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The Battle for Thanksgiving Heats Up

Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Photo: Christopher Testani for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart

THANKSGIVING CAN BE a massive cornucopia of angst. You arrive at the day with a full-blown case of PSTD (Pumpkin Spice Toxicity Disorder). During the meal you’re baited into political arguments in which victory is pyrrhic at best. Do we really need to pile on even one more element of agita?

Many people would say yes. Your turkey, they want you to believe, is inauthentic, insipid or just plain boring. They want you to think hard about replacing the bird Ben Franklin called a “true original Native of America…a Bird of Courage,” with something else. Anything else. They are wrong.

Your Thanksgiving table is a stage for a quirky ensemble cast—not just the people around it, but the food on it: sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mushroom-studded green bean casserole, stuffing that can contain anything from oysters to cranberries. To hold it all together, you need a star at the top of the marquee with a combination of affability and gravitas. A mild-fleshed domesticated turkey like a Broadbreasted White or even one of its dark-feathered heritage-breed progenitors, big as a parade float and round as the Capitol dome, is the only protein up to the task.

Turkey strikes the difficult balance of supporting—even elevating—everything else on the plate, while still exhibiting enough character to not just disappear into the background. A great turkey is Tom Hanks, with giblets.

Skip the second-rate birds that supermarkets give away for free after you’ve spent $97 dollars on other groceries. After all, even the most coddled, opulent bird will set you back less than a similar amount of steak or lamb will. And neither of those is nearly as effective a delivery system for crisp skin, gravy and tryptophan.

Are there more interesting proteins than turkey? Sure. There are also more interesting dinner guests than Uncle Herb, but you’d miss him if he were gone, too. Get rid of the turkey and you don’t have Thanksgiving; you have Thursday.

I understand the urge, as a cook, to want to change things up. But I’ve learned the hard way that what sounds interesting on the page can come off as histrionic and a little desperate at the table. Your Thanksgiving dinner needs a fish about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. And a ham isn’t a Thanksgiving centerpiece—it’s a cry for help.

“You can always have other options on the Thanksgiving table,” said chef Diego Garcia of the Four Seasons, in New York. “But it’s a holiday where you are really cooking for your guests, not for yourself. And your guests will want and expect a Thanksgiving turkey.”

LAMB. HAM. CHICKEN. DOG FOOD. Cardboard box. Shoelace. Dead flowers.” Any of the above would be preferable to a turkey on Thanksgiving, the cookbook author and model Chrissy Teigen recently quipped on Twitter. “Concrete. Rubber. Wicker. Candle wax,” the tweet continued. “Really anything.” I get where she’s coming from.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with turkey, per se, it’s just that it’s so very ordinary. If turkey were a day of the week, it would be Tuesday. If turkey was a flavor of Skittles, it would be orange. If turkey was a fabric, it would be corduroy. It’s mediocre. And what else would you expect from an animal that’s basically just a sport utility version of a chicken? Not my idea of a spellbinding holiday indulgence.

Thousands of recipes have sprung up over the years promising, each in its own desperate way, to fix turkey’s inherent deficiencies. You might try dry brining it, wet brining it, butter basting it; spatchcocking it, smoking it, deep frying it. Beneath all the artifice, though, the same old turkey remains. One year, I invested in a fancy heritage bird, soaked it in a salt brine, slathered it with imported butter, and then sat in front of the oven with an egg timer so that I could rotate the thing a quarter turn every 15 minutes. It ended up tasting like corduroy.

So, what to cook instead? If you want to stick with the indigenous-species angle, try a hearty, hulking rib roast of buffalo. A cooked country ham offers loads of unctuous flavor. Or, skip the meat entirely, and fill a massive winter squash with the stuffing we all came for anyway.

Bird Alternative: Virginia Country Ham.
Bird Alternative: Virginia Country Ham. Illustration: Christopher Testani for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart, Ham Illustration by Beth Hoeckel

To me the romance of the holiday lies in celebrating wild abundance. When the Pilgrims and Wampanoag sat down to the first Thanksgiving dinner, their feast revolved around foods that had been foraged, hunted and fished: venison, wild fowl, indigenous fruits and seafood like mussels, whole fish and lobster. (Though wild turkeys probably figured in the meal, the primacy of the dish was a 19th-century invention.)

Of these wild delights, only one remains widely available, tethering us to the natural world: seafood. The U.S. has one of the most spectacularly diverse and well-managed fisheries in the world, but the lion’s share of our domestic catch is exported to foreign markets rather than eaten at home. I can think of no better day than Thanksgiving to stake our claim.

So I reached out to Paul Greenberg, an expert on seafood and ocean issues and the author of “The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet.” When I asked him to point me toward the best fish for the job, he suggested black sea bass, a fish native to the eastern seaboard with mild, succulent flesh that’s a sure crowd-pleaser. Black sea bass stocks are plentiful, and with climate change its range appears to be expanding north past its traditional mid-Atlantic grounds all the way up to Maine. Seafood, as a category, also tends to be less carbon intensive than a land-raised food like turkey. “Nobody had to grow the fish,” Mr. Greenberg said. “The only energy expended is in the harvest.” Buy a line-caught fish if possible, which results in the least bycatch.

Black sea bass also happens to be quite a beautiful fish, with moody black scales that glimmer iridescent blue, a large, expressive head, and dramatic fins. “It looks kind of like a character in a Kabuki play,” Mr. Greenberg observed. Roast it and present it whole, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a handsomer holiday centerpiece.

HOT TURKEY / 4 Wildly Different Takes on the Thanksgiving Bird
Dark-Contender Turkey: A Heritage Black.
Dark-Contender Turkey: A Heritage Black. Illustration: Christopher Testani for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart, Turkey Illustration by Beth Hoeckel

Carefree Classic

There’s no shame in wanting the classic profile and generous white-to-dark-meat ratio of a Broadbreasted White turkey. Nor, for that matter, is there anything wrong with wanting someone else to cook said bird for you. Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market takes never-frozen free-range turkeys raised in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania and dry-brines them for 24 hours in a rub that includes sage, thyme, marjoram and paprika, before rotisserie-roasting them. The result is juicy and herb speckled, like the best rotisserie chicken you’ve ever had, but bigger. They’ll also ship you an uncooked turkey to roast yourself. ($160 plus shipping for a cooked turkey, 12-14 pounds before cooking; from $69.50 for a 10-11 pound uncooked turkey, dicksonsfarmstand.com)

Bronze Beauty

In the Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, KellyBronze turkeys spend months longer than the typical Thanksgiving bird fattening themselves on a diet that includes berries, grubs and nettles foraged from forest and pasture. A pair of guard llamas named Sierra and Silk Buttons provide protection from predators. When the time comes, these ultra-luxe turkeys are hand-plucked, then hung like gamebirds for about a week, which serves to concentrate flavor and tenderize the meat, already succulent with a generous marbling of intramuscular fat. Also unusual: The tendons are removed from the legs, making them as easily carvable as any other part of the bird. (About $12.50 per pound, plus shipping, kellybronze.co.uk)

Texas Turkey

Most of the year, the brick pits of Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, turn out some of the nation’s best barbecue brisket, ribs and sausage. But for the holiday season, whole turkeys come into the mix. They get the same low-and-slow, post-oak smoke treatment as all the other meats, as well as the same classic rub of salt, pepper and cayenne (just a touch). One can imagine letting the simple aesthetic of Kreuz Market inform your feast: Maybe this is the year to leave grandma’s china in the cupboard, and instead set the table with sheets of butcher paper—cutlery optional. Don’t forget to save the carcass and wing tips for a world-beating pot of collard greens. ($41 plus shipping for an 8-9 pound turkey, kreuzmarket.com)

Chef’s Choice

In recent years, a hankering for firmer, richer flesh and a more even ratio of dark to white meat has made the Heritage Black a sought-after turkey again. This domestic breed fell out of favor with the rise of the Broadbreasted White, but producers like Joyce Farms have helped bring it back—and pro chefs have taken notice. Book Thanksgiving dinner at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and the turkey served will be one of Joyce Farms’ Heritage Blacks. Or you can order your own and bring that experience home. (From $99 plus shipping for an 8-11 pound turkey, joyce-farms.com)

FANTASTIC BEASTS / 4 Suitable Festive and Impressive Alternatives to Thanksgiving Turkey
Bird Alternative: Sea Bass
Bird Alternative: Sea Bass Illustration: Christopher Testani for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart, Fish Illustration by Beth Hoeckel

All About That Bass

Black sea bass run as large as 4 pounds, which will feed a table of 4-6. Andrea Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C., recommends slathering the fish with olive oil and sea salt, making 1-2 deep slashes in the thickest part of its flesh, and cooking it on an oiled sheet pan at 375 degrees until the tip of a sharp knife inserted into that meatiest part and withdrawn feels hot against your skin. Rest the fish, tented with aluminum foil, for 10-15 minutes to finish cooking. The Lobster Place in Manhattan supplies whole large black sea bass by special order and ships nationally. Or, ask your fishmonger for a sustainably fished local alternative of the appropriate size and grandeur. (From about $12 per pound, info@lobsterplace.com)

Ham It Up

Cooked ham, aka “city ham,” is a holiday staple. But consider country ham, a cured product prized for its savory, complex flavor that’s purchased uncooked. This ham is generally served uncooked, too—prosciutto-style—but each Thanksgiving Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins bakes one according to his grandfather’s method, with delicious results. Soak the ham overnight in cold water, then scrub it and submerge it in a mixture of 5 gallons fresh water to 1 quart peach nectar. Simmer on the stovetop 90 minutes, or until tender, then transfer to a roasting pan, score the surface, glaze with honey or sorghum syrup, and cook at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the meat is tender as corned beef. For this preparation, Mr. Hopkins often buys the Uncooked Wigwam Ham from Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. ($190, edwardsvaham.com)

Get Buffaloed

America’s original red meat is leaner than beef and a little gamier. Dan and Jill O’Brien of Wild Idea Buffalo Company raise theirs as close to wild as possible, allowing the stately creatures to roam the South Dakota prairie and feast on native grasses from birth to death. Their majestic buffalo prime rib roast is tender and full of flavor. (From $185, wildideabuffalo.com)

Squash Game

For a meat-free main with major tableside appeal, it’s hard to top the blue Hubbard squash, a whopper of a winter variety that happens to be shaped a lot like a turkey and is widely available at farmers’ markets. The blue Hubbard doesn’t have much flesh for its weight, but if you split it in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast it, this big, beautiful squash provides a festive presentation for a hearty stuffing. Michael Anthony, chef at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, recommends a stuffing made with kale, mushrooms, mozzarella and sourdough bread for the purpose If you can’t come by a blue hubbard or prefer a squash with more abundant flesh, stuffing a selection of smaller Red Kuri or Kabocha squash is an excellent way to go.

Bird Alternative: Blue Hubbard Squash.
Bird Alternative: Blue Hubbard Squash. Illustration: Christopher Testani for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart, Squash Illustration by Beth Hoeckel
Stuffed Blue Hubbard Squash

TOTAL TIME: 1 ¾ hours SERVES: 10-12

1 (10-pound) blue hubbard squash

10 tablespoons extra-virgin oil olive

4 large onions, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 stalks celery, diced

6 cups quartered shiitake mushrooms

2 bunches kale, stemmed, blanched and roughly chopped

8 cups roughly cubed day-old sourdough bread

2 cups diced fresh mozzarella

½ teaspoon herbes de Provence

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan, for grating

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and discard. Place each squash half on a sheet pan, cut-side down, and dress with 4 tablespoons olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast until and tender and golden-brown, about 50 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, celery, and mushrooms, and cook until lightly browned and soft, about 10 minutes. Add kale, bread and cheese and toss to combine. Season with herbs, 2 teaspoons salt and pepper. Add stock and mix to combine.

3. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees, cover Dutch oven and bake 30 minutes.

4. Transfer stuffing to cavities of squash halves. Grate Parmesan liberally on top and return to oven for 10 minutes to let flavors meld.

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