I awoke the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at dawn, girded for battle. “Baby,” I told my just-roused girlfriend, waving Gorilla coffee beneath her nose like smelling salts, “lace up some sneakers. We’re going on a provision quest.”
While the “black” Friday following Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of consumerism, with bargain-crazed shoppers stampeding for $29 TVs, the day preceding Thanksgiving is equally madcap for cooks sourcing last-minute stuffing. Let’s call it Hungry Wednesday. I’ve long avoided Turkey Day shopping by celebrating Thanksgiving in Dayton, Ohio, leaving culinary acquisitions to my parents. But last year, my clan decided to break bread in Brooklyn. At my apartment.
My girlfriend, who likes nesting as much as a robin in spring, thrilled at the prospect: “Now we can get new plates, and knives, and a dining-room table, and a couch, and a tablecloth, and…” “What about the turkey?” I asked, getting to the meat of the matter.
“I’m a vegetarian,” she said, perusing the Web for white plates.
“Then what about carrots and other vegetables?” “That,” she said, clicking on an ad for Martha Stewart–brand dishes, “is your job.”
Harnessing the anal-retentiveness that compels me to scrub our toilet with a toothbrush, I sourced all the supplies a week in advance. Then I successfully navigated the cold recesses of a turkey’s cavity—nice meeting you, neck and giblets!—and concocted potato sides that had diners beside themselves.
“It’s so nice not to cook,” my mom sighed, as blissfully as if she’d received a three-hour massage. “We should do it again next year.”
And so, 364 days later, my girlfriend and I rode a rickety 2 train to the Upper West Side. Hacking bronchitis had kept me from grocery shopping, so nearly every ingredient had to be bought on Hungry Wednesday.We began at Fairway (2127 Broadway, betw.W. 74th & W. 75th Sts., 212-595-1888) for Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and brown sugar, fighting through throngs with baguettes wielded like swords.Then we beelined up Broadway to Jewish-food emporium Zabar’s (2245 Broadway, at W. 80th St., 212-787-2000).Why visit the land of lox? Because corned beef and pastrami are integral to the Bernstein Thanksgiving.
My father was reared in The Bronx’s Riverdale; my mother in Washington Heights. They both developed affinities for corned beef, Kosher salami and peppery pastrami— foodstuffs as rare as liberals in southwestern Ohio. Ever the good son, I’d return home for Thanksgiving bearing mounds of sliced meats and salamis like baseball bats.While the turkey roasted, my parents and siblings would attack the bounty like buzzards to carrion.
“I’ll shop for cheese,” my girlfriend volunteered, wanting no part of Zabar’s deli. I understood. Here, buying brisket can be a blood sport. Fiercely territorial Jewish grandparents stake out counter space, clutching pink line tickets like toddlers to their favorite blankets. I grabbed No. 6. Since the meat men were tending to 92, I hit the bakery for onion rye. Soft and fragrant and coated with enough caramelized onions to cause terminal halitosis, the old-fashioned onion rye is a sandwich’s best friend.To give my breath the deathblow, I then grabbed several garlic-potato and onion-potato knishes fresh from the oven.
I broke off a garlicky hunk of bread-encased mashed potatoes. It was smooth, savory and as flaky as a Valley girl, a treat from a simpler time. I was wrapped in such knish bliss that I didn’t notice as the deli numbers sped from six to seven, landing at 14. “I’m six! I’m six!” I shouted. I dashed back to the counter, waving my ticket like a fly swatter.
“Six? What are you doing with six?” the deli guy asked. He shook his head, as disappointed as a dad whose son gets a D on his report card.
“The knishes…” I said, hoisting my halfconsumed carbohydrates. He was as unmoved a Buckingham Palace guard. “Sorry,” I said. “Could I please have a pound apiece of pastrami and corned beef?”
He nodded begrudgingly. Several minutes later, I held a bag of well-brined meats, as heavy as gold and nearly as costly. At $18 a pound, I thought, my parents best know I love them. After grabbing a bag of chewy Bell’s bialys and black-and-white cookies—linchpins of edible Jewish culture—I found my girlfriend, wrist-deep in cheddar and blue cheeses.
“Get everything you need?” she asked, dropping an extra-sharp cheddar block into my basket.
“Not even close,” I said, wondering what sweet words I’d utter to enlist her help in carrying the 14-pound turkey to come.