Thanksgiving With Umami, & The Rest Of The Family

Cooking chicken in the oven.Thanksgiving is that special time of year when wine and food writers 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.

The family will be gathering at my house this Thanksgiving which means an assortment of drunkards, criminals and racists will soon gorge 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 and racists; they’re just drunkards.

Thanksgiving isn’t really a religious holiday but soon after the family arrives 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 married into a Unitarian family when she fell in love with her reform-school sweetheart. But he’s not your typical Unitarian because he believes in Jesus. I know because he once 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 the 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”.

I don’t mean to offend anyone. You should know it’s okay for me to poke fun at Presbyterian drunkards because I was raised one-half drunkard.

I give a lot of thought to finding the perfect wine to serve on Thanksgiving. It keeps me busy while my wife cleans the house, cooks dinner, and shovels the snow. Pairing wine and food boils down to finding the right beverage to compliment the dominant taste in the main course. Turkey isn’t sweet, sour, salty or bitter (unless my Aunt Tootie makes it); no, turkey is rich in the taste of umami. In fact 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, salt and bitter – 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 coincidentally, are the boxes Cousin Eddie checked on his eHarmony Compatibility Questionnaire.

Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda first identified the taste of umami and discovered it was linked to the amino acid glutamate. In the years that followed, researchers recognized scores of additional sources of umami and by 1998 scientists Shizuko Yamaguchi and Kumiko Ninomiya identified 39 umami-triggering substances including nucleotides and acids that can be found in wine.

The taste of umami is easily masked by stronger tastes and can be hard to identify by western palettes that are unaccustomed to its subtle, savory charms. But when glutamate is joined with nucleotides a synergistic flavor boost is created. When this happens umami becomes more recognizable, even to a culture that thinks adding bacon to a Big Mac makes you a gourmet.

The trick to creating a Thanksgiving umami-fest is to find the right umami-triggering beverages to go with your turkey. In an incredible stroke of luck for wine and beer bloggers worldwide, it turns out that umami is created during fermentation.

Fermentation is the paintbrush that colors products like wine, beer, fish sauce, miso, tamari, kombucha, 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 dinner 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.

During fermentation yeast organisms convert sugar into alcohol which is just God’s way of apologizing for creating your brother-in-law. When fermentation is complete the dead yeast cells break down and interact with the fluids through a process called autolysis. These yeast cells are potent umami hosts.

Champagne; A Little Toast in Your Toast

Champagne has a dash of yeast added when it is bottled and as you just learned, yeast possesses oodles of umami. When yeast interacts with a small dosage (some form of sugar added to the bottle along with the yeast) a secondary fermentation occurs that creates all those lovely little bubbles. Once the secondary fermentation is complete the wine spends years in contact with the dead yeast cells, or lees, and is then disgorged, or purged of the sediment before the final cork stopper is inserted.

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 toast, and explains my yearning for butter whenever I hear a Champagne cork pop.

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!

Aged, 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, or Bordeaux. You mavericks might even pick a wine that doesn’t start with “B” like Rioja.

It may be difficult to find mature wines at your average liquor store but that’s okay as this will save you the trouble of having to borrow money from a mob loan shark or worse, a Wall Street banker. You could get lucky and locate some older Rioja Gran Reserva 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. The trick to enjoying a well-aged wine is to 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 the family arrives.

Beer; (That’s Right, I Said Beer.)

Even though I write about food and wine pairings I have a confession to make … I’m drinking beer as I write this (hey, wine doesn’t really go with breakfast). 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 like “organisms” and “eHarmony”.

Many beer styles possess the savory taste of umami that compliments Thanksgiving dinner. You can find umami in maltier brews such as Doppelbock, Porter or Stout but you may find the lack of hop-induced astringency makes this matchup 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 than a late night Donald Trump tweet. This excessive hoppiness is good for general food pairing but its severe bitterness can obliterate the delicate taste of umami. Besides, if I’m in the mood for that much bitterness on Thanksgiving I’ll just talk to my mother-in-law.

I search for something lighter and livelier than a Porter but not as hoppy as an IPA. I want my beer selection to possess enough zip to counteract the 15 pounds of butter I plan on consuming but also deliver the subtle umami taste that offers comfort as I watch the Giants lose another game.

The perfect beer to pair with an umami-rich harvest feast is bottle-conditioned ale. Like Champagne these beers are bottled with a bit of yeast to create a secondary fermentation inside the bottle. Unlike Champagne, these dearly departed yeast organisms remain in the bottle and continue to interact with the liquid, adding the richer, meatier, more complex flavor known as umami.

As you plan your special Thanksgiving family get-together remember that this holiday commemorates the great exchanges in culture, spirituality and cuisine we shared with the Indians when we first settled in the New World. The Indians introduced the Pilgrims to pigs-in-a-blanket and the white man in return, gave the Indians chicken-pox-in-a-blanket.

Whatever beverage you choose, keep in mind that the right wine, beer or Champagne will magnify all the umami tastes on the table. The Catholics will enjoy the satisfying meatiness of the turkey. The Vegetarians will discover the earthy umami boost given to mushrooms, grains and nuts, and the Presbyterians will just drink too much and fall down.


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