Thanksgiving: Dangerously Organized
It finally dawned on me that this year November 1 falls on a Thursday which means Thanksgiving is as early as it can be. A person of lists and schedules, for a moment I panicked — it was already the second week of November.
— What are you worried about? Just get a turkey and some brussels sprouts, — said Tom brushing his teeth.
— What do you mean?
He doesn’t realize that my Thanksgiving plank has been set up by his mother — Martha Stewart/Ina Garten the rest of the world didn’t get to appreciate. Her meals, decor of her sparkling house, table setups were like no other. And I am hosting the same crowd that are used to her table and menu.
Over the years — this will be the ninth one we’re hosting — I relaxed and settled in my own ways. Thanksgiving is the easiest holiday to host because the tradition is so set. Things especially eased up for me once I stumbled upon the advice of Sam Sifton in his book “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well.” He explained what it means to cook Thanksgiving correctly:
And what exactly does that mean? It means there is going to be a turkey, and side dishes and dressing to go with, and plenty of gravy as well. There is going to be a proper dinner table even if it turns out to be a slab of plywood over some milk crates, covered by a sheet… There are going to be proper place settings for each person and glasses for water and wine. There are going to be candles. There will be dessert.
And here comes the best and most important part:
It means there will not be salad at meal’s end, or appetizers at its beginning… There can be a soup course if you wish… But you should not be filling a Thanksgiving guest’s stomach with onion tarts, or nuts or corn chips or wee little amuses bouches in advance of trencherman’s feast of turkey and four sides, the whole thing covered with gravy… At Thanksgiving, appetizers take up valuable stomach space. They are insulting to your own hard work. You can have your salad tomorrow.
So be it.
One, two, three — the rest now is planning: breaking down clean up, set up, shopping, prepping, cooking. Planning not only makes things easy and enjoyable — it makes Thanksgiving and anticipation of it last the entire month rather than one day. And anticipation is so good!
Preparing to host our first Thanksgiving in 2010, I’ve created a template and have been updating it diligently ever since according to changes in the family — new babies, marriages, new friends, other things — new food trends, new stores opening around us. Right now, in Bergen County, we are living through the grocery shopping Renaissance with new food stores — one better than the other — popping up constantly.
My template begins with an overview of the entire month and what should be done during the first three weeks, zeroing in on the first three days of the fourth week — Thanksgiving week.
Thanksgiving always starts for me on November 1, when I send an email to the FAMILY group in my contacts list to check who is in who is out this year. Of course there are people who are too busy to answer, but it’s a no brainer — they are too busy to come. Most reply within hours which allows me to determine the amount of turkey to order at The Goffle Road Poultry Farm. The list of all family member is in the computer, I just have to cross, uncross, or add names based on responses.
For the turkey, we roast a presentation bird in the oven. But it’s always a guessing game between the time in the oven and the size of the bird. We also grill a turkey breast and a couple of turkey thighs that I debone and truss the night before. Besides being sure proof, it it so easy to cut the string off and slice the meat like sausage. And one can never have enough turkey leftovers: all these turkey sandwiches, turkey salad, turkey hash, turkey a la King, gallons of turkey soup!
Then comes the menu. Tom is responsible for the drinks so it’s out of my head. Besides, the list is already there — he just has to adjust it to the crowd. We start with a small cup of soup made of Jersey clams that we dig out during our summer family vacation in Sea Isle City. It’s our little tradition. Turkey, gravy, stuffing — that’s a given. For vegetable sides we do five or six different dishes. During the year, if I come across some interesting recipes, I save them for Thanksgiving and now it’s a-pick-six moment. Not being a dessert person, I delegate bread, cranberry sauce, pies, and cookies to the guests. Coffee and tea is a matter of setup.
Next come two shopping lists. One I compile by each recipe — what I need for each dish. Then, going by the first list, I decide which store I am going to go to — usually it’s Fairway — and arrange the items in order they are placed in the store. This 5-minute action really saves time! My Thanksgiving food shopping is my quickest food shopping trip ever — 15-20 min tops.
The most important list of them all — Thanksgiving Day Rundown. The word rundown stuck with me since my days with NBC Nightly News — a legal size sheet that contained minute-by-minute show log with all the prompter details, B-roll, voiceovers, etc. Even on Thanksgiving morning, I do go to my studio and teach my classes — one of the best days to be there: fun crowd, great mood. With this list, Tom and I can easily shuffle tasks between us. And Tom is so great not just helping but pulling off everything together at the last moment.
Occasionally we need help from our girls or from our guests. For that we have a spreadsheet that directs everyone involved to their station — be it oven, cooktop, serving table, or dining table. Important moment — the dishwasher must be started at 1pm and, subsequently, emptied at 2 pm — no matter what. Dinner is at 4 pm — at 5 pm we will be filling it up all over again.
And I do like to have all the recipes printed and copied on 8,5 x 11 paper so during the short but intense cooking time they all are in full view attached to the kitchen chimney and available to anyone working on anything at any time — no stained books, no valuable countertop space taken.
Sounds overwhelming? No! Not more than putting one foot in front of the other.