Last week being a holiday week, K and I took the opportunity to leave New York City. It was her first Thanksgiving and we made our way to a family friends’ farm in Virginia. They have graciously hosted me three or four times in the past, and it has become something of a pilgrimage to be there on the fourth Thursday of November. It is a weekend in the country, which often features chilli and cornbread, bagels and cream cheese, grits and eggs, clam chowder, and, of course, a traditional turkey dinner.

For Australian readers, it is important to understand the significance of this All American holiday and why I love it so much. As a harvest festival, Thanksgiving has aspired to bring together Indigenous people and settlers during the colonial era; North and South after the Civil War; and individuals with their family in the melting pot that is contemporary America. Whatever its history, it creates harmony, gratitude and community, and it has lived up to this ideal in my experience. What I love about Thanksgiving is that it allows one to pause, reflect and give thanks while having meaningful conversations, being in nature and focusing on food, family and friends. When I first lived in America, I found B and B’s place to be the perfect tonic to the stress of graduate school where I was overworked on a steady diet of Hegel and de Tocqueville.

There are 15 of us this year out on the farm. Some have come from the big smoke; others have literally hiked in from the Appalachian Trail. Cooking for Thanksgiving starts the day before when the turkeys are brined and the cornbread for the stuffing is made. On the day itself, B gets up early to make the piecrust and T builds a fire to smoke one of the turkeys. We surface later, but the morning is still crisp and clear, the grass thick with white frost that crunches underfoot as we walk from our cabin to the main house. We drink tea and coffee, and start to peel, chop, shred, dice and mash. For lunch, we have a light soup and then take a walk through the woods and fields. There are deer tracks in the mud and the hay bales cast shadows on the rolling hills. The light begins to blue a little and, as we make our way back, we see T tending the smoker, drinking a beer, basting the turkey in duck fat. Inside, B oversees three generations in the pie making and the rest of us busy ourselves with minor tasks. 

Just on dusk, the table is laid with candles and flowers. The food is served and the wine is poured. The charm of Thanksgiving is there when our host B makes his speech, singling out every person at the table and what they mean – it is a touching, humorous and gentle reminder of why we are lucky and what it is to be together. In this moment, it becomes a holiday from the difficulty that assails us all. 

We eat roast turkey, smoked turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, Brussels sprout and kale salad, cranberry sauce, cranberry relish, gravy, stuffing, and sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. You read that right – you boil then mash sweet potatoes with butter, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon before topping it with vanilla marshmallows that melt, puff and brown in the oven. It is smooth and honeyed, a kind of sweet promoted from desert to the main event. I heard it from the neighbour F that this dish is made right across America. But, he tells me, that the cranberry relish is particular to this Thanksgiving dinner. The recipe comes from National Public Radio reporter Susan Stamberg's Mamma. B said she thought it sounded so ‘strange’ that she just had to try it and the relish has been served here since before I first came in 2006. Made with fresh cranberries, horseradish, sour cream, sugar and onion, it is blended then frozen so that it becomes similar to a chunky, agrodolce ice-cream that punctuates the meat with a rambunctious festivity. You take it in small measure and it adds a playful element to the plate. People return for seconds and thirds – the turkey is moist, the gravy lustrous, the stuffing crumbling, the potatoes fluffy, the turnips creamy, and the salad becomes the perfect foil offsetting the rest of the meal with zingy, crispy freshness. This year we only drink one bottle of wine – a five litre red from 1995. It has notes of berry and chocolate, maybe a hint of clove. With glasses in hand, we retire to the fire and talk politics, books, work, travel and sport. In the other room, the football is on and everyone is pleased that the Cowboys are losing.

For desert, we eat pie – chocolate pecan, which is a velvety, fudgy, nutty indulgence; an apple that is smooth and delectably firm with a buttery mouth-feel; and a pumpkin so perfectly spiced that it recalls and enhances the flavour of the sweet potatoes way back when. With it, the circle is complete, the harvest celebrated. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief and gives thanks for peace, prosperity and the possibility we may eat like this again one day. 

All this celebration reminds me of that most American of poets, Walt Whitman, when he said:

Love the earth and sun and the animals, give thanks to everyone, stand up for the weak and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with uneducated persons and with the young, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh and food shall be a great poem.

With its warmth, optimism, generosity, good taste and joy, Thanksgiving at the Jones Family Farm is a day that I am truly grateful for, and K's introduction to a wonderful holiday.


It is assumed knowledge that there is nowhere to eat on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When we tell people we just moved to the neighbourhood they will routinely suggest that there are great places to get fresh produce, pointing to the cornucopia of olives, the fine selection of cheeses and the exhaustive baked treats at Zabars; or the tender fresh pasta, sumptuous roasted chickens and buckets of pretzel pieces at Fairway Market; or the finer delights of lox from the seven seas, caviar that makes you heartsick for love, and cold cuts that warm you from the toes up from Barney Greengrass. You can buy it all, west of Central Park from the Trader Joes at 72nd Street to the Whole Foods on 97th. But, where oh where, can you eat? Surely nowhere there, at least according to the myths that circulate from people we have been speaking with.

Yet, since we have been here, we have found thick, silky, deep ramen from Jin on 82nd and Amsterdam, and, rich, cloying, melty cookies just down the road from Levain Bakery. Both of them are dishes that one gets all over New York. However, the real test, the real indicator species of a neighbourhood, one that tells it apart from pretenders, is the breakfast roll. Some might prefer to think that pizza counts, that bagels are the litmus, that sushi in its arriviste pretension is how one determines where to live and whether the property prices are truly reflective or astronomical or if you got a bargain for what you paid. To me though, it is the breakfast roll that matters most. You get it in every deli and in franchises of every name, from the bodega on the corner to Dunkin’ Donuts. It is only egg, cheese, breakfast meat (ham, bacon, sausage) served on a bread roll (or a biscuit, muffin, croissant). So, what is it that sets an Upper West Side example apart?

From the outset, it must be said that K (my trusted life and dinner companion) only eats this breakfast roll, it being the best to be found. It makes her judgement depend on whether a particular example of it was as good as the last (or first) not where it fits in the universe of others. I work to a different frame. I have eaten breakfast rolls in no fit state, dropping egg yolk on my pants, wiping it away so that it only leaves a suspicious stain, hurrying the whole of it into my mouth at once; ‘wolfing’ it would be correct to say. This has been back home in Australia, where the variety is usually bacon and egg with barbeque sauce, often from a gas station when you are on a roadtrip. But I have been there too in America, where they often add a layer of cheese to the experience and it comes without sauce. That is the first difference from what I am used to; the second is that bacon in Australia is of a thicker cut, what Americans would call a Canadian rasher, which often has less fat than those on offer here. In my time in New York however, I have sampled the breakfast roll in a number of places – sometimes they are greasy and limp, having sat for too long under heat lamps, or the bread is dry and unable to absorb the oozing combination of egg and cheese, or the meat is just tasteless.

On the other hand, the White Gold Breakfast Roll is a perfect vision of what this dish can be. The bread is toasted on the inside with a light char that comes from being placed on a griddle and then generously buttered. Its outside retains a springy freshness and is sprinkled with poppyseeds that miraculously do not fall off, in which case they would get stuck in the beard or on the lap like ants. Inside, the ham, in my preferred case, is folded into a neat, generous stack, cut to the perfect thickness and generously portioned. It is salty, deep, savoury with a hint of smoke that suggests a richness uncommon in cold cuts. Beneath them the cheese sits atop the egg; they should be considered as one, for they combine to be creamy, juicy and tender; the cheese melts to become a sauce one might find in a dreamed of dish that combines nachos with raclette. All the parts work in harmony, a synthesis of salty good times that approaches sweetness if not umami. It is a textural treat with the springy crunch of the bread, the chew and firmness from the ham, and the fluid softness of the egg-cheese. For something made in a few minutes, it tastes, impossibly, like it has been cooking for quite some time. 

If the breakfast roll is approachable, it must be said that White Gold itself is a little upscale. I do not mean that in a bad way; one can be comfortable here and it is not pretentious, snooty or exclusive. It is a butcher that is kitsch and local even if that means it is well to do given where we live. And, for an $8 well spent in the morning, you can have a bite from heaven that sets you up for the day.

White Gold Butchers,  375 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10024
8 AM – 10 PM (Breakfast till 3pm, Lunch at 12pm, Dinner at 5:30pm)
Subway: 1 at 79th Street; C, B at 81st Street.