Thanksgiving 101 with Rick Rodgers

Central Market Cooking School
November 3

Rick Rodgers is a bird buff with a big personality; only an aficionado with a lot to say could publish three cookbooks dedicated to the topic of turkeys and other aspects of the Thanksgiving meal, as Rodgers has done within the past several years. To celebrate the release of his latest, Thanksgiving 101 (Broadway Books, $15 paper), he hosted a class called "Thanksgiving Dinner 101" at Central Market Cooking School.

According to his own calculations, the jocular Rodgers roasts 40 or 50 turkeys per year in support of his product line. However, his level of enthusiasm was in balance with his level of knowlege, as he unraveled interesting historical details of why we eat what we eat at Thanksgiving. He emphasized the fact that American traditions have evolved to the point that the original Thanksgiving pilgrims would not recognize what we eat. (Although it is likely that the bird that pilgrims referred to was a dark-fleshed, stronger version of our modern-day gobblers, the menu simply mentioned fowl. And it's almost certain that during those first years, neither the Native Americans nor the pilgrims indulged in sweet potatoes glued together with marshmallows.) A logical progression is that cooks should be free to create their own traditions (or at least buy into Rodgers') without too much of a hassle from the guests.

One hassle definitely to be avoided is the panic one inevitably encounters when faced with the task of preparing a 25-pound bird and the 10 accompanying dishes for a host of critical relatives. To cope with this, Rodgers has successfully turned rejuvenating traditions and dispelling panic into his business.

While he wowed us with innovative recipes during a class that was scheduled to last two-and-a-half hours but instead stretched to three-and-a-half, Rodgers also passed along practical tips on how to get organized for a holiday meal. Know how many people you'll be serving, make concise shopping lists and copies of recipes instead of expecting cookbooks to stay open and clean on your counter, and assemble serving dishes ahead of time. He also advised the class to cut corners where is it reasonable to do so (using canned pumpkin can be preferable to acheiving the proper consistency with fresh pumpkin), and choose first courses and desserts that can be made ahead of time, so the holiday can be enjoyed and the guests will not be left hungry while the host tries to accomplish the meal preparation.

Rodgers took his own advice for the soup course, which he served a reasonable 20 minutes into the class. The Plantation Sweet Potato Soup was mostly prepared before the class convened so we had something to eat while he lectured us on the history of the sweet potato, but we never saw how to make it. "I started the soup because we all know how to make soup and if you don't, that's another class," Rodgers joked.

But with the exception of how to stuff a turkey, Rodgers walked us through the rest of the stepsof the Thanksgiving meal while he entertained us. Unfortunately, the turkey, tamale stuffing, relish, cheddar scalloped baby onions, and succotash were served concurrently, at about 9:45pm.

The food was good when we finally got it, especially the crowning glory of nouveau chic Thanksgiving desserts, the Pumpkin Walnut Roulade with Ginger Cream. But to my great dismay, we had to wait until a few minutes before 10pm to taste it. The Central Market Cooking School makes a concerted effort to urge chefs to space the tasting of meals throughout the class, but this time it just didn't seem to work out. -- Meredith Phillips

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