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The day after: leftover love

November 25, 2005|Julie Powell | JULIE POWELL is the author of "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen" (Little, Brown & Co., 2005).

FOR AMERICAN cooks, Thanksgiving can be a trying time. There is the feast itself, of course, a several-day juggling act of poultry lacers and pastry crusts, achieved while at the same time navigating a treacherous obstacle course of overstuffed refrigerators, differing oven temperatures and hidebound family traditions. And that's the easy part.

What comes next, just when you want nothing but a nap and possibly a nice, purging case of trichinosis, is leftovers.

The desserts, overwhelming though they are -- we usually wind up making four for our family of six -- aren't so bad. No one expects you to reinvent the wheel with leftover pecan pie; a scoop of ice cream will do. But what about the rest -- the trays of cornbread dressing and bowls of mashed potatoes, the jars of cranberry sauce, the ragged scraps of turkey meat, the carcass, which of course must be saved for making stock? These present to us foodish types a challenge hard to ignore.

Which is when we get into trouble.

Every year at this time, the food magazines attack the problem of leftovers, and every year I clip and save the recipes with all the self-control of a zombie in the service of some evil genius bent on world domination.

Turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, Asian turkey cole slaw -- no matter how gimmicky or ghastly the suggestion, I take it under advisement. It is not enough to pick up the Brussels sprouts and Karo syrup and free-range turkey on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving; I must also make sure to have tomatillos and smoked mozzarella for the day-after sandwiches, porcini mushrooms for the day-after stuffing strata (that's gourmand-speak for casserole), blue cheese for the day-after cranberry sauce bruschetta.

Once the groceries have been stowed, my kitchen looks like a bomb shelter stocked by a foodie. Which is more or less what it is.

But the problem with creative leftovering is not the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you rise at last from your tryptophan-induced haze, only to realize you must venture once more into the kitchen. Rather, it's that by dressing up your turkey and stuffing in gourmet duds, you're getting away from one of the most precious aspects of the holiday -- the celebration of family as clan. As in Clan of the Cave Bear.

That stuff about giving thanks is very nice, but we all know that Thanksgiving is really all about stuffing yourself with the ones you love. The turkey itself is the most important symbol of that vital satiety. Probably the largest whole beast to grace most of our tables all year, the poor thing inevitably looks like a carcass ravaged by hyenas by the end of the meal, which is as it should be.

The feral foraging of the day after is as important a part of this celebration as the Thanksgiving meal itself. My dearest memories are of hunching down together with my brother over a decimated turkey, picking flaps of crisp skin and gobbets of meat off the bones with our fingers, or companionably assembling day-after sandwiches, mud-pie-style -- Wonder Bread topped with dressing, mashed potatoes, a slather of cranberry sauce and three green beans -- with my father at midnight. I love the rummaging, the irregular mealtimes. I love that for one day we are all free, indeed obligated, to revel in our animalistic urges.

Which is why, every year, the tomatillos remain unroasted, the cranberry bruschetta unprepared. Because once a year, I have the time to see that eating and love of family are both animal things. Why soak porcini mushrooms or pipe rosettes of mashed potatoes when I can simply tear off a turkey leg, or scoop some whipped cream into my mouth with a spoon, in the company of people I love? What is freshly made turkey stock compared to the finger-licking pleasure of that?

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