A Falstaffian Feast
Do make a production out of holiday entertaining this year.
By Bradley Tuck 12/06/2013
If you’re feeling stressed out about preparing your turkey for the holidays, spare a thought for Allen Tate. He has to make six. You see, Tate is the prop master at L.A. Opera. To celebrate the 200th birthday of composer Giuseppe Verdi, the opera staged his comedy Falstaff. Sadly, Verdi couldn’t be there, but the opera did invite a group of foodie media folks to view the food props that were part of the production, so I had a tour backstage and learned a few things about how to create a feast of operatic stature for my own holiday celebrations.
There are six performances of Falstaff, and for each performance, Tate was required to cook a large turkey to be used as a prop onstage. Given Falstaff’s setting in Shakespearean England, I expected something quite Elizabethan in theme, over the top, perhaps bejeweled with pearls, but it turns out I was incorrect. You see, turkey itself was quite the fancy bird in that era, being a newcomer from the New World. So what Tate had resting golden and plump on a platter was a simply dressed bird, with some slices of orange laid in a circle around it. It was almost ascetic in its simplicity. Perhaps, I ventured, “there’s something exotic in the stuffing?” as I pointed at the parson’s nose (more prosaically known as the bird’s tail), which seemed fit to burst with something. “Just apple and celery for flavor,” Tate replied, adding that he would never cook stuffing inside the bird.
“Good to know,” I said, wondering if, over the years, various older family members had been playing some kind of gastronomic Russian roulette with us all, my grandmothers’ birds always stuffed both internally and with a separate dish of bread stuffing cooked separately. I always preferred the stuffing from inside the turkey, finding it to be moist and full of flavor but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, my grans were indeed playing a dangerous game because the optimal temperature for cooking the bird also creates a cozy nursery for bacteria in the stuffing. The CDC suggests cooking stuffing separately or, if stuffing it internally, said stuffing must reach a minimum temperature of 165 degrees to be safe. Seeing as one would also have to cook the turkey to that point, it’s clear that in the process of avoiding harm, it’s quite possible to end up with 18 pounds of turkey jerky. So, outside stuffing it is, with just some seasoning and a mix of apples and celery in the cavity, to be discarded later.
In the Falstaff production, Mistress Quickly tears off a turkey leg, takes a bite and promptly exits the stage. Thankfully, said leg is pre-severed, so there’s no risk of her grabbing the drumstick only to haul an entire bird onto her slippers. Which brings me neatly to carving. This is most important: You must rest the bird. The main reason for this is to allow the meat’s fibers to loosen up and become tender. The minimum resting time is 20 minutes, and a big bird can be left for up to 40. Cover the turkey with foil, but whatever you do, don’t cover it too tightly. That way lies a steamed skin, not the savory crispness for which you’ve been basting and watching like a turkey hawk.
The other reason for resting the bird is to allow you to find among your guests the best candidate for the duty of carving. It’s a good idea to get someone else to do the honors for a couple of reasons: It gives you a chance to pour yourself a well-earned glass of wine — the “chef’s privilege,” as it’s called in my home. Entertaining is stressful, no matter how good one is at it. A glass of wine will allow you to at least come out of the kitchen and have a chat with guests so that, come serving time, you’re not a red-faced sweaty mess. If you are stressed, your guests will be too. The art of hospitality and entertaining is in making it look effortless, even if the actual preparation involves tears, cursing and broken china. As in an opera, whatever goes on backstage must remain undetectable in “the front of house,” so that your audience members are entertained and will rise to their feet with admiration and applause at the virtuoso coloratura of your gravy.
On my visit to the opera, what intrigued me were the fabulous masks created for a few chorus members. Based on the vegetable and fruit paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, they were quite stunning. Arcimboldo was famous for his depictions of the human face using vegetables and fruits to compose the features of his subjects. The masks for Falstaff, created by Hallie Dufresne, featured all manner of produce and led me to wonder if, perhaps this year, I could be a little more inspired in the presentation of my sides. How about some beautiful roasted baby squash nestling up against a fan of rainbow-colored braised whole young carrots? Perhaps there’s room for a cloud of gorgeous cauliflower there too, roasted with spices like vadouvan, its delicate curry fragrance a perfect companion to a savory bird and a glass of Pinot Noir. And in addition to the traditional mashed potatoes, could room be found perhaps for a selection of Weiser Farms’ delicious fingerlings — blue, red and white, glistening from the roasting pan and flecked with fresh herbs? I think so.
And now to the guests. Inasmuch as an opera relies on a cast of many voices to create a single wonderful spectacle, so too does dinner. And your guests are your ensemble. It’s not always possible to be terribly selective about guests during the holidays. An ordinary dinner party allows one the knife of selectivity, but holidays bring with them social expectations. Living in a big city, we have many friends who are transplants, and sometimes they’re unable to make it home to spend the holidays with family. And this is where we become family instead. Careful seating of guests, especially at large gatherings, is vital to a dinner’s success. I always try to mix it up, seating together people who don’t know each other well, with one gregarious guest for every two less forthcoming. The noisy one helps to get the two quieter ones talking and drives the conversation so that one isn’t just left with the sound of silverware, china and chewing. I also try to triangulate good friends up and down the table, so that conversation bounces effortlessly from one end to the other, with familiarity and funny reminiscences being the fuel for a back-and-forth as lively as a Dame Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau duet.
Before you know it, it will be time for the curtain to fall, and you can graciously step forward, sporting a veil of light modesty, to receive your company’s adulation. “Oh really, it was nothing,” you say, before seeing them off into the night and retiring, spent, to your dressing room — to do the dishes. Happy holidays.