This year we partnered with Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm to create a Thanksgiving menu inspired by new recipes and old rituals. The farm’s chefs and artisans brought inventive dishes to the table, each with a personal twist. We talked to each of them about their favorite Thanksgiving traditions, as well as the inspiration behind their dishes — read on to hear their stories.
Sam Beall grew up on Blackberry Farm, learning from his mother in the kitchen and falling in love with the land. As an adult he trained as a chef and worked at The French Laundry, learning a great appreciation for homegrown ingredients, traditionally handcrafted artisan products. Now, as Blackberry Farm’s proprietor, Sam oversees The FarmStead — including the gardens, creamery, preservation kitchen and more — and has also created a world-class wine cellar. He still lives there today with his wife, Mary Celeste, and their children. For our Thanksgiving menu, he created two turkeys: a roasted, cider-brined turkey and a spice-rubbed fried turkey.
Tell us about your Thanksgiving family traditions: What’s on the menu? Who cooks what?
It’s always outside, unless the weather is inclement. There are multiple turkeys, cooked two different ways: fried and roasted. We always do a ham as well. Our neighbor makes country ham, and he always gives us one that’s partially cured, so it’s raw in the middle but has that salty, smoky character to it. We simmer it in a huge pot very delicately with an apple cider solution, then dust it with sorghum, salt and pepper and throw it back in the hot oven to crisp up.
The kids always want sweet potatoes, so those are always on the menu. We do a little sorghum component there, with a little glaze on the top. Other than that, it’s something a little different every year. And Brussels sprouts.
I love getting everybody involved in the kitchen. I assign a dish to each person, which creates a familiar, festive environment. It’s about the process — we like the fact that it takes 3 or 4 hours. We just enjoy being together and having a glass of wine along the way.
What do you look forward to all year long?
The gathering of the family. In this environment, everyone is brought into the process. That’s what I look forward to the most, is the time together.
Aside from that our feast time is always in the late afternoon; my last supper would absolutely be a lunch versus a dinner. I love being able to indulge with bounty of food and libations during the day and not have to turn in so quickly on a full stomach. This way, you get to stretch it out and not feel so rushed. We actually revisit the same food that night — it doesn’t even get put up. We just spread it out over the kitchen and jump back in, breaking out the preserves and chutneys and marmalades to make great turkey and ham sandwiches and leftovers.
How important is tradition to your holiday meal? How have your traditions changed over the years?
We mix up the menu a little bit every year. It’s allowed to change; if the garden is offering something special this year, it will be featured. One year we celebrate with my family, and the next year it’s my wife’s family, so we have a new flow of great friends and family every year. As the kids get older they’re participating more. Even the young ones — I’m going to put a whisk in their hands.
What makes your Thanksgiving uniquely your own?
I break out great wines. I save up for this! When I’m with family I don’t get to spend much time with, it’s a special day, and I don’t hold back on the wines. And there’s always the leftovers dinner.
Do you have any highlights from past Thanksgivings? Most poignant moment, the biggest kitchen disaster, the substitution that saved the day, etc.?
Over the years there have been many. Frying a turkey means a big pot of oil just going crazy bubbling every year. One year — I have no idea why — a water component went crazy. Also, I was using a blender one year to puree a sauce and stuck a wooden spoon in there. It chopped up the spoon.
What was the inspiration behind the turkeys you created for the Williams-Sonoma/Blackberry Farm Thanksgiving menu?
They are both traditional recipes for us. The elements of the roasted turkey are Southern, with the sorghum and brining. The combination of flavors gives it a deep, almost smoky flavor.
What are your foolproof turkey tips? Any for gravy?
The brining is huge. That’s a huge tip that, still, many cooks don’t really do. Other than that, let time be on your side. The lower the temperature, the better. I would always rather allocate more time and turn the temperature down, and the turkey will be more successful. Start it hot, extend the time, and drop the temperature. Also, the resting: don’t cook a great turkey and cut into it right out of the oven. These birds need to sit for 45 minutes to an hour in most cases. And start with a good bird — a good, heritage breed bird. After all, you’ve got all year to plan for it!
What’s special about deep-fried turkeys? Any tips for pulling it off at home?
It’s a classic Southern cooking technique, which gives you that crispy, crunchy skin. Also, you don’t really hang around an oven and water-cooler talk with wine or beer, but you do around a fryer. You just hang around it; it’s the process. You’re tending and watching, but it creates an activity.
Also, dry your bird. Let it come to room temperature — don’t drop a cold bird in there.
With everything that’s going on, how do you create a stress-free Thanksgiving?
Really plan ahead and delegate. Do a few things ahead of time, and that’s not just cooking — it can be setting the table, selecting wine or arranging flowers.