A Holiday Together: The Thanksgiving Table

The holidays are upon us. And after spending our last holiday season cooped up in our homes without the company of our families and friends due to the COVD-19 pandemic, most of us are yearning and ready to spend this holiday season with the ones we love.


Aubrey Brewster

Aubrey Brewster, a bon vivant and man-about-town, is a product of his environment. His affinity for cooking, fashion, and entertaining was inherited from summer vacations shared in Charleston, West Virginia with his southern belle model-turned-hostess grandmother. It should come with no surprise that Brewster followed in his grandmother’s footsteps, with an inherent talent for hosting legendary parties. He is often listed among San Francisco’s best dressed. Aubrey is a San Francisco native, traveler, and food and lifestyle blogger (aubreyabouttown.com), residing in the city with his husband, Edward. He can be found enjoying afternoons lunching with friends at Neiman Marcus and some of San Francisco’s favorite haunts when not hosting or attending events.


Finally, California has opened up and most of its population are vaccinated and the longing for the tradition of safely giving thanks with friends and family is finally over. The inherent need to be with our loved ones is deep. This is especially true with Thanksgiving, a holiday we all can get behind—a time just to be together in thanks.

I often write about happenings “about town,” but what better place to be during the holidays than at home with family and friends. So, this article is dedicated to home sweet home.

The Thanksgiving Table

Thanksgiving at our place has been a special, longtime tradition for many of our friends. Some guests have shared the day with us for more years than I care to confess. Needless to say, it broke my heart when we had to cancel this long-held tradition last year and displace my beloved gang of vagabonds—so much so, that when I heard a friend say he didn’t know what he and his mother would do and even going so far as to thinking of picking up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in lieu of our annual feast, I nearly wept (and laughed a little). I couldn’t let that happen, so yours truly here cooked and packed up a full roast turkey dinner, complete with of the classic Thanksgiving sides and trimmings so he and Mom wouldn’t go without…not on this turkey’s watch!

Thanksgiving guests: former Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr., Edward Winger, Jan
Hedquist, Lisa Harris, Charles Baker III, Rada Katz, Sonya Molodetskaya, Mitzi Manzano,
Jerold Osato, Bacca Da Silva, and Guilaine Hedquist

This auspicious holiday’s dinner spares no detail, starting with the invitation. It’s a call to action, an announcement to proclaim that something special awaits, such as a practical keepsake, from covered ceramic serving dishes with a recipe for leftover turkey and stuffing casserole to a pumpkin-shaped William-Sonoma covered bakeware pie dish filled with old-timey molasses taffy and a recipe for the perfect pumpkin pie.

The menu is traditional and set in stone. I learned a long time ago not to mess with the classics. One year, I had the harebrained idea to serve foie gras stuffed roast quail with truffle potatoes and white asparagus with sweetbreads in saffron crème to start. Sounds marvelous, right? If you could only have seen the bewildered looks on my guests’ faces as they realized that there wasn’t a turkey in sight. The following year, one guest actually called to confirm whether or not I was serving turkey and all of the fixings. Lesson learned: Thanksgiving dinner was never to deviate from the classics again.

At the core of the menu (of course) is “The Bird,” actually, two birds: the “show” turkey that gloriously sits upon the buffet and one that has been sliced, and kept warm in a chafing dish. I also serve a spiral-cut Honey Baked ham from honeybaked.com. (You’ll need to order it now to schedule delivery by Thanksgiving.) I order the ham the last week of October and schedule it for delivery two days prior the big day. It keeps perfectly fine for a couple days in its chilled Styrofoam™ shipping container. (Real estate in the refrigerator is a bit scarce for the big 7-pound ham.)

Aubrey Brewster’s Asiago Popovers

Delicious sides complete the meal: meringue-topped, candied sweet potatoes, chive mashed potatoes, truffle buttered haricot vert and Brussels sprout medley, copious quantities of gravy, Grand Marnier cranberry relish (recipe available at AubreyAboutTown.com), and my famous San Francisco-Style Barbary Coast sourdough and oyster stuffing, (a coveted recipe that I’m proud to share with you in this issue of Haute Living San Francisco) made with San Francisco’s very own Boudin sourdough bread and oysters from the Pacific Ocean. Our pal, jazz icon Paula West swears by my Parker House rolls and always reminds me (in the most nonchalant way possible) to bake extra, so she can freeze them for later. I’m more than happy to do so.

I’ve always believed that love is in the details, from the decadently adorned buffet to an invitingly beautiful tablescape. Thanksgiving dinner immerses guests not only in a bountiful feast but touching on all of the senses. Rich textiles, gold embellishments, and grand, vibrant, autumnal flowers are everywhere. I recall when former San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. was halfway through dinner when he blurted, “Wait, are these real flowers?” “What do you mean? Of course, they’re real. I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with fake anything!” I yelled.

With the grandeur and abundance of flowers, I think he thought the flower arrangements were artificial theatrical props. Some might say I overdo it, but if I weren’t extravagant, guests would think they were in the wrong house!

Hosting a memorable and stress-free Thanksgiving dinner just takes a few steps and good planning. Send your invitations a month out. A good rule of thumb is to mail them the day after Halloween. I’ve found my best custom stationers on Etsy.com (or their app), and most are more than happy to bring your vision for an invitation to life. Think of the décor. Save-on-crafts.com is one of my favorite resources for fabulous props, such as vases, baskets, candelabra, autumnal foliage, etc. I bought the beautiful gold pedestal bowl that I use for the table centerpiece there, and it doubles beautifully as a chic seafood/oyster platter during the summer months.

Write out your menu, check what’s on hand in your pantry, read your recipes, and make your shopping list. Be sure to replace any spices and leavening agents: that pumpkin pie spice and poultry seasoning that you bought last Thanksgiving is spent, and that old yeast and baking soda/powder will have lost its leavening potency.

Shop for groceries four days before and shop late night to avoid the crowds. I bake all my pies and set the table two days in advance. My Ed must have his favorite apple pie. Pumpkin pie is a must. I love pecan pie. If Willie Brown, Jr. is attending, I’ll bake his Southern favorite, sweet potato pie. (My secret ingredients are a hint of ginger and dark rum.)

In lieu of place cards, customized gifts are a welcomed and practical alternative; neimanmarcus.com sells beautiful, monogramed Ralph Lauren bath sheets in every color. When rolled up and presented on a guests’ chair, each towel triples as place card, cushion, and keepsake. Custom-embroidered, 60-by-80 inch, fleece throw blankets from personalizationmall.com do the same.

With a little planning and some personalized touches, an extra-special and memorable Thanksgiving is easily obtained. You and your guests will remember the day with fond nostalgia for years to come, as we do.

Christmastime: San Francisco Meets Dallas

’Tis the season for a touch of glamor. After all the autumnal gourds and sunset-hued foliage are put away and the scents of pumpkin spice and savory stuffing fade into memory, the excitement of dancing sugar plums and catchy nostalgic holiday melodies begin to fill our spirits. The tradition of adorning the house in its Christmas finery has many of us pulling out those bright red boxes of shiny decorations.

The Christmas Tree

Getting our place ready for the holidays is a serious affair, and this starts with the trees. If it isn’t me hanging those stockings and ornaments, the visual department of Neiman Marcus (NM) comes out to our place the week following Thanksgiving (after they’ve finished with in-store merchandizing and window displays) to trim our trees and put up the holiday décor. We have five trees throughout the house: two each in the dining room and the foyer, with the main tree in the sitting room overlooking the city’s Financial District. The menagerie of elegant and whimsical ornaments I’ve collected from Neiman Marcus over the decades are hung with care, and the house takes on the spirit of Christmas. One can’t help but be filled with that joyous spirit.

Dining room décor, Old St. Nick

The Neiman Marcus traditions continue in-store with the unveiling of their five-story holiday tree the day after Thanksgiving and their annual Breakfast with Santa at the Rotunda Restaurant, a kid-approved, gourmet breakfast curated by the Rotunda’s very own executive chef, Erik Harrelson, and a photo-op with the head elf himself, this year on December 12 and 19 from 8:30 am to 11:00 am. (Tickets are available on OpenTable.com or the OpenTable app.) Other merry surprises include a new giant snow globe that can house the whole family for that perfect social media shot and Christmas card photo, located on Level 3 in the gown department.                          

Every year, NM’s leadership team effortlessly oversees our annual gift shopping. Working from a spreadsheet of dozens of recipients, they painstakingly shop, wrap, and ship every item, allowing me to tend to my holiday social obligations and prepare for our Christmas Eve dinner.

At the top of our menu is prime rib with all of the classic steakhouse accouterments and my Asiago popovers served hot from the oven. (Check AubreyAboutTown.com for the recipe.) Christmas Eve dinner wouldn’t be the same without the Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) chocolate Swiss roll from Miette Bakery in San Francisco’s Ferry Building (miette.com).

Christmas Eve Table

The Neiman Marcus traditions continue in-store with the unveiling of their five-story holiday tree the day after Thanksgiving and their annual Breakfast with Santa at the Rotunda Restaurant, a kid-approved, gourmet breakfast curated by the Rotunda’s very own executive chef, Erik Harrelson, and a photo-op with the head elf himself, this year on December 12 and 19 from 8:30 am to 11:00 am. (Tickets are available on OpenTable.com or the OpenTable app.) Other merry surprises include a new giant snow globe that can house the whole family for that perfect social media shot and Christmas card photo, located on Level 3 in the gown department.                          

Every year, NM’s leadership team effortlessly oversees our annual gift shopping. Working from a spreadsheet of dozens of recipients, they painstakingly shop, wrap, and ship every item, allowing me to tend to my holiday social obligations and prepare for our Christmas Eve dinner.

At the top of our menu is prime rib with all of the classic steakhouse accouterments and my Asiago popovers served hot from the oven. (Check AubreyAboutTown.com for the recipe.) Christmas Eve dinner wouldn’t be the same without the Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) chocolate Swiss roll from Miette Bakery in San Francisco’s Ferry Building (miette.com).

Immediately following the Christmas season, one of my favorite holiday pastimes is exploring the post-Christmas ornament sale on NM’s fifth floor. I love rifling through big red velvet and gold bins of glittery baubles to find the perfect ornaments to add to the collection, only to rediscover them anew the following year. Christmastime wouldn’t be the same around our place without Neiman Marcus.

Who needs Santa when you’ve got Neiman Marcus?

Aubrey’s San Francisco-Style Barbary Coast Sourdough & Oyster Stuffing

Aubrey’s San Francisco-Style Barbary Coast Sourdough & Oyster stuffing

Ingredients:

  • 2 loaves sourdough bread, sliced sandwich-style or one 32-ounce bag of Organic Boudin Sourdough Stuffing (I use San Francisco Boudin sourdough.)
  • 16-ounce jar Pacific oysters (with juice)
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 2 medium onions, chopped (3 cups)
  • 5 stalks celery, chopped (2 cups)
  • 8 strips bacon, cut in ½-inch pieces
  • 8 ounces butter, plus 1 tablespoon
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • ½ cup dried apricots, minced
  • ½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
  • ¼ cup fresh sage, minced (about 12 sage leaves)
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chicken bouillon (I use Knorr.)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, (2 large sprigs)
  • 2 tablespoons dried sage
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus ¼ teaspoon
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus ½ teaspoon

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Cut the sliced sourdough bread into ½-inch cubes. (Stack three slices of bread at a time and slice lengthwise, then across.)
  3. Place cubed bread onto two half-size (18 by 13 inches) sheet pans, drizzle with olive oil, and toss to coat.
  4. Bake for 10 minutes.
  5. Rotate sheet pans, toss bread cubes, and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until lightly golden and crisp.
  6. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the pans completely, giving them a toss now and then. Transfer toasted bread cubes to a large bowl.
  7. Render fat from bacon, until bacon is just cooked and is golden brown. Add cooked bacon to toasted sourdough bread cubes. Reserve the bacon fat.
  8. Strain juice (oyster liquor) from the oysters and reserve 1 cup. Pat oysters dry with paper towels. Season the oysters with the ¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Dredge seasoned oysters in all-purpose flour to evenly coat, shaking off any excess.
  9. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon bacon fat, sear oysters in bacon fat until slightly golden brown (approximately 1½ minutes per side), and transfer to a plate to cool for 5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Set aside 3 pretty oysters for garnish. Chop the remaining oysters and add to the toasted sourdough cubes. Toss to combine.
  10. Heat 2 tablespoons of bacon in the large skillet. Add chopped onions and chopped celery and sauté until onions turn translucent. To the onion-bacon mixture add chicken stock, oyster liquor, dried cranberries, and dried apricots.
  11. Turn the heat down to medium and allow to simmer 10 minutes, or until the dried cranberries plump up. Add dried and fresh sage, dried and fresh thyme, ground black pepper, chicken bouillon, granulated garlic, and salt. Add 8 ounces of butter and stir until the butter has melted.
  12. Carefully fold hot chicken stock mixture into the toasted sourdough bread mixture until the bread cubes have absorbed the stock. Add chopped parsley.
  13. Cover bowl of stuffing with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and allow to rest 10 minutes to absorb completely.
  14. Butter the bottom and sides of a large casserole dish or a 13 by 9 by 2-inch pan. Evenly distribute stuffing in buttered casserole dish. Cover with foil, poking one vent hole in top. The stuffing can be kept this way for up to two days prior to baking.
  15. Bake stuffing for 20 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove aluminum foil and bake 10 more minutes. The top should begin to brown.
  16. Garnish with additional parsley sprigs and the reserved three oysters in the middle to denote the oyster stuffing. Alternatively, transfer baked stuffing to a covered serving dish before garnishing.

    Serves 15.

    (Photos courtesy Aubrey Brewster)
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