Sam Sifton knows Thanksgiving—he loves Thanksgiving—and he wants to teach you Thanksgiving, his way. His new book, Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well (Random House, Oct.), is a guide/cookbook with everything you need to know to pull off the perfect meal for this quintessential American holiday.
Sifton, 46, has worked at the New York Times for a decade. Currently the national news editor, he’s been editor of the dining section, culture editor, and most famously the newspaper’s restaurant critic of which he says, “Great, but physically grueling and exhausting.”
Food, meanwhile, has always been a big part of Sifton’s life. While he says it’s never been his “only interest,” it’s always been an important part of his journalism. He grew up in Brooklyn Heights, where a large part of his childhood was spent “finding and consuming great food.” He remembers driving around the city with his father going to different specialty food shops, buying Jamaican ginger beer, Italian bread, and Polish ham. “We would drive through, assembling a weekly larder, which was great,” Sifton says. These trips instilled in him an appreciation of food, but he also always knew he wanted to work for newspapers.
Graduating from Harvard in 1988, he got a job at the New York Press, a small, free weekly alternative newspaper, where he reviewed restaurants and bars and began to explore cooking, recipes, and writing about cooking food as well as eating it. Next was the Times’s dining desk, and eventually a monthly food column, which he still writes. “Cooking is a great passion for me,” Sifton says, describing himself as a “prisoner of his gender” who loves to play host and meet people, which comes from “the desire to perform the project.” He uses the analogy that his kitchen is like another man’s garage where he tinkers and builds things. “My kitchen serves the same mental purpose for me. I can go there and perform a trade that is very different from the trade I perform during the day. It’s tremendously restful and relaxing to me.”
After Frank Bruni stepped down as the New York Times restaurant critic in 2009, Sifton was asked to write a memo explaining the benefits of each new candidate for the job. He did, and then was offered the job. He was the critic for a little more than two years, calling it “fun and very tough” and “a strange job for a journalist, who is accustomed to identifying [himself] and asking continuous, endless questions.” As the New York Times critic, “You don’t identify yourself, you travel under a black flag of a fake name and fake credit card—it’s a little bit like being a spy, Jason Bourne attacked by foie gras and pappardelle.” Sifton enjoyed “the cat and mouse game” he played with restaurateurs, evading them and working undercover.
Although the calling to be national news editor was too strong to turn down, Sifton admits to missing his old job. “I miss the possibility of excellence,” he says. “I believe very strongly that restaurants are at the center of New York’s cultural life right now. Restaurants are where we play out everything important in our lives: job interviews, dates, weddings, anniversaries, children’s birthday parties, business triumphs and sorrows. All of these things are recognized in the presence of food and drink.” The one good thing about no longer being the critic? Sifton can once again be a “regular” at New York City restaurants, which he describes as “one of the greatest things in the world about being a New Yorker.”
Sifton wrote his first book, A Field Guide to the Yettie: America’s Young Entrepreneurial Technocrats (Miramax, 2000), at the end of the first Internet bubble, which he says could not have been more ill-timed. It was a “satirical guide to the new economy” and sold “about 11 copies, six to my mom,” he jokes. This time he’s back to writing about food.
Why Thanksgiving? Sifton has always been interested in home cooking and volunteered years ago to be part of the Thanksgiving coverage at the Times. He manned the Thanksgiving help line at the paper’s Web site, using his own knowledge along with the Times’s archive of recipes to solve readers’ problems and spending all of Thanksgiving day at the Times’s office. “I think there’s tremendous honor to working at a newspaper on a holiday; it’s a great feeling—the newsroom is kind of quiet, it’s a little festive and bittersweet. “ Sifton points out that Thanksgiving is the one holiday everyone in America celebrates, and it’s also a holiday where people cook, often people that never cook otherwise, and people who hardly ever entertain. Sifton worked the help line for three years, and his “excitement to help people out” on Thanksgiving led to his new book.
Thanksgiving is obviously Sifton’s favorite holiday: “There are no gifts involved, there’s no religion to argue about, it’s a secular holiday, a secular miracle, with no real spiritual or religious undertones.” Thanksgiving, Sifton believes, “is the one holiday that brings Americans together in a way that doesn’t also divide us.” The holiday can also, at the same time, be extremely intimidating and anxiety producing. “The message is, it really isn’t that hard, I can help you do this.”
Sifton is confident that “if you read the book and follow the recipes and stick to them, Thanksgiving is a totally manageable and enjoyable holiday.” He wants to instill confidence in the reader, and provides strict rules: no salad, Sifton insists, no appetizers, and never put garlic in the mashed potatoes. “I’m very bossy,” he admits. “You come to me and want to know how to cook Thanksgiving? This is how you do it.” His approach is straightforward, as are his recipes, which are all very basic, American recipes with bright flavors appropriate to the season.
Sifton cares about what people can learn from restaurant chefs, illustrated in much of his work, specifically his column for the New York Times Magazine, and there are recipes in the book inspired by what various chefs have taught him over the years. Other inspirations include his parents, things he’s eaten in other people’s homes, and recipes from friends, such as the cornbread dressing adapted from Kurt Gardner, who has brought the dish to Sifton’s home for years. The importance of tradition is addressed, and Sifton believes strongly that you should both maintain and break traditions each year, as he does at his own table with family and friends (he lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with his wife and two daughters). “There should always be a base line that you know, but if someone comes in with a new drink recipe or candlestick, it’s perfectly okay to give it a shot.” The book is meant to be used as a reference, once a year. And next? Sifton says he would love to write another cookbook, this time focusing on Sunday family dinner “as a cultural and religious phenomenon, the role it’s played historically and the role it plays now.”
Ruby Cutolo is a freelance writer living in New York City.