Thanksgiving With Umami, & The Rest Of The Family

Cooking chicken in the oven.Thanksgiving is when my family gets together to break open some wine, break bread, and break balls. That means an assortment of drunkards, criminals, and racists will soon be gorging themselves on my hard-earned bounty. No wait, that’s not my family, that’s congress.

I want to stress in no uncertain terms that my family are not drunkards, criminals, or racists; they’re just drunkards.

Thanksgiving commemorates the great cultural exchanges we shared with the Indians when we first arrived at their doorstep. The Indians gave the Pilgrims pigs-in-a-blanket and the white man reciprocated with chicken-pox-in-a-blanket.

This isn’t really a religious holiday but soon after the guests arrive I do find myself praying for it to be over. We’re a multi-denominational group of Catholics, Unitarians and Vegetarians. To complicate things my Uncle Ralph converted to Islam and he never goes anywhere without his new holy man, Sheik Yur Bouti. Ralph says the sheik really puts the fun in fundamentalist.

My sister was the first to get married after falling in love with her reform-school sweetheart. I suspected he was a Unitarian the first time we were in mass together. While the rest of us were touching hands and whispering, “peace be with you”, he was vigorously shaking hands and blaring, “pleased to meet you”. But I don’t think he’s your typical Unitarian because he believes in Jesus.

I know because he shouted Jesus’ name when I spilled his Margherita.

When dinner is served the Catholics argue with the Unitarians about what kind of prayer to say over the turkey. The Catholics want to pray for the bounty we are about to receive but the Unitarians prefer praying for the resurrection of the turkey. (The Vegetarians usually side with the Unitarians on this one but they go separate ways when the Unitarians start to question the very existence of gluten.) Last year the Unitarians won the argument and when their prayers were answered I had to take some Rolaids to ward off some resurrecting giblets.

My cousin Eddie is a Presbyterian which means that while the Unitarians are seeking proof of the Holy Spirit, he’s in the kitchen seeking 80 proof spirits. Sometimes we let Eddie say the prayer because we need a good laugh before dinner. He ends all his prayers by raising a glass and saying “cheers” rather than “amen”.

I don’t mean to offend anyone. You should know that it’s okay for me to make jokes about Presbyterian drunkards because I was raised one-half drunkard.

Thanksgiving is also that special time of year when wine bloggers give thanks for the overabundance of tired old clichés they get to recycle. I firmly believe that writers shouldn’t rehash old boring clichés. My job as a writer is to create new boring clichés.

On these pages I’ve written about the comforting effect of pairing umami rich foods with similar traits in wine and as it just so happens, turkey has more umami than any other meat. Now don’t get nervous and cancel your Thanksgiving turkey; umami isn’t some flesh-eating bacteria or breast-enhancing hormone, those are added later. Umami is a basic taste just like sweet, sour, bitter, and salt – but with a funnier name.

In describing umami in The Fifth Taste, Cooking with Umami, David and Anna Kasabian wrote, “Among the most apt descriptors are savory, mouth-filling, brothy, meaty, satisfying, and rich” which is everything I’ve ever wanted in a spouse.

The trick to finding umami nirvana is to locate umami-rich beverages and pair them with your Thanksgiving dinner. In an incredible stroke of luck for wine and beer bloggers worldwide, it turns out that umami is created during fermentation.

A couple of things occur during fermentation to enhance the umami taste sensation in wine.

1.)    Complete proteins such as glutamate break down into smaller amino acids. These tiny umami-bombs are more easily recognized and give us an instant feeling of satisfaction.

2.)    After converting sugar to alcohol, yeast cells also break down and interact with wine through a process called autolysis. These yeast cells are strong umami hosts.

Fermentation is the paintbrush that colors products like wine, beer, fish sauce, miso, tamari, kombucha, tomatoes, cheese, Worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce with the subtle hues of umami. Since fermentation imbues wine with both umami and alcohol, it pairs beautifully with the turkey sitting on the table and helps you get through the day with the turkeys sitting at the table.

Suffice it to say that without fermentation Pinot Noir wouldn’t have a magical kinship with turkey and beer wouldn’t have an endorsement deal with NASCAR.

Beer; (That’s Right, I Said Beer.)

Obviously WineSnark is a blog about wine but I have a confession to make … I’m drinking beer as I write this. I know this declaration means I’ll forfeit any chance of winning a Wine Blog Award this year, but that’s the kind of stand I’m willing to take for my readers. This article won’t even qualify for a beer-writing award because I used too many four-syllable words.

Many beer styles possess the savory umami taste that pairs so well with your Thanksgiving dinner. You can find the taste of umami in many maltier brews such as Doppelbock, Porter, or Stout but you may find the lack of hop-induced astringency makes the matchup with turkey a little redundant. Like acidity in wine, beer requires a certain amount of “cut” or “bite” to keep the lively interaction between food and beverage interesting. Many India Pale Ales (IPAs) possess searing hop levels that deliver more bite and bitterness than a Donald Trump tweet the morning after a Saturday Night Live skit. Excessive hoppiness may be good for general food pairing but its strong attributes can obliterate any semblance of umami. Besides, if I want that much bitterness on Thanksgiving I’ll just talk to my mother-in-law.

I search for something in the middle; something lighter and livelier than a Porter but nothing as hoppy as an IPA. My beer selection must possess enough zip to counteract the 15 pounds of butter and protein I plan on consuming but also deliver the subtle umami taste that comforts me as I watch the Giants lose another game.

Bottle-conditioned ales are bottled with a bit of yeast, and as you’ve just learned, yeast delivers oodles of umami taste. After a secondary fermentation takes place inside the bottle, the spent yeast organisms appear as off-white sediment deposits and can make your beer cloudy when shaken. These dearly departed yeast cells, or lees, continue to interact with the liquid, adding the richer, meatier, more complex flavor known as umami.

Champagne; A Little Toast in Your Toast

Champagne also has a dash of yeast added before bottling, but unlike bottle-conditioned ale, the wine spends years in contact with the lees and is then disgorged, or purged of the sediment before the final cork stopper is attached.

The longer Champagne stays in contact with the lees, the more it develops the rich, yeasty, viscous taste of umami. Yeast autolysis is what gives Champagne those unique flavors of bread dough, baked bread, brioche, or toasted bread, and explains my yearning for butter whenever I hear a Champagne cork pop.

You’ll have to spring for a pricier bottle of wine than the Prosecco you’ve been guzzling lately if you want a true umami food and wine pairing experience. By French law, non-vintage Champagne must spend at least 12 months in contact with the decomposing yeast deposit inside the bottle, while vintage Champagnes require a minimum exposure of three years. Most Champagnes are aged much longer than the minimums imposed by law and some of the greatest Champagnes may be cellared for decades before release.

Old Reds; Oooh-Mommy!

Tired, old-world reds are another great source of umami-rich wine. There’s probably no better match for your Thanksgiving meal than a fully mature bottle of Burgundy, Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux or Rioja. These may not be available at your average fine wine merchant but if you can find one you may need a home equity loan to purchase it. You may get lucky and locate some older Rioja Gran Reservas on the market as these are often released many years after the vintage.  Otherwise it’s time to dig deep into the darkest corner of your wine cellar and locate that 10 year-old Burgundy, 15 year-old Barbaresco, 20 year-old Barolo, or 25 year-old Bordeaux. What you want to do with a well-aged wine is carefully decant it to eliminate the sediment, let it gently breath to allow it to blossom into its fullest potential, and then quickly drink it before your family arrives.

As you get together with your loved ones this Thanksgiving remember that the subtle, savory taste of umami offers something for everyone. The Catholics will find umami in the turkey. Vegetarians will discover it in the mushrooms, cheeses, grains and nuts. And the Presbyterians will seek out umami in the beers, Champagnes and mature red wines even if it takes them all night to find it.


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