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Tracing Tradition

Tom Colicchio weighs in on the great turkey brining debate.

By Tom Colicchio


How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Few meals conjure as much sentiment and emotion as Thanksgiving. Everyone has his or her own memories -- good or bad -- and they are, however subconsciously, linked to the food. So everyone has strong opinions about which food should appear on the table, and about exactly how that food should be prepared.

The chief food under discussion, of course, is The Bird. 

Roast the whole thing? Braise the legs but roast the breast separately? Spatchcock it? Baste? Don’t baste? Only baste at the end? This year, the big, heated (no pun intended) “discussion” in the Twittersphere/Blogosphere was about brining: To Brine Or Not To Brine (sub-“discussion”: if brining, to dry brine or wet brine?). I am decidedly in the “Brining’s not necessary” camp and posted my own recipe, and I can’t tell you how many indignant “But Alton Brown says the turkey must be brined!”messages I received.    

Not knocking Alton, whose knowledge of food and of food science I respect, but, as you saw on the show, my turkey comes out moist and succulent without all that fuss. In this challenge, my team basically did the turkey and stuffing as I do at home. The rest of the team, though, pretty much did whatever they wanted. I honestly had no idea what Carla was making (I couldn’t understand what she was yelling at me that she was doing) -- I’m just glad she did it so well. The team pulled together and put together nice dishes. Everything was beautifully presented and delicious. I initially expected just to advise my team and steer the meal in a particular direction, but when I got to the kitchen and saw Emeril at the stove, I jumped in, too, for a little while. We had a great time joking and cooking. Overall, it was a lot of fun.Emeril’s team largely did well, too, but once we saw Josie’s undercooked turkey, everyone at the table knew it was all over for the Gray Team. If Josie hadn't had immunity, she would have gone home — this was one of those times when having immunity truly came in handy. Kuniko’s potatoes were clearly the second-worst dish of the evening, so it worked out well for all that she was on the team that was up for an elimination. Kuniko had plenty of time to cook that dish, and it was such a simple dish that any chef should have been safe from elimination with it. If that dish is cooked correctly and seasoned properly, you just can’t get sent home. I couldn’t understand how Kuniko blew a dish like that, or how she didn't realize the fact, which was easy to discover. Honestly, she made our job as judges easy this week.

The challenge itself reflected what’s great about Thanksgiving. Fast Company magazine interviewed me for an article in the current issue about Thanksgiving, in which they discussed the origins of the holiday. “The First Thanksgiving” actually wasn’t… a thanksgiving, that is. Apparently a hunting party shot a bunch of birds and invited some of the Native Americans to join them in eating them, along with harvested vegetables. Giving thanks probably wasn’t part of the agenda, or at least not at the top of it. Large harvest meals were common throughout the growing nation in the autumns that followed, in order to eat up food that would otherwise go to waste, but it wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln, noting that we didn’t have any official holidays in the fall, declared it a national holiday of thanksgiving in a gesture intended to start to reunify the country. People most likely ate whatever was available locally, which, in New England where the tradition began, would most likely have included a good amount of fish, because cod came into the shallows in the winter, and oysters and scallops were much more abundant than now (think “oyster stuffing”). Squashes, nuts, fall-berries like cranberries, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, parsnips, turnips… all became traditional.But the part I love most about Thanksgiving, that was reflected in the challenge, is how every group arriving from foreign shores made the tradition their own. Coming to New Orleans via Fall River, MA, where he grew up, Emeril put a decidedly Portuguese-American spin on his team’s “traditional” dishes, while I put an “Italian-American” spin on mine. In my family when I was growing up, we always had lasagna as a first course. My grandmother always made the stuffing with a lot of garlic in it. Far be it from me to decide what belongs on anyone’s Thanksgiving table. All I hoped for, in this week’s Elimination Challenge, was that whatever landed there was made well. 

I hope your holiday meal was great, as well, and that you and yours had a Happy Thanksgiving together. I had all my boys with me, and they all ate with gusto from college student down to toddler, so I’m a happy dad today. And no, to answer what I know what you’re wondering: the stuffing didn’t have a lot of garlic in it this year.


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