In America, Thanksgiving is arguably the most important feast of the year. And my family has had it’s share of festivity faux pas.
One memorable time, my Dad prepared the bird and put it in the oven then walked away to focus on the important task of readying the house for his 24 guests. The tables were set and decorated in high style, the hearth fire was lit and stoked, sides were stirred and sampled. But when it was time to check the turkey, he found a raw bird. It had not been roasting the whole time because he had forgotten to turn on the oven! And of course there wasn’t enough time to get it done by dinner.
A little scrambling and frantic dialing ensued. But all was not lost. He found a prepared turkey from a local gourmet shop and the feast went on without another hitch.
Another year, he forgot to take the bag of giblets out of the turkey before roasting it. And you know what? Despite some initial hand wringing and epicurean embarrassment, the finished bird turned out just fine.
The moral of these stories is that while Thanksgiving is a much anticipated event loaded with pressure to get everything just so, it doesn’t have to be perfect for you and your guests to have a wonderful time. Remember: It’s a day about gratitude and coming together. Consider all of the things in life you are grateful for and the frustrating mishaps will either fade into oblivion or provide you and your family with something to laugh about for years to come.
Following are some planning tips I have learned over the years to help you navigate the big banquet and hopefully avoid a few pitfalls the day of:
Guests: Settling on the number of people you expect around the table is key. This number might be dictated by the space you have or by your familial obligations. Whatever the case, this number impacts everything from seating (do you need extra tables?), to the size of turkey, to the number of dishes you have or need to get. If your family or friends have a reputation for last-minute surprises, save yourself the headache by forming a contingency plan now. It’s always better to have leftovers than a paltry spread.
Menu: Pull out your cookbooks and old family recipes at the beginning of November, to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the planning process. Few things will squelch your excitement like rushing through this step at the eleventh hour. Likewise, grocery shopping the day before Thanksgiving is like hitting the mall the day after: It’s frantic and congested. And with perishable items in particular, you’re likely to come up short on one or more key ingredients.
Try at least one new dish. Whether or not it has a comeback the next year is based on how guests react. Remember, for instance, the trendy Turducken—a partially de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed with a small de-boned chicken—replaced the traditional turkey. Well, let’s just say it was a little like three women showing up to a party in the same outrageous dress. It was too much! And while turducken will go down in the annals of amusing holiday missteps, the unexpected addition of macaroni and cheese that was introduced a few years back has become a mainstay. This rich and creamy carb-and-calorie-blowout dish is so popular that my family would shout in protest if it weren’t part of the feast. Who knew?
This year, we will be trying an even more decadent version of mac & cheese. My Dad and his chef got together and decided that the king of all crustaceans should have a creamier ocean to swim in. Thus Lobster Macaroni & Cheese was born.
Table: Mock up your Thanksgiving table. This is another task that’s best done several weeks in advance. Pull out a sampling of all of the dishes, glasses and linens you expect to use and set a couple of places at your table. While you’re at it, remember to take a count of each element. This will give you a clear idea of how the tabletop will shape up. And you’ll have plenty of time to find and order new accessories as well as any replacements needed.
Atmosphere: It’s important to think and plan beyond the table when setting the stage for your celebration. From candles, hurricanes, and flowers to background music and over-head lighting, setting the tone of your celebration is achieved through the details. Pull the outside in by mixing natural autumnal elements like pinecones, pressed leaves, and pumpkins with fresh cut flowers.
Dig in: Whether you plan to begin dinner with a prayer or a secular welcome, it’s helpful to think ahead about how you want to start the meal once you and your guests are seated. A warm and appropriate toast includes offering a few words about what you are grateful for. And don’t be afraid to give your guests the opportunity to express their thoughts as well. After all, a formal holiday observing thankfulness only comes once a year.
Finally, the best advice remains this: Just don’t forget to turn on the oven!