I have four brothers and two sisters, which means growing up there were seven of us urchins at the dinner table. We had plenty of relatives there in St. Louis, but nobody ever wanted a family of nine descending on them for Thanksgiving dinner. Year after year, the task of hosting Thanksgiving fell to my mother, who—although an avid hostess—would have been thrilled to see someone, anyone, just once step up and say I got this, Rosemary. Because if you’ve ever hosted Thanksgiving dinner, you know it to be An Undertaking. Even the simplest company dinner demands planning and effort. Add multiple generations, gravy boats and a very large bird to roast and the pressure is on. Herewith, my advice to Thanksgiving hosts, enthusiastic and otherwise, for staying sane and organized.
You’re only as good as your lists
Put care and thought into the lists you make. Start by listing your menu. Include every crumb and drop you plan to serve: booze, appetizers, salads, sides (including those brought by others), breads, accompaniments, dessert and after-dinner drinkies
The menu will dictate your master grocery list, with possible sub-lists for the wholesale club, liquor store, and specialty shops. The menu also will drive your to-do list. Write down every silly little thing you need to do the minute you think of it and in no particular order, and cross it off smugly as you accomplish it. Sometimes I write something down and check it off after I do it, just for the thrill of checking it off.
Your final list should be a timetable for serving dinner. Start with what time you want to put dinner on the table and work backwards. When should the turkey go in the oven, if you want to serve it at 5:30? (Probably about 1 p.m. if it’s average sized and stuffed.Butterball.com has an excellent chart.). Think the order through carefully and write it down clearly.
Sticky notes are your friends
Well in advance of the day, pull out your serving platters, bowls and implements. Decide what foods will go where and tag them with sticky notes. (To make passing easier, place gravy, cranberry sauce, butter, and other condiments in several smaller containers all around the table).
Also pull out your china, napery, glasses and flatware. Lay everything out so you can determine whether you’ll need to buy or borrow more of anything.
On the big day, put sticky notes on each cooking appliance with its respective cooking schedule. For example, for the oven: “stuffing 3-5:00 p.m.; green beans, 4-5:00 p.m.; rolls, 4:40-5:00 p.m.
A word about the bird
Well before Thanksgiving Day, inventory your kitchen and make sure you have: a roasting pan with rack big enough to hold your turkey; a bulb baster; a big spoon for defatting pan juices or a fat separator; a sharpened carving knife; a carving fork; and an instant-read thermometer.
When buying a turkey, plan on about one pound per person for an 8- to 12-pound bird, or three quarters of a pound per person for a larger bird. Purchase a larger turkey if you want leftovers for the weekend. If you are cooking a frozen turkey, start thawing it in the refrigerator on Sunday.
For really juicy (I hate the word moist, don’t you?) turkey, take it from the oven when it’s done, then create a tent of tin foil over the bird and let it sit for about half an hour. This allows the juices to redistribute themselves throughout the turkey.
To garnish the turkey platter, have on hand fresh sage, thyme and rosemary and some colorful fall fruits, such as crabapples, cranberries and pears.
If the carved turkey meat on the platter looks dry, it can be moistened (there’s that word, ew) with a light sprinkle of hot turkey broth.
Be bossy with your help
If people are bringing sides (and, honey, I hope they are), ask that they do all their cooking at home. When feasible, encourage them to bring their offerings in slow cookers, which you can plug in immediately to keep them warm, preserving precious oven space.
If you have lots of guests bringing side dishes, I recommend telling each to prepare a serving amount equal to half the number of guests. Thanksgiving is such a smorgasbord that (other than the turkey and mashed potatoes) most guests take a “tasting” serving. If you want lots of leftovers, go for the serving-per-guest formula.
Let nothing harsh your hostess mellow
Dishes will break, the pie will burn, serving pieces will go missing. Choose not to let it harsh your mellow, as the kids say. The perfect Thanksgiving is the impossible Thanksgiving. Embrace the chaos and dysfunctionality. Strive for simplicity, not perfection, and keep your sense of humor. Practice your breezy, indulgent “oh that’s all right!” face and expect to use it often.
Easy on the sauce
Once her children became responsible mortgage holders, my mother was unshackled from hosting Thanksgiving. The first year of her liberation, my St. Louis sister stepped up to host, with my assistance. We busted out the Pinot Grigio early in our preparations, and by the time the guests arrived were just this side of roaring drunk. We laugh about it now, but we were lucky we didn’t poison anybody. By the time everyone left, we were exhausted. Day-drinking makes for a very, very long night. Even if you have one of those aprons that says “I cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food,” I advise you to stay away from the hooch until your first guest arrives. Well, maybe the tiniest dressing drink wouldn’t hurt.
Three Ideas for Thanksgiving Centerpieces
Remember how inconsolable we all were when Matney Floral Design closed its doors in Fairway? Well, let’s do a happy dance. Chuck Matney and his design-savvy bestie, Leslie Brett, have teamed up to open The Little Flower Shop in Westwood Hills, bringing us fresh flowers with Chuck’s impeccable touch, as well as exquisite gifts and objets. TLFS opens Nov. 5, in plenty of time for discerning Thanksgiving hostesses who want a Matney-designed centerpiece for their table. If you would rather DIY, Chuck offers these ideas:
A lush arrangement of fall flowers and foliage, such as bittersweet branches, pepperberry, mums, orange roses, big-leaf hydrangeas, miniature pears, artichokes and pomegranates. A soup tureen would make a pretty vase, as would a hollowed-out heirloom pumpkin, or a clear glass container filled with acorns.
A garland down the center of the table featuring pumpkins, gourds, hedge-apples, fruits, berries and colorful fall leaves.
A long configuration of olive branches, grapevine, miniature pumpkins, kumquats, acorns, champagne grapes and lady apples.
Chuck points to Whole Foods and to the produce department at the Roeland Park Price Chopper as a source for beautiful components.
“Add a touch of gilt to create a more formal feel to any arrangement,” says Chuck. “It’s nice to play with texture, adding amaranthus or feathers.” Leslie reminds us to always keep our centerpieces low, so guests can converse across the table.
Questions About Entertaining?
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