Let it be known that the days before Thanksgiving at Union Square Farmers’ Market are the Lollapalooza of the food geek. The sources of experimentation lie everywhere around you when you step out of the train.
Bombarded by the scents of soft sage, fragrant thyme, earthy greens, fall fruits and cinnamon spice, you marvel at the number of farmers plying their harvest. At this time of the year, farmers sell every day until Thanksgiving. It’s a time when you’ll see people eyeing each other like vultures to grab what’s left of the brussels sprouts, messaging pictures of victory to their friends. Pile upon pile of rare heirloom vegetables, stand after stand of farm-fresh meat and dairy, box after box of fantastic mushrooms — this is a food geek’s dream come true.
As a food geek, I just can’t wait for Thanksgiving Day to come, and so, it has come early for the past nine years in the form of Friendsgiving, a pre-Thanksgiving.
Friendsgiving is a celebration with a wide variety of friends, be they made two years ago or two weeks ago. It’s a holiday with all the delicious Thanksgiving foods and none of the exhausting travel or family drama. It’s also the ultimate excuse to release all happiness into the fun, experimental lab that is the kitchen. It’s the personal holiday I dream of from early on in the year, and I do heart-cartwheels seeing the first signs of a food magazines testing Thanksgiving recipes in the summer because I know that soon, that tester will be me.
I grew up in a big, loving family, where our Thanksgiving dinners were always large affairs with the fabulous mix-and-match hodgepodge of food. For our family, it was a battle between the American holiday and my Korean-American family where everyone won. Mashed potatoes, pasta, and rice can revel in carb happiness. Roasted root vegetables and kimchi, blood sausage and blonde sausage gravy — all of it was meant to coexist together, piled onto our plates.
When it was all done, some would retire to the other room, sipping Chivas and wine, while the rest of us would relish our leftovers and laughter over tea and coffee in the kitchen. Of course, dessert was the final course that sang loudly to the tune of two pies and three cakes. Despite everyone claiming to be beyond full, there was always room for a sweet treat.
For many of us, our urban tribes are our families too, so why not let this magical food holiday spill over into a prequel with other loved ones? I’ve done Friendsgiving for the last nine years, during which time I’ve learned that folks respond enthusiastically to an invite for a preview of Thanksgiving. People are often not gone yet for Thanksgiving, or if their family lives in the city, they have no plans earlier on in the week or the week before. Some consider it their training for actual Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl of food. And after all, it’s all the victual delights of Thanksgiving without any of the family headaches. Who can say no to stuffing without dear old Mom and Dad nagging you, plus a party-like atmosphere?
No one is expected to emerge from Friendsgiving crowned as the new Martha Stewart of the harvest hoedown, but the discoveries you make might be remarkable. Think of Friendsgiving as your test drive that ends up being the car that you want. No parent is peering over your shoulder questioning whether your pie crust is too thick or your cranberry chutney is too spicy. You might discover a new method for making your classic mashed potatoes because you’re so unafraid to experiment, or you might find that celeriac, potatoes, apples, and kimchi sum up as a fantastically soft and savory dish.
A menu made, a schedule planned, lots of magic to be made. Here are a few tips for your Friendsgiving.
Make hosting easy on yourself. Since numbers can be unpredictable at a Friendsgiving (every New Yorker seems to make last-minute acquaintances and there are always friends of friends), make seating and serving casual. This event is about the food, the drink and the talk, not the fancy place settings. Cushions and couches, TV trays and coffee tables, or tables and countertops — this is a holiday to eat where you can, which will lead to guests circulating like a party.
For maximum satisfaction and to distinguish yourself from the traditional turkey Thanksgiving, add another entrée to accompany the lean meat — a big delicious something that can be made in abundance without draining the wallet. Pork is usually a great and favorable way to go, so perhaps consider a porchetta. A duck is always fun, and you can use the leftover fat for duck fat hash for breakfast the next day. Always wanted to make a fancy quail dish? This is your chance to do it. And if you need a dish for vegetarians, there’s always a big comforting rice dish like a rice salad, paella, risotto or sabzi polow.
Create a flexible menu beforehand and do your shopping at the greenmarket or cooperative grocery to support the local economy. If your recipe calls for sage and there isn’t any at the market, be prepared to use oregano or rosemary instead. Check seasonal calendars, shoppers’ Instagram posts of the greenmarket, or farmers’ Twitter or Facebook feeds for what they’ll be selling that week.
Since many of your guests probably haven’t met before, employ recent taste memories to introduce chatter and conversation to the table. After traveling to New Orleans, we amped up our classic turkey by roasting it with andouille sausages. My husband, of half-Colombian heritage, introduced seafood paella and empanadas to the table one year. This is your chance to get away from the traditional and experiment a bit more.
Uncle Bobby might not appreciate your food nerdiness, but hopefully any friends of yours will. To enrich the eating experience for your food geek guests, you can write a food fact or two up on the chalkboard, pass around food history books, play a quick video of your cooking process, or talk about Alton Brown’s food science when it comes to cooking meat.
Friendsgiving is an opportunity to do something more than what’s going on in the room, so seize the time to give back. Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, we gathered a fund to donate to Red Cross. This year, we will be gathering donations for Share Our Strength No Kid Hungry NYC. Leave a can on the table or near the door, or include a link in your invitation.
Cheers to a happy Friendsgiving surrounded by friends old and new.
Photo by Cecilia CC BY