OK. Thanksgiving is tomorrow. Your turkey is brining, your pies are baking. It’s too early to cook the sweet potatoes, blanch the green beans, or roast the turkey. So we have time to cozy up for a nice chat.
The first Thanksgiving I ever cooked without the August wisdom of my mother and aunts was my junior year in college. I was studying abroad in London, and our study abroad program had been kind enough to purchase the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and offer to host it at the center where we took classes (which was a gorgeous Georgian terrace house with a huge kitchen). My roommate and I, filled with the cockiness of youth, volunteered to host. Then the requests started. “We’re having mashed potatoes, right? It’s not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes.” “My family always had roasted potatoes.” (Dramatic sigh) “It’s hard to be so far away from family on Thanksgiving.” “What do you mean you can’t find sweet potatoes in London?” (It was true — things that proved difficult to make in London in 1998 included sweet potatoes with marshmallows, cornbread, and cranberry sauce.) Even the Brits, who by all rights should have had no skin in the game — offered an opinion. “We always wrap our turkey in bacon.” “What do you mean you don’t know what parsnips are? You have to have parsnips with turkey!”
Eventually we shooed them out of the kitchen, opened (several) bottles of wine, roasted the turkey (sans bacon), the potatoes AND the parsnips, mashed potatoes as well, and even managed to get marshmallows and sweet potatoes kindly brought over by my roommate’s parents who visited the week before Thanksgiving. Dinner was a raging success (if I do say so myself), but it’s possible that I had had enough wine that I’m not exactly remembering correctly. There are a couple of photos from that dinner, including one of my then-boyfriend, now husband (wearing what appears to be an undershirt, which he would never get away with now), and we are DEFINITELY a few sheets to the wind.
It was a learning experience, though. Thanks to that Thanksgiving, and a few more I picked up over many years of Thanksgivings, here are some tips I have on hosting Thanksgiving.
- Overbuy on the wine. Family gatherings can be seriously fraught. Tempers run high, people get stressed. Things are said. One year my father in law came to our family Thanksgiving and my grandmother had told our whole family his name was Bruce. Which it is not. Wine is a social lubricant. If your family doesn’t drink, well, spike the punch. Thanksgiving is an EMERGENCY. Just watch Uncle Mort’s glass — there’s just enough wine to make everyone happy and relaxed, and then there’s too much wine. Have some sparkling water or juice to offer as a chaser.
- You can’t please everyone. Most people have a VERY SPECIFIC IDEA of what Thanksgiving dinner looks like. I believe that Thanksgiving dinners should be potluck — make it your guest’s problem. If your friend John NEEDS to have green bean casserole on Thanksgiving, tell him to bring it. Anyone can make Green Bean Casserole. Seriously.
- Turn off the football. At least for dinner. That’s what DVR is for, right? We as Americans are constantly distracted. There should be ONE meal a year where everyone sits down and focuses on what they’re eating and who they’re eating it with.
- Seating Charts are Lame. One year we went to my husband’s family for Thanksgiving, and we were seated at the kids’ table. With the kids of some friends of theirs. We were 25. We were seated with an 8 year old and a 10 year old we had never met before. Rule of thumb: If you are paying taxes, you do not have to sit at the kids’ table. If there are only 2 kids, make their parents sit with them, instead of forcing them on strangers. Or you know, let people sit where they want. I know! A novel concept in this day and age.
- Nobody cares about the food. I mean, I care about the food, because I like to cook, and I like to eat good food, but honestly, once you’re sitting down, with the warm glow of wine and family, nobody’s treating this like a restaurant meal. Nobody really cares if the turkey’s a touch on the dry side, the cranberry sauce is too tart, the pie crust isn’t flaky enough. This holiday isn’t really about food — food is just an excuse. It’s a holiday about gathering together and being thankful to have people to gather with. To take a day to think about our blessings, to celebrate our luck. Food is what it always is — the glue that binds people together – the universal experience. The things you remember about Thanksgiving aren’t that year Auntie Suzi made the mincemeat pie (although my Auntie Suzi makes a great mincemeat pie), but the experiences and the people you share them with. The funny stories, the awkward seating arrangements, the holidays in a foreign land. Relax, and be thankful.