This post started as the last question in yesterday’s Thanksgiving Q&A, but I got on a roll…and it wound up being too long to fit. And…as always, I apologize in advance.
Thanksgiving is as much about logistics as it is about cooking.
The menu is large, and the crowd is larger. Suddenly, the oven isn't large enough, the stove doesn't have enough burners, and there isn't enough time to get everything done. (Even when I use my grills as second and third ovens.)
Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd depends on planning, making things ahead, and not losing your head when chaos is swirling around you.
So...how does a typical Thanksgiving look when I'm hosting the big dinner?
Thanksgiving: Strategy vs. Tactics (vs. The Fog of War)
Or, what happens when a plan meets the enemy - and the enemy is us.
With apologies to Alton Brown. Romancing the Bird (A Good Eats Thanksgiving) inspired me and this post - but I didn't realize that until after I finished writing.
- Monday: Dry brine the turkeys, put them in the back of the downstairs refrigerator.
- Tuesday: Make the giblet gravy and cheesecakes, store in downstairs freezer
- Wednesday: Wine, beer, pop, and sparkling water into coolers on the deck. In the evening, mix up the stuffing and get it in the pan. Trim and foil wrap the green beans.
- Thanksgiving Morning: Peel and slice the mashed potatoes (store covered in water) and the sweet potatoes (just leave in the pressure cooker pot). Dig the folding chairs and extra tables out of the basement. Browbeat the kids into setting the table with the fancy dinnerware - and then the regular dinnerware when the fancy stuff runs out - and then raid the camping set for a couple of graniteware plates to finish setting the Kids Table.
- Noon: Start the turkeys on the grills. Go back inside and watch a little of the Lions football game.
- 2 PM: Put the stuffing pan on the grill. Start welcoming guests. Take the curious ones out to see the turkeys on the grills. Spread out all the chips and snacks the brought on the kitchen table. Hang out with the hardy souls and have a beverage in the crisp fall air. (Or throw on my parka and hustle out in the sleet to check on the turkeys. Thanksgiving weather can be dicey.)
- 3 PM: Start the mashed potatoes on the stove, start the gravy reheating on the simmer burner on the back of the stove, and start the pressure cooker of sweet potatoes.
- 3:15 PM: Pull brother-in-law Phil (who also loves to cook) away from the TV; take the green beans out to grill, load Phil up with finished turkeys and bring them into the house. Shoo away the sudden attention - whole roast turkeys draw a crowd - and tell everyone to be patient; dinner is at 4:15. (Aiming for 4, will be ready at 4:30) Don’t let Phil escape back to the game - get him started on the cranberry relish, which I was forgotten until aunt Francis brought out her can of cranberries and asked if she could borrow the can opener later.
- 3:30PM: Accept the dish of candied yams from aunt Janice and put in the oven to reheat, Ask uncle Rick to get you a beverage (partially for the beverage, mainly to get him away from the turkey.) Have Phil start mashing the potatoes - he can be trusted to go heavy on the butter and cream. Ask sister-in-law Sharon to mash the sweet potatoes, and aunt Rita to track down who was supposed to bring the dinner rolls - they have both been hovering, and want to help out. Run outside and get the green beans and stuffing from the grill. (Neither confirm nor deny that you stayed out there for a few minutes of peace.)
- 3:45 PM: Bring the stuffing and green beans in, to keep warm in the oven with the yams. Find Grandma Ethel blocking the oven, with a dish of marshmallow sweet potato surprise that needs to be heated. (The surprise is you didn’t know it was coming.) Put the surprise in the oven, wrap the stuffing and green beans in a beach towel to keep warm, and set the beach towel bundle on the dining room table to get it out of the way.
- 4:00 PM: Phil is tossing the salad. Sharon is finding a bread bowl for Rita, who is slicing the baguettes someone brought instead of rolls. and the crowd is starting to close in. Ask the long-suffering Wife to organize Phil, Sharon, and Rita in setting up the kitchen island as a serve yourself station. Plates on one side, food lined up along both sides. Get out the electric carving knife and with a maniacal gleam in your eye, start carving the turkey. Threaten uncle Rick with the carving fork when he tries to take “just a taste of the white meat.” Then, when he turns his back, slip a taste of the white meat to niece Jasmine, who looks a little overwhelmed by everything.
- 4:15 PM: Done carving. Put the turkey bones in two-gallon zip-top bags for soup tomorrow. (Save the bones!) Then, send out the cry: Dinner is Served!
- 4:30 PM: Collapse in a chair at the dining room table, with a well-deserved beverage, a drumstick, and a plate covered with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
At least, that’s how it works when everything goes right. (Yes, this is things going right.) When they go wrong, they really go wrong:
- I forget more than the cranberries. I have a pile of squash from my CSA, still sitting on the counter the day after Thanksgiving.
- One turkey always finishes early - way early - and the other one is always late. "We'll just carve this one, and start serving. I'm sure the other one will finish soon...ish."
- There’s a side dish that’s even later still, delaying the meal while the rest of the food sits on the counter, slowly getting cold…and it’s an important one, either the stuffing or the mashed potatoes. We can’t go on without the mashed potatoes!
- Uncle Rick and Grandpa Harry stand in front of the stove, loudly reminiscing about the football game, while you subtly try to hint to them that they’re in the way. (By saying things like: “Rick. Grandpa. MOVE!” and waving knives around.) They move…three feet to the right…and slowly creep back to the front of the stove.
- The smoke alarm goes off every time you open the oven. It goes off so often that you can pull the smoke detector off the ceiling and disconnect the battery without even looking. High Heat Turkey Roasting was how I learned to cook. (Now that I cook the turkeys on the grill, this doesn’t happen anywhere near as much.)
- The nephews are all standing in the doorway arguing their case about who is hogging the XBox - as you’re trying to bring in the turkeys. (“Boys. MOVE!”)
- I drop something large. And heavy. And hot. And full of liquid. On my foot.
- The one vegetarian brother (we’ll call him Anson) insists on bringing his own main dish. (He’s trying to help, and not be “that guy” who insists we cook around him.) He brings a plain looking dish with three ingredients: pasta, tomato sauce, and cheese. Of course, the Kids Table sees this, and quits bickering long enough to unite in one voice: we want Pasta! None of this turkey nonsense! (Except for Ricky Jr, one arm wrapped defensively around his plate of mashed potatoes and stuffing.)
- Anson’s not the only one - surprise dishes just keep coming. Everyone has their favorite side dish, the one thing that makes Thanksgiving for them. And I’m happy to oblige! Bring it! (Like a cylinder of cranberry sauce, set upright on the plate, quivering, with marks from the tin can rings still visible.)
- The long-suffering Wife starts dropping hints, like "Are we ready yet?", "How much longer," and “I’m going to tell everyone to sit down and start eating the dinner rolls while you finish.”
- You’re sitting at the table, relaxing after a hard-fought campaign to put dinner on the table for a couple of dozen people. You’ve graciously accepted their thanks, praised your hard-working volunteer kitchen crew, had a turkey drumstick, some stuffing, and some gravy…a few good conversations have broken out around the table…you’re relaxing, considering another beverage, or maybe some more stuffing, but you're already stuffed…and the Kids Table arrives en masse, demanding dessert.
So...yikes. I got a little carried away there. To be clear - I'm not calling out members of my family. This is a work of fiction, recreated from years of Thanksgivings. The characters are products of my imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental. Except for Uncle Rick. He knows who he is...
My Perfect Thanksgiving Menu (from the blog)
- Basic Grilled Turkey
- Rotisserie Turkey with Cajun Dry Brine
- Mashed Potatoes (OK, not those - I need to cook a huge batch for my family. Like, ten pounds of potatoes and the biggest pot I own large.)
- Grill Pan Bread Stuffing with Cranberries and Apples
- Pressure Cooker Giblet Gravy
- Pressure Cooker Sweet Potatoes
- Green Beans
- Pressure Cooker Pumpkin Cheesecake
- Pressure Cooker New York Cheesecake
- Pressure Cooker Caramel Cheesecake
Enjoy the holiday!
More important that great recipes and detailed planning? The real key is a sense of humor. When everything is going wrong, I get tunnel vision. I focus too much on the thing that is falling apart in front of me, and not on the big picture. I have to remind myself to relax, take a (mental) step back, and take a deep breath. "Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave." I'm doing all this work because I love my family, and I look forward to bringing them together every year. Sure, there are hiccups - there always are - but they're part of the process. Enjoy it, even when things are falling apart. Especially when things are falling apart - those are the stories the family will still be telling years later. And making memories for my family is really what Thanksgiving is all about.
Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
What do you think?
Questions? Other ideas? Guesses who Uncle Rick is? Leave them in the comments section below.
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