Edouard Manet Still Life with Fish, 1864
Imagine a long table laid with tempting bowls and dishes on a white cotton tablecloth with scalloped edges. Each bowl holds an exquisite sample of the cook’s inspiration. It’s a smorgasbord, a selection of appetizers, a buffet of zakuski. One platter may be pirogi filled with forest mushrooms, another, corn blinis with caviar, cabbage bundles stuffed with game, pickled cauliflower and beets flavored with dill, smoked sturgeon, and tiny fried anchovies. The room is lit like a theatre, the table illuminated by a single chandelier, and the guests dance around it and nibble gaily with a liveliness that can’t be contained in a chair. Chilled glasses of vodka and brut champagne circle like the rings of Saturn.
This is a table my father would have loved. Once, while on a Scandinavian cruise line for their second honeymoon, he crashed a wedding having caught a glimpse of just such a table in a room he happened to be strolling by. No one questioned the handsome doctor in a double breasted pinstripe suit who accepted a flute of champagne and clicked his glass against the beautiful blond next to him and said, “Skaal!” He was the perfect guest, he ate, he drank, he danced with the Swedish dames, and when my mother, after a thorough search, finally found him and dragged him away like a cork from a bottle, he smiled sheepishly and said, “Ah, but I could not resist the zakuski!” If there was one ritual my father cherished, it was a “buffet russe”, the Russian tradition of sampling multi appetizers while knocking back icy vodka shots, all the while circling the table, slapping backs, and laughing with your mouth full.
My father preferred to begin all parties this way, guests milling happily, a generous variety of hors d’oeuvres arranged beautifully (no waiters in tuxes teasing you with mouse morsels) and little glasses of good drinks. Only later, much later, when he was feeling the warmth of the smoked fish and vodka, when everyone was a comrade, and he could loosen his tie, hold my mother’s waist and twirl her around the room, was he ready to stroll to the dining room, to collapse like a sea lion into a chair for the hot meal. He felt trapped if he were served chips and dip and a modest glass of scotch, then quickly called to the table to sit for a lengthy meal next to someone he couldn’t get away from.
So this Thanksgiving, because I think my father played a big role in awakening my culinary enthusiasm, I want to begin with zakuski, to imagine him in that pinstriped suit and polished Bally shoes, a candlelit look of rapture on his face, tempted by bowls of spicy, warm, cold, red, green, and pink. In the freezer, we will line glasses near the Grey Goose. Champagne and pinot blanc, cradled in starched white napkins, will lean in ice buckets. And to slow the pace of our evening, we’ll crack pomegranates and drop the seeds like rubies when we pour the vodka. Our guests will be less inclined to do shots when there are pomegranate seeds floating in their drinks. I will iron my best tablecloth, a white Basque cotton with bold red stripes, a gift from my husband for our fourth anniversary. There will be red roses and candles floating in glass bowls filled with cranberries, and bouquets of crabapples with maroon twigs.
We can’t afford caviar, but we will serve poor man’s roasted eggplant caviar with good fried bread, mushroom tarts, a pâté with prunes soaked in cognac, pickled cauliflower and beets, smoked trout with dill crème fraîche and cucumber. Our aim is variety, not necessarily harmony. Let the flavors crash into each other like ill-assorted relatives, all the ones who avoid each other all year long and are then thrown together in your dining room to make merry and break bread. We will invite them all and their grudges, too. The buffet will jolt them into a new routine. Gone are the chaste crudités with sour cream dip, the sideboard with the old silver gravy boat and serving spoons, the orange mums and tapered candles. They will be forced to get up and serve themselves from the beautiful platters of braised red cabbage and turkey, fried sweet potatoes, butternut squash and ricotta turnovers. The newness of it will spark amity, even allowing a newfound affection for the sister-in-law or cousin or brother who grate on each other, chew noisily, sweep brussel sprouts to the rim of their plate, let their kids run amok, or manage to offend with a compliment.
The next day, you won’t find us resentful of the pile of dishes, the glasses that won’t fit in the dishwasher, and the linen napkins that need to be laundered and ironed. We’ll bask in the afterglow of a good party, select a few leftovers to have for lunch with the last drops of pinot blanc, and clink our glasses to the handsome doctor in the pinstriped suit.