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16 Nov 2021 | Randy Kemner

THANKSGIVING WINE ADVICE IS NOT AS SIMPLE AS YOU THINK (NEITHER IS THE DINNER)

Right before the opening of our store in mid-November 1995, I wrote a food-and-wine pairing article, in preparation for our first Thanksgiving at The Wine Country.  I thought it would be interesting to reprint an excerpt here to see if my advice had changed in the past 26 years.  What I have learned since then has been nothing short of revelatory:

Roast Turkey is one of the easiest foods to match with wine.  The white meat is rather bland and will be enhanced by any wine that has a little fruit in it.  Dark meat is more gamey, so Pinot Noirs, and Rhone-style wines will go well.  What’s hard is finding a wine that will go well with all the other challenging foods at the holiday table. 

 Candied yams, mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread dressing, and fruit salads have levels of sweetness and intensity that blow away most table wines.  For years wine writers have made lists of suggestions:  Pinot Noir and Nouveau Beaujolais, buttery Chardonnay, dry German Riesling, sweet German Riesling, California Gewurztraminer…and on and on.  A French Burgundy (red or white) would provide a lovely balance for a slice of white.  But what about the yams?  Not to mention cornbread stuffing with onions and raisins.  For years we have been experimenting with the exotic and familiar and nothing seemed to be versatile enough to handle the challenges.  Pinot Noir would turn bitter and astringent, as well as Chardonnay paired with the sweet stuff.

 It was last year (1994) that I stumbled upon Alsace wines for Thanksgiving.  We Americans don’t know much about Alsace other than it’s the place where Gewurztraminer comes from.  And the only thing that wine writers have told us about Gewurztraminer is that it goes great with Chinese food.  Remember that Alsace wines evolved with people who dish up sauerkraut and blood sausages, eat spiced apples and roast pork and mix their sweet and sour and salty like a kid at his first trip to Disneyland.  Alsace Gewurztraminer, especially intense, extracted Gewurz with a bit of residual sugar, is the next-to-perfect accompaniment for a traditional American Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.  What’s even more intriguing is a rich extracted Tokay Pinot Gris from Alsace.  Pinot Gris is barely grown in California, although Californians drink oceans of its Italian cousin Pinot Grigio.  Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris, on the other hand, is unlike any wine on earth.

 Seductive unique aromas (Robert Parker has suggested wheat thins!), intense fruit that is indescribable.  I urge you to pick up a few bottles of Alsace Pinot Gris and audition it with food.  See if you agree with me—a “newcomer” that’s been under our nose for generations.

 

Since this was published (again I remind you it was 26 years ago), EU requirements have banned the use of the name Tokay from Pinot Gris since Tokay (In Hungarian, Tokaji) is an actual appellation.  Although Pinot Gris was indeed rare in California, it is now a celebrated wine in Oregon, a wine region that has gained immensely in stature since 1995, with many Pinot Gris bottles quite well-suited to Thanksgiving dinner.

I also have switched my traditional Thanksgiving menu white wine preference to fruitier German Rieslings and away from Gewurztraminer, which I think is way too intense for my taste.  I still think Beaujolais, while not ideal, is probably the best red wine for a Norman Rockwell-style turkey dinner.

More interestingly, the subsequent years have made me aware that the diversity of cultures and tastes means there are food items on Thanksgiving tables across the country, and especially in Southern California, that are quite a bit different than the white bread dishes I grew up with, even to the astonishing (to me) realization that there are more than just a few households who hate roast turkey!

A simple, yet valuable and culturally revealing question posted on Facebook by Nicole Justice in Long Beach Food Scene last week, and the answers where quite thought provoking, with many quite tantalizing. 

What is one side dish you have at Thanksgiving that most people don’t?

  • My house is half Italian heritage and half direct Mexican, so we have an array of Italian and Mexican side dishes: stuffed jalapeños, bruschetta, grilled nopales, one pear carpaccio and one beef carpaccio, frijoles, caprese, fideo, burrata and stone fruit...
  • We are a Puerto Rican family. We usually have arroz con gandules (yellow rice and pigeon peas) and pastelon (a sweet plantain “lasagna”) 
  • This corn casserole!  Corn Pudding with Mushrooms and Ham  https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/corn-pudding-with-mushrooms-and-ham-51108090?fbclid=IwAR0SOdIKICLNs91DuIuBDDOD4zlMm2skLsyxzElayD1npm7bpXMntg03rRA  
  • My Wisconsin grandma’s table used to always have this fruit salad (apples, pears, grapes) tossed with mini marshmallows and a homemade whipped cream. It sounds like it’s too sweet or too much, it’s not. It perfectly balances out the other things on your Thanksgiving plate!
  • We have had lots of appetizers made by my wonderful cousin-in-law, such as homemade hummus and baba ganoush with fresh pita chips, assorted olives, nuts and veggies.
  • Squash casserole which is a conduit for bacon and cheese. Oyster dressing and giblet gravy with rice. Also, the traditional stuff. These our southern specialties.
  • My personal addition that has been a hit for a couple years now is making creamed corn but using Boursin cheese. Everybody requests it with my glazed ham now lol. But the one I love is my gf’s mom. She is Cambodian and her mom makes this amazing glass noodle stuffing every year that has bean sprouts, wild mushrooms and ground Turkey with a few other things I can’t even name lol. Oh, and egg rolls of course!
  • My mom always made creamed pearl onion with our Thanksgiving and I request them every year that I’m there. It wasn’t until we had everyone’s significant others joining that I realized it wasn’t a staple for most people.
  • It’s called Yifta - super simple … it’s just 3 ingredients layered …. 1. Whipped cream (I suggest real stuff but you could use cool whip if you desire) 2. Crushed graham crackers (some use saltines but my family always uses graham crackers) 3. Cranberry sauce (you can use canned or make it yourself) …. Pic attached but you basically make layers starting with whipped cream, then a layer of cranberry sauce, then a layer of crackers … repeat the layers again - ending with a 3rd layer of whipped cream and garnish with a sprinkle of crackers - SO yummy!!
  • Pureed sweet potatoes with lime juice. This year we're making a Sicilian-themed Thanksgiving dinner so we'll have pistachio stuffing, broccoli rabe, cauliflower with capers, and tiramisu.
  • I add unexpected spice like Chorizo or hot Italian Sausage to Stuffing/Dressing as a side dish … it’s a meal in itself & a big hit with family & friends
  • We always had stuffed artichokes growing up, but not as a side dish. They were served as one of the many courses in a Sicilian household celebrating an American holiday. Still one of my favorite dishes to this day.
  • Often my homemade tortellini en brodo but this year likely my Simile Sisters lasagna bolognese.
  • My heritage has nothing to do with how I celebrate Thanksgiving. We just think cooking a turkey is a waste, no one can ever agree on if we should cook a ham. So we cook halibut for the main course and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. haha. Although this year it may be different.
  • I always cook different things. This year I’m doing a surf and turf (SV tri tip and lobster tails), olive oil poached fingerling potatoes and asparagus.
  • Well, we pretty much have a version of an Italian Thanksgiving for the past few years, and I make spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread/knots. It's the Mr's favorite food and I hate turkey, not to mention much easier for me, so there aren't really any side dishes.
  • Not a side dish but my family makes mole instead of turkey
  • Peperoncini rolls. Fennel salami stuffed with a thin layer of cream cheese and a peperoncini. Sounds gross but it's amazing!
  • My best friend is Egyptian. Her grandma would make stuffed grape leaves and baklava
  • I'm from the South. Oxtails smothered in gravy with rice.
  • We call it relleno but I don’t know anyone or any culture that makes this dish.  Ground pork, celery, carrots, raisins, onion, garlic in a tomato sauce.  Translates as: stuffing but it’s unlike any stuffing I’ve ever seen.
  • It's all about the random sides. Must have lumpia & pancit, quiche & stuffed biscuits, bok choy salad, pretzel Jell-o dessert, and something new we decide to try that year.
  • My mom does this orange Jell-O salad that I absolutely love
  • My wife makes a cranberry Jell-o salad with nuts, celery, Mandarin orange wedges, and whole canned cranberry sauce. It's so good.
  • We would have a Jell-o salad that had red hots melted into the jello for spicy, apples, celery & walnuts for crunch...miss it!
  • Sausage rolls! My family is from the UK so we almost always have them at T-day and Xmas. If we don't, someone screwed up.
  • Hors d'oeuvres on hors d'oeuvres on hors d’oeuvres anything Costco & Trader Joe’s got going that year we bought & warmed up plus some homemade always including as one of the items, deviled eggs
  • Caramelized onion and apple compote. Some family members like onions and some don’t, so I started making the onions separately from the main dishes and now they’re always a side.
  • Tamale stuffing. Don’t use that Stouffers box junk- just cornbread and chopped up tamales.
  • Sushi, gyoza, veggie ‘n’ shrimp tempura, kimchi, Japanese potato salad....
  • Somen salad, potato salad, ambrosia, wontons, and rice. Sometimes sushi.
  • Homemade sweet potato chips with sour cream dollops
  • Sweet potatoes with marshmallows & brown sugar & pecans
  • Cooked purple cabbage and apple...a Danish dish in honor/memory of my mother-in-law
  • Creamy horseradish cranberry sauce. (trust me, it’s GOOD!)
  • Most people I know have them, but probably for this list I’d say Collard Greens.
  • I was going to say Butternut Squash bisque but I guess that’s not too exotic.
  • Sausage Stuffed Acorn Squash...it’s so much better than stuffing. https://whatsinthepan.com/stuffed-squash-sausage-apples.../
  • At all the holidays, Khao Poon. It’s soup. Papaya salad. I’m Filipino. My son married a Thai girl.
  • Thanksgiving is generally typical in our home. Christmas is when the culture kicks in for us.

You get the idea.

If anyone tells you America isn’t a melting pot (or shouldn’t be), show them this list and invite them to the twenty-first century.

As far as wine recommendations after all this, I have just one: 

Pick a bottle or two that makes you happy and share it.

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