I’ve been a huge fan of Martha Wainwright — and everyone else associated with the Wainwright and McGarrigle clans — for years. Martha is both known for her own super frank songs about relationships and such (both the title of her second album, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, and her amazing song “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” have raised a couple of eyebrows) and her dedication to her family, playing regularly with her brother Rufus and on various McGarrigle family projects.
Martha’s latest album, last year’s Come Home to Mama, deals a lot with family — namely the birth of her now four year old son and the death of her mother, legendary Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle. Unsurprisingly, food plays a large part in Martha’s family and she was pleased to chat about the epic McGarrigle family Christmas dinner and even share her family’s recipe for mashed potato turkey stuffing.
So, our website is all about music and food. Are you cool with that?
I’ve got to tell you, it’s a concept that is close to my heart. I’ve been working on a cooking show in my house where people come over and play music. I cook a lot.
I felt in my bones that you were the kind of person who cooked a lot. Have you been cooking your whole life?
I don’t cook like a foodie, I cook based on what I learned to cook from my mom and my grandmother. In a very sort of practical and economic way rather than trying to be really impressive all the time. With that being said I’m always looking for local and in season and beautiful ingredients, which is always the most important thing. But we grew up in a family that cooked a lot and all of the female cousins cooked a lot and it’s become a bit of an obsession, really. But for practical reasons, as well as for fun.
So, if I were to come over for dinner tonight, what would you cook for me?
Now that the temperature is changing, we’d want to do something comforting, so I’d probably try something like a moussaka and have some sort of green salad, not lettuce, probably kale now that its wintertime. Or also lamb stew, which I’ve been doing a lot over the last couple of weeks.
What was food like for you when you were growing up?
My grandmother was born in 1904, so my grandparents were very old. They had their children when they were old. So from her point of view there was a practicality from living through two world wars and having 12 siblings, so that shone through in what she made. There were a lot of soups, using the ingredients that were in the fridge and using every little bit of everything. And that translated into my mother’s cooking too — a meat and two or three veg, that basic concept of roasting with potatoes and carrots and cabbage. Then what happened was that my mother met someone, an Englishman, and there’s this species of English men who are really fabulous cooks and are really influenced by the continent, by France and Mediterranean cooking. He was also an incredible gardener and we grew up with him and he was an incredible cook. A lot of it was based in recipes that he would find in the New York Times, buttery rich strong flavours that were delicious and warming and intense kind of dishes. That was a really big thing for us and for my mom’s boyfriend, who did a lot of the cooking.
I know that you’re really identified both as a New Yorker and as being from Montreal. Do you identify with Quebec-style cooking?
I do, especially now that I’m coming back and we’re gearing up for our season. A few years ago in the winter after my mom died, I remember that she always made Christmas dinner, so I made a cookbook based on that — it’s more like a pamphlet than a book with six or seven of the things she prepared. Now that I’m about to hunker down for the winter and I’m five and a half months pregnant, I’m completely obsessed with what we’re going to be making! Of course now that I’m back in Quebec, that’s including pea soup, French onion soup, and things like that.
Do you make tourtiere?
Yes. My mom made a tourtiere and she made her aunt’s version which was just pork boiled down with onions and a little bit of thyme. I don’t really love to follow recipes, I like to start with a recipe for tourtiere and then change it based on what’s available or what’s interesting to me. I love pork, it’s probably my favourite meat, but I love combining it with other meats for tourtiere. It’s gotten a little bit more complicated, but I do like making the crust out of goose fat, I think that makes a really nice crust.
What does Christmas dinner look like for you?
It’s very Northern. It’s a turkey in the oven. I want to smoke a turkey, but it’s so cold up here in temperature, I’m not sure how well a smoker would work. I always do a mashed potato stuffing that you prepare with the giblets and onion and I always dry brine the turkey 24 to 48 hours before with a salt rub and herbs. The the vegetables are purple cabbage, which is almost kind of a Scandinavian style with a little bit of maple syrup or apple jelly with some vinegar at the end. Then another side dish that I think is great is either a carrot and turnip mash, or a carrot and rutabaga mash. 50/50 on those two things. Then, of course, Brussels sprouts, however you want to have it with bacon or not. Steamed or boiled then really quickly fried up with some bacon fat. We have a tendency to stick with what we know. One of my cousins or aunts our someone might try to throw in something new just to keep it interesting, but we’re not reinventing the wheel.
What is your favourite kind of pie?
I think a really wet little wild blueberry pie.
I was really interested in learning more about this mashed potato stuffing, which is something I’d never heard of before. Based on Martha’s explanation and the notes in the aforementioned cooking pamphlet of her mom’s recipes (which also includes the tourtiere, by the way), here’s a recipe, which I’m dying to try this Christmas (or if you’re American, try it for Thanksgiving and let me know how it turns out!)
Martha Wainwright’s Family Mashed Potato Stuffing
10-20 medium potatoes (adjust quantity based on the size of your turkey)
gizzards from turkey
assorted herbs and seasonings (salt, thyme, parsley, rosemary, sage whatever you have on hand)
Wash out the inside of your turkey and remove the gizzards under running water. Put the gizzards in a bowl and set the turkey aside. Peel the potatoes and quarter them and peel and chop the onions. Chop up the gizzards as well. Place the potatoes in a large pot of water and bring the water to a boil. Add the onions, gizzards and herbs and cook until the potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes.
Drain the potatoes, reserving a cup of cooking water. Mash the mixture with the reserved water and a couple of tablespoons of butter, plus salt to taste. You’ll want a fairly rough mash. Let the mash cool, stuff it in the cavity of the turkey. Put any remaining potatoes in a casserole dish and roast them alongside the turkey, basting occasionally with the turkey fat that accumulates a the bottom of the roasting pan.
Martha is currently on tour in Canada, with dates in the Yukon and Alberta this week and Quebec throughout the rest of November. I’ll leave you with the video for “Proserpina,” from Martha’s latest album Come Home to Mama, which is also the last song Kate McGarrigle wrote before she passed away in 2010.