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Freaking Out About Thanksgiving

November 18, 2013

You don’t have to cook. Cooking isn’t love. Cooking well doesn’t make you a better person. The ratio between the crispiness of the turkey’s skin to the juiciness of its breast meat isn’t nearly as important as the number of times you call your distant relatives in an average week.

People get crazy in the days coming up to Thanksgiving.

For some folks it’s the only time they actually use their kitchens all year. And in doing so on such an elaborate fast, just reinforces the notion that cooking is a time intensive, stressful, and messy proposition.

It doesn’t have to be. Enduring the annual rites in the kitchen isn’t going to make your family’s Thanksgiving any better if you are a basket case. And honestly there just aren’t that many home cooks who can pull off all the dishes of a classic holiday meal with ease. And that’s okay.

Today, I’m going to cut you a lot of slack.

Do whatever you have to do to make the holiday enjoyable. I’m a big supporter of finding a local restaurant that prepares a take out version of the entire meal, and simply heating it through at home.

Don’t have that many people? Skip the turkey. Most turkey is just a vehicle for stuffing and gravy anyhow. Despite knowing better, I still enjoy the occasional HoneyBaked ham. But a few roast chickens are delicious, and they can go equally well with cranberry sauce and stuffing.

But you could also be adventurous and roast a duck or a goose. If you decide to do either of these fatty birds, for all that is good and holy, put a pan under the birds to catch the rendering fat. That stuff is liquid gold.

Sides can be as simple as taking a bag of “baby” carrots, cooking them in butter, salt and chicken stock until tender, and glazing them with honey, a little more butter, and some lemon juice. Or even simply nuke a bag of frozen corn and slather it with melted butter and salt.

Yeah, I said that.

Thanksgiving needs to have food. It’s a time to be generous, both to ourselves and to others. But the food isn’t the point. The point is the gathering. The point is time with friends and loved ones.

And if you are sweating in the kitchen by yourself, having kicked everyone else out because they aren’t following your vision, well…. you are doing it wrong.

Have some wine. It really doesn’t matter what kind. Relax, and enjoy yourself.

But if you are the kind of person who needs stunningly delicious food to have a good time, well that’s easy to solve too: make it your job to bring the cheese. And I could make a good case to serve pretty much every cheese at a Thanksgiving celebration, so I advise you to follow your bliss. Just make sure to get a taste of whatever cheeses you’re buying before you bring them home.

For those who want to put a little bit more care and planning into the event, I’ll try to have some more detailed suggestions as we get closer to the date. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew. And don’t feel badly about taking short cuts.

Holidays should be a joy and not a torment. Don’t ever forget that.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2013 11:01 am

    I agree, but not to the point of pulling a Rachael Ray, trying to put a holiday meal out in 30 minutes or less. It IS a time to make a few special foods, but most holiday fare can be prepared days in advance and reheated when the turkey is resting. Maybe have your friends and family bring parts of the meal – most everyone will love to contribute to the gathering. I just wish cleaning the house and setting everything us was as easy as take out….. (:

  2. Randy K permalink
    November 18, 2013 12:00 pm

    wish i had learned this lesson last year after preparing our first Thanksgiving meal in our own home! I spent the whole time killing myself in the kitchen, cranking out WAY too many side dishes and stressing about the turkey, that I hardly got any time to enjoy my family’s company!! oh well – lesson learned. Taking it easy this year for sure! :)

  3. Doug permalink
    November 18, 2013 1:09 pm

    When we were first married Thanksgiving dinner with two sets of in-laws got to be overwhelming. We resolved it by going to Montreal each year, instead — it was only an hour away, It wasn’t a holiday in Canada, and in those days, Thursday was the night the stores stayed open late. We’d have lunch in a high-end place (always less expensive for lunch) and then dinner in Chinatown. We made it up to family with shared Christmas. This year it’s just the two of us, and Montreal is a twelve-hour drive, so we’ll be roasting a duck. And you’d best believe we’ll be saving the fat!

  4. November 18, 2013 8:10 pm

    The Thanksgiving freak-out freaks me out because turkey is so easy to prepare. I think the issue is that many people who normally don’t cook choose this occasion to do so, they invite over a bunch of picky relatives, and they decide they have to have a groaning board of sides.

    My advice would be the opposite of yours. Buy the sides from a reliable source, if you must, but cook the turkey yourself. I would follow the SF Chronicle’s step-by-step “Perfect Turkey” instructions at http://www.sfgate.com/recipes/article/Back-to-basics-for-Thanksgiving-issue-4044569.php

    One side you should make, even if you order out the others, is the dressing/stuffing. Buy Pepperidge Farm mix, follow the instructions on the package, done.

    Also, for the novice, a goose or duck is much more fraught with potential disaster than a turkey. DON’T STUFF IT, folks.

  5. November 19, 2013 10:15 am

    Thanks for this post! I just had a moment thinking about everything I need to do for Thanksgiving, and this was just what I needed to read to put it all in perspective. I decided the family will be doing a Turkey Trot 5K with me and we will put off the meal until late in the day (and I will not be cooking it!) ;) Many cheeses and vino will be present at my house!

  6. November 20, 2013 8:24 am

    I appreciate your efforts to relieve everyone’s stress about preparing for the big day, but rather than dissuading readers from cooking, I would encourage them to start making memories in the kitchen. With the benefit of looking back on decades of holidays, I can tell you that those memories will not be the fights you had about which family had to be accommodated (been there, got the t-shirt), or the year that you gave up and went to Montreal (done that too). My Thanksgiving memories focus on the traditional meal, but over the years you make your own traditions. Grandma’s stuffing recipe gives way to your mother in law’s. Mom’s gravy gets improved with a roux. A take out side will never fill your kitchen with the aromas of your own oven, and those aromas – every year – will remind you of dinner’s past, surrounded by friends and family. So so make the effort to make this one meal. It gets better – and easier – every year. Promise.

  7. Jon E permalink
    November 21, 2013 11:30 pm

    Thanksgiving is easy. Break down the turkey just like you’d take apart a chicken, put the bones in the stock pot, put the turkey on a sheet pan with some carrots, celery and onions and roast until done. Doesn’t need to sit in the oven or a roaster all day. Everything else should be “what do you LIKE to eat?”. No sense in making the same old crap just because it’s tradition. Make your own traditions. We like garlic mashed potatoes, corn casserole, home-grown butternut squash with pecans, and yes – baby carrots (since the garden crop didn’t make it) with fresh dill, brown sugar, butter and a good amount of Dunc’s Mill Maple Rum. That’s MY favorite. As for dessert – homemade apple pie with local apples and lard from our own pigs, pumpkin pie (again from the garden) and black walnut pie made from walnuts painstakingly gathered from the neighbor’s yard up the road. If that’s not enough to satisfy the family, we encourage anybody who wants something different, their favorite dish, to make it and bring it to share. Leftovers, if they even exist, become a feast and not a chore. I used to hate Thanksgiving because of the food – now I love it for the same reason.

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