-raised turkey, fed on non-GMO (genetically modified organism) feed. “Our customers have found that our turkeys have flavor and don’t dry out like conventional ones,” he says. Thanksgiving is a time when people who don’t generally eat meat indulge, Hanau says, and when they do, they want birds that are sustainably produced and slaughtered humanely.

If every family has its traditional sides, each also adds personal flourishes to turkey preparation. Linda Schiffer, a cooking teacher who offers a course called “In Bubbie’s Kitchen” at Middlebury College in Vermont, and her husband, Ira, the Hillel rabbi there, are turkey aficionados and prepare their bird with an apple-cider brine. Before they even get to that stage, they take great care picking out their bird. “I look at Vermont turkeys from farms that are growing free-range turkeys sustainably, turkeys that don’t get overheated by being cooped up and are naturally nice and plump,” Linda told me a day after she went fishing for local salmon and trout on Lake Champlain.

In addition to using local apples and cider to make her turkey, Linda, also prepares a terrine of turkey, goose, and duck as a first course. When she has guests who observe kashrut, as she will next week, she buys a kosher bird at a supermarket in Burlington, 50 miles away. Otherwise, she buys local turkeys from Misty Knolls Farm just down the road from her house. “I used to have a kosher kitchen, but a few years ago when I read an article about Aaron’s chicken and how they were slaughtered, I went local,” she says, referring to the Agriprocessors’ owner, Aaron Rubashkin. Now, “I can see how they are raised, how they live their life and how they are slaughtered,” she says. “This is an extension of our commitment to local and sustainable.” Brining, even if she has a kosher turkey—which is salted in the kashering process—has become her custom as well. Linda brines “because kosher is just the salt,” she says, “and I am adding flavors like brown sugar, thyme, and cider.” She brines for only 24 hours. “Otherwise the meat gets mushy,” she advises. “Longer is not necessarily better.”

As I prepare for Thanksgiving this year, I am finally adopting the Schiffers’ brining tradition. It has always tempted me, as the reduced cider makes the skin aromatic and golden. And, as everyone in my family knows, the skin is the best part of the bird. But despite the appeal of every new sweet-potato dish in magazines this fall, we’ll still rely on our favorite tsimmes recipe, topped with the marshmallows and laced with pineapples, served in our traditional turquoise, oven-safe casserole dish.

The Recipe

Sweet-Potato Tsimmes With Pineapple and Marshmallows

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.