So you think you have it tough today, scrambling to bake pies and cube bread for stuffing to feed the hungry hordes that will land on your doorstep tomorrow?
On this Thanksgiving Eve, be thankful you’re not Eric Flynn, the head chef at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, who will be cooking for a record 900 people today.
That’s equivalent to the entire population of Ogunquit.
To feed that many people, Flynn made sure that, by last Friday, he had 800 pounds of potatoes (from three farms) in his walk-in cooler, along with 1,200 pounds of root vegetables such as parsnips, turnips, rutabagas and carrots.
Yesterday, 44 turkeys, weighing about 30 pounds each, arrived from Wolfe’s Neck Farm. Their legs, thighs and wings were quickly dispatched to make 25 gallons of stock that will be transformed into 15 gallons of gravy.
If you’re one of those strange beasts who have tired of turkey, that’s OK. Flynn also has 575 pounds of prime rib and 750 pounds of lobster for the buffet table. There’s pork prepared two ways, seared scallops over a tomato and Hen of the Woods ragout with lemon thyme and citrus zest, and roasted salmon over crushed Peruvian lima beans with brown butter-sauteed Brussels sprouts leaves and shallots.
The Harraseeket calls its Thanksgiving dinner a “Grand Buffet,” and a glance at the menu shows it lives up to its name. In addition to the meats and seafoods, there’s nine different appetizers, a large selection of soups, salads and sides, and 11 different desserts.
The buffet is a 23-year-old tradition that has made a big-time comeback after losing a few diners in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. When it opened in 1989, there were 100-plus guests. It has grown every year, except for the recent dip because of the recession, and by last year the number of guests had climbed to more than 700.
During the past few weeks, Americans have been inundated, on television and in food magazines, with gorgeous, drool-worthy images of Thanksgiving food and the familiar debates about whether or not to brine the turkey, how to season the bird, and should you roast it again or finally try frying it this year? Bread, rice or cornbread stuffing? Pumpkin, apple or mincemeat pie? If an alien landed on Earth at Thanksgiving, he’d think we were plotting war, not planning a dinner menu.
People make jokes about “food porn” the rest of the year, but Thanksgiving is a culinary peep show without the guilt. It doesn’t matter if you’re a wishbone-thin model or a meaty linebacker, we all embrace this annual opportunity to wallow in our fantasies of making better gravy than our mother-in-law.
So why do so many people decide to go to a restaurant for the big day?
“When I worked for the Ritz Carlton, it was the same kind of thing,” Flynn said. “Thanksgiving was a Grand Buffet. You sort of realize that a lot of people eat out on Thanksgiving. Not everybody is, I think, culinarily inclined for a family of 12. Also, there’s those people that don’t want to go through the hassle of cooking and cleaning up.”
QUALITY TIME, NO FUSS, NO MUSS
Dr. Christiane Northrup of Yarmouth, the nationally known women’s health expert, spent years making an annual traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her family. But for about eight years now, she has been taking her daughters to the Harraseeket buffet.
She said she likes the fact that, instead of spending an entire week thinking about the menu, shopping and cooking, she and her daughters can just get dressed up and go spend quality time with each other.
“We were able to really visit, really be with each other (at the buffet), in a way that we never were when I had to get up at the crack of dawn, do the turkey, time it all out and all the rest of it,” Northrup said. “Even if you have six, seven, eight people at the table (at home), the actual eating time is not very much for all the prep that goes into it. And if you’re like most families, you’ve got the group that’s off watching football.”
Last year, one of Northrup’s daughters asked if they could stay home and make dinner themselves, succumbing after several years of dining out to the annual onslaught of Thanksgiving propaganda.
“I said fine,” Northrup recalled. “You know, it’s like childbirth. You forget.”
So the family had Thanksgiving at home, with friends from New York, and the fancy dessert torn from the pages of a gourmet food magazine took two days to make.
This year, when Northrup asked the same daughter where she wanted to spend Thanksgiving, “she said, ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to the Harraseeket Inn.’ “
Northrup was lucky to get reservations when she called in September. The buffet has three seatings in the main dining room and three seatings in the ballroom, and all of them were sold out by mid-October. Diners on the waiting list can only hope that a party cancels or becomes four instead of eight to make room for them.
Flynn says more than half his Thanksgiving diners are locals. There are lots of return visitors – some people have been coming since they were children, and are now bringing their own children — but Flynn says he’s noticed a lot of new names on the guest list this year.
‘WHITE TABLECLOTH EXPERIENCE’
At the other end of the spectrum is Five Fifty-Five in Portland, which is opening on Thanksgiving for the first time this year.
Chef/owner Steve Corry noticed the steady increase in phone inquiries about the holiday year after year, and decided there is plenty of demand for a “full service, white tablecloth experience” in Portland.
“Our philosophy on running a restaurant in this day and age is that the more full service you can be, the better off you’re going to be because your customers are going to be happy,” Corry said.
“We’ll probably see some new customers this Thanksgiving which hopefully will turn into repeat customers and regulars. The competition is fierce now. There are a lot of restaurants in this town in a down economy, and Thanksgiving is in a pretty slow month. It just seemed like a no-brainer.”
Corry said he has to consider staff morale when opening on a family-oriented holiday like Thanksgiving, but his staff has to work Wednesday and Friday that week anyway, which makes it difficult to travel anywhere.
Corry will be working the day as well. His wife and business partner, Michelle, will bring their two sons in for Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant and Corry will try to take a quick break to pop out and say hello.
But he and the rest of his staff won’t have time to linger with guests. As of last week, the restaurant had already sold 120 of 150 seats.
Corry will be offering some dishes that are a little different, but the menu will definitely reflect traditional holiday food.
Every year around this time, for example, Corry adds turducken to the menu, and “it’s become kind of a little cult favorite.”
“We didn’t take a whole turkey and stuff it with a whole chicken and stuff it with a whole duck,” he said. “It’s a play. We take a turkey breast and butterfly and pound it out, and then we layer duck confit, then we have a chicken sausage and we roll the whole thing up together to wrap it.
“Then we’ll cook it at a gentle temperature for a long time until it’s cooked, and then we’ll take it and we’ll roast it until it’s crispy. You’ll get a slice of this on the plate with your stuffing and your cranberry sauce. To some degree, your plate will remind you of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but with a little whimsy.”
Corry will also serve his traditional New England oyster stuffing and some kind of play on green bean casserole.
Non-traditional options will include organic Scottish salmon, some kind of red meat roast or braise, and Corry’s truffled lobster “mac & cheese,” a customer favorite that he dares not remove from the menu.
Lobster is the thing (along with baked brie) that Flynn cannot remove from his menu or customers would howl. He serves the lobsters split in half and chilled.
Northrup says she always goes for the traditional turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes (“otherwise, it’s not Thanksgiving”) but if friends from New York join her it’s a different story.
“This year I have two people from New York City,” she said. “The lobster is a huge deal.”
Northrup is a medical doctor and a women’s health expert, but she confesses she doesn’t worry too much about eating healthy on Thanksgiving. Yes, she loves the “unusual salads” that the inn serves, but when it comes to dessert, “I really have to have a taste of everything that’s on the buffet. I admit it.”
“I love mincemeat pie, so I always have that,” she said. “And then, their vanilla ice cream is better than any other vanilla ice cream on planet earth. They make it there. I have to have that.”
Northrup said she doesn’t miss leftovers, one of the benefits of cooking Thanksgiving dinner at home. She just uses the rest of the weekend to try new recipes in a more relaxed environment.
Still, even after all these years of dining out on the holiday, Northrup is not immune to the pull of the Thanksgiving editions of Saveur and Bon Appetit and the over-the-top spreads shown on the Food Network.
“I still have my fantasies,” she said, “because I’ve cooked so many Thanksgiving dinners over the years, and I’m so good at it.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]