A Holiday From Criticism

A Holiday From Criticism
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A.O. Scott Credit Bryan Derballa for The New York Times

A holiday is not a holiday if you spend any time doing what you are ordinarily paid to do. I am ordinarily paid to criticize, which is why I cook on Thanksgiving. My food, I am told, is unfailingly delicious — the turkey succulent, the stuffing savory, the sweet potatoes ethereally silky — which may be only to say that my guests are not critics.

The other reason I do all the cooking has to do with kinks in my temperament — or as I prefer to think of them, principles — that the holiday gives me license to indulge. The ugliest phrase in the English language, as far as I’m concerned, is “pot-luck supper,” especially if you style the first word without the hyphen. It’s phonetically hideous, and even though the experience may offer some alluring flavors, it will lack both coherence and a singular target for credit or blame. I’m a kitchen auteurist. A stubborn individualist. A bourgeois sentimentalist. A meal must have a chef. Anything else is socialism.

But like most Americans, perhaps especially around this time of year, I’m also a raging hypocrite. I pride myself on going at Thanksgiving in heroic entrepreneurial solitude — I salt the bird and baste it, make brisket a day in advance and pan gravy at the last minute — but I outsource dessert and anything else that needs baking. (Gluten has no tolerance for me). I will ask you to bring drinks, and a green vegetable if it’s not too much trouble. I require a lot of help, and I need a lot of company.

The more the better. Some years ago, my wife and I declared Thanksgiving a travel-free, open-door feast. We don’t fly or drive anywhere, but the invitation to join us is extended widely and freely, to friends and kin alike. People come from Maine, Oklahoma and around the block. There are never enough chairs and always too much food. A plurality of people are meeting one another for the first time. We start in the middle of the afternoon and keep going late into the night.

I’m mostly in the kitchen, which allows me to be sociable and antisocial in just the right balance. This might be the real reason I like to monopolize the cooking. If the conversation reaches an awkward pass, I can delegate diplomacy to my kids and find something to defat or emulsify. I can hide behind the food and let it speak for me, in the kind of soothing clichés that I am professionally at pains to avoid and condemn.

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