If I can host Thanksgiving, so can you
Last year, for the first time, I hosted Thanksgiving. I’ll do it again this year. And next year, as I’ve been told by my mother, who rightfully declared herself retired from being responsible for the annual November feast.
I’m not much of a cook. My favorite appliance is my crockpot. My mother, who I called from college to ask which direction you’re supposed to cut a grapefruit in half (this was before home Internet access), has made the transition as smooth as possible. Last year she came over in the morning to help me get the turkey ready to go in the oven because I’d never handled a 13-pound bird. Just the word giblets – gross. And touching the neck. Shudder. I still don’t think I’m ready.
I just called my mom. She reassured me that she’d buy the turkey this weekend, let it defrost in her refrigerator and bring it over Thanksgiving morning. Aren’t moms great?
If you are hosting your first Thanksgiving dinner this year, here are five tips, culled from personal experience and the Internet, which has spared me from making several more embarrassing, I-should-know-this calls to my mother.
1. Plan ahead: My husband and I were married in 2003. I didn’t unpack the china we received as wedding gifts until last year, in anticipation of hosting Thanksgiving. Make a menu, list all the ingredients (don’t forget beverages!) and go shopping this weekend. You’ll likely need to clear out your refrigerator to make enough room. Make note of how many people are coming, and make sure you have enough seats at the table. If you need to bring in a folding table from the garage or borrow one to make a second table, well, that’s another thing you can do ahead of time.
2. Keep it simple: No need to craft an elaborate centerpiece you saw on Pinterest if that’s not your thing. Make good use of those hand-tracing turkeys your kids brought home from school. I used a tablecloth and place mats and called it good.
I mean, seriously. I like to be able to see the people on the other side of the table.
3. Stick to what you know: Now is not the time to test a recipe. I recreated my mother’s Thanksgiving menu. My parents are from Montana. We don’t do trendy food. Turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, strawberry cream squares (it’s a layered thing involving Jell-o, fruit, sour cream and, yes, I can picture Martha Stewart’s look of disapproval), spiced cranberries, rolls, fresh green beans, a relish tray with celery, carrots and olives and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. To save time, I buy the rolls, use a frozen pie crust and (lowers voice to whisper) buy a can of Reddi-wip. My daughters love helping serve dessert.
And yes, it’s easy to make pie crust and whipped cream. But for a meal as involved as Thanksgiving, I don’t side-eye anyone who wants a few shortcuts. A frozen pie crust is consistent, which is more than I can say for my own.
4. Accept help: My daughters can mash potatoes and tear up the bread for the stuffing. (My husband has to work. Otherwise, he’d be in charge of the meal as he’s a better cook.) We have a relatively small gathering (just our parents) but by all means, take guests up on an offer to bring a dish, maybe a relish tray or dessert.
5. Accept that your timing will be off: The trickiest part of hosting Thanksgiving, my mother told me, is the timing. I’ll make the pie and layered jello dish the night before. I’ll boil, peel and slice the sweet potatoes and let them refrigerate overnight. The rest of the food can be cooked on the stove while the turkey is hogging the oven. The turkey — my mom told me to use a meat thermometer and not to rely on the one that comes with the bird — ideally would finish cooking about an hour before we eat. After the turkey comes out of the oven, the sweet potatoes (which have been adorned with butter and brown sugar) and stuffing will go in.
You do your best to estimate cooking time for the turkey. If you are off by 30 minutes or 45 minutes or an hour – so what? The football game is on, the relish tray is out and each guest has a beverage. Be grateful for your warm home, your family and friends. My mom has kept this 1995 essay Garrison Keillor wrote for Time, and she rereads it (to herself) every Thanksgiving. I like what Keillor had to say about the holiday in this 2009 piece for Salon.
“It is the dinner of all dinners, generous and comforting and completely predictable, and a true test of civility, and we do it in gratitude for the simple goodness of life. Our consumer society is all about need and craving, and politics is so much about complaint and resentment, and here is a day devoted to something else.”