Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday for me. Though I host every year, I lack any kind of adventurous impulse. When the food mags come out with their pornographic close-ups of homemade sausage-sage stuffing and colonial cranberry sauce I settle in for some transportive reading. But I never actually make the stuff. For me, Thanksgiving is about recreating what my mother made, as accurately as humanly possible, which means Pepperidge Farm stuffing from a bag and a liberal shake of Bell's turkey seasoning. Thanksgiving is about ease and comfort. It's the glass of Gamay that remains half-full from noon onwards, and sitting down to eat at 4PM just as the dusky clouds roll over Brooklyn. Typically, I'm sautéing onions and celery in three sticks of butter by 8AM and I don't eat anything until I fall famished on the afternoon table. I'd like to think that my guests enjoy a somewhat more civilized experience, though sweatpants often reign supreme.
Given the rhythm of the day, cheese appears, though atypically for my house, before the meal. I rarely serve cheese as an appetizer, preferring to offer a lovely little mid-course between dinner and dessert. I tend to be of the opinion that big, limp slabs of Brie only fill you up, preventing the enjoyment of a carefully constructed meal. But at Thanksgiving it's all day grazing. Turkey sandwiches are being made at 9PM to soak up half a day of drinking, so why not a cheese course when everyone arrives? I like flutes of champagne, too, with merry little pomegranate seeds settled at the glasses' cleft.
There are two ways to go. The simplest, like all straightforward things, requires a total unwillingness to compromise on spare ingredients. It's a celebration of season, and the ecstatic consumption of that rare winter treat, Vacherin Mont d'Or. Vacherin is hard to find, and shrouded in the seductive mystery of illegal raw milk. It appeared around New York City last week, and will sprout like elusive morels until mid-March when it disappears for another year. Traditionally, Vacherin is made with the higher fat and protein milk of the valley-bound cows of France's Franche-Comte region. These milkers spend their summers aloft in the Alps, fuelling enormous wheels of mountain cheese like Comté. When cold weather sweeps through, they are ferreted away to protected towns where they gorge on dried hay and their thick, luscious milk is formed into spruce-bound patties contained within wooden boxes. A proper Vacherin should have a bulging, undulating rind the perfect shade of blushing bride, with an even coat of powdery white mold. It needs a solid two to three hours to come to room temperature, when the whole box can be dumped, ceremoniously or otherwise, on the coffee table, beside a platter of freshly sliced pears (Bosc, not Bartlett) and bright, crunchy apples (Honeycrisps or Macouns, ideally). Guests can dunk fruit in cheese, rind and all, and take turns scraping woodsy bits from the powerfully aromatic spruce.
The more complicated, but perhaps more sophisticated, alternative is an all American cheese board. You'll want a range of texture and milk type (though with American cheeses sheep will be hard to find), with no more than 3-5 selections. Things I find to be really good for blustery autumn days are:
Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill (Georgia): The rind is thin and mild, not snappy and bitter the way so many bloomies can be. There's still a high note of acidity, a tart, cultured taste to what is otherwise a mouthful of mild, buttery, richness.
River's Edge Up in Smoke (Oregon): A hand-squashed ball of goat cheese, smoked, and then wrapped in a maple leaf that looks to have been plucked from the ground. The whole package is smoked a second time and then spritzed in bourbon to tease out woody, barrel-aged nuance. It tastes like New England fall.
Dancing Cow Sarabande (Vermont): So thick and creamy it bulges at the perimeter, in constant danger of splitting its perfect, cantaloupe-colored, brine washed-rind. The core remains lactic and crumbly, the exterior is meaty and pungent.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (Vermont): The sweetness just hangs there, and the first bite is like baked potatoes, tight in their papery jackets, with melted lumps of butter tucked inside. There is just enough acidity, enough pluck and tang, to maintain balance, but the roundness calls to mind an elusive spoonful of perfectly, patiently browned butter, tasting of nuts though there are none to be found.
Rogue River Blue (Oregon): An intensely creamy, mellow blue that is permeated with the essence of golden autumn pears, the kind that juice down your arm when you bite into them. The salt and sweet, fruit and minerally smoke, co-exist in perfect, tenuous balance.
About Liz Thorpe
A Yale graduate, Liz Thorpe left a "normal" job in 2002 to work the counter at New York's famed Murray's Cheese. She managed and expanded their wholesale business, designed cheese menus for the country's best restaurants, coauthored The Murray's Cheese Handbook, and followed her passion for cheese. She is now the vice president of Murray's, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two cats. Here latest book is "The Cheese Chronicles: A Journey Through the Making and Selling of Cheese in America, From Field to Farm to Table" (Ecco, 2009)
Disclosure: Samples of products discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or manufacturers.