First of all, before we dive into tips & tricks, isn’t this photo so cool?! It’s a naturally made wormhole “tattoo” in a piece of firewood. Like Brian said when he chopped the wood and somehow sliced it precisely enough to expose this little bit of magic, “It’s a perfect tree within a tree.”Second of all, we’re all just a case of sickies over here. Brian was the last man standing, but he succumbed, too. We are indeed too sick to host Thanksgiving, which makes me very sad because it’s one of my favorite days of the year combining all my favorite things: Family, food, cooking, laughter, music, and lounging in front of the fire.
That should be my Thanksgiving Tip Numero Uno: Don’t get sick.
Nevertheless that’s a useless piece of advice because who out there is ever really jonesing to get sick? (Except maybe in those random moments when a headcold and a cup of tea in bed sounds better than your endless to-do list….)
But, really. I have hosted about 10 years’ worth of Thanksgiving dinners and I have the stories and war wounds to show for it. I think my favorite memory was the year when we moved into our first house. I bought a 15-pound bird, went through all the usual nerves about how to defrost it and prep it & etc., stuffed it, and put it in the oven. It roasted along merrily and beautifully, looking like the most picturesque turkey you can imagine, magazine-ready and dressed to the nines. But when we cut into it we realized the underside was completely uncooked. Like, completely. It was just a positive mess. Turns out the lower heating element was burned out and we’d just been broiling it for five hours. Somehow, though, we laughed our way through it and ate an amazing meal anyway (see tip #3 about lots of sides).
The thing is, despite all the “dos” and “don’ts” of Thanksgiving, there are really just a few big basics that I believe in rather fundamentally and feel the need to share with all of you.
So here goes, in no particular order, my top 10 pieces of Thanksgiving advice:
1. Have fun. Seriously. It’s a holiday, it’s your day off, and it’s meant to be memorable and fun. So: Zip the stress–tell it go bye-bye. Play music. I mean it–really, rock out to your favorite songs, dance like nobody’s watching, and open all your kitchen windows to let some fresh air inside. Even if it’s below zero, get some fancy fresh air filling your head with feel-good oxygen, flash your moves ‘round your kitchen like a Flashdance star, and then dress your bird and roll your pie crust with the free & easy heart of a happy soul. Seriously it’s all going to be alright, because….
2. Nobody is going to be a rotten banana at your Thanksgiving dinner. Nobody is going to show up and say, “Whoa, that’s some bad turkey right there, that is so bad I’m gonna write home about it.” Because seriously that’s just ridiculous. (And if someone writes home about your horrible turkey, it’s not your fault. That’s on them.) And besides, your meal is SO MUCH MORE THAN TURKEY. RIGHT?! And if it’s not, let’s talk about that right here, right now. We can fix that—STAT. Because…
3. Thanksgiving dinner is ALL ABOUT THE SIDES. Yes, you heard me. I’m laying down the line here. Let’s talk about the SIDES, which are really THE MEAL. You can go crazy with the sides and present your family’s favorites, but let’s be clear about the essentials (see, everyone has an opinion; I know I sure do): For this, we’re talking mashed potatoes made your way, sautéed winter greens with garlic, cranberry zest, baked yams ‘n butter, chunky sliced carrots & green peas covered in sea salt and ground pepper, gravy that is savory enough to break your heart, and a crunchy crispy winter salad dressed in your own special rich dressing that begs to be made for the rest of your life cuz it’s so good. Yeah, like that.
You can make any side you want: Roasted squash. Beautiful meatballs. Tomato chutney. Butternut squash soup. Delicate fritters. Happy-go-lucky experiments.
Our family always features sarma as its first appetizer course, because Brian makes them from his Armenian aunt’s recipe. It’s the simplest sarma recipe I’ve found, and it’s served alongside lemon slices. It’s absolute refreshing deliciousness with a glass of wine a few hours before dinner.
Your sides don’t need to be complicated. They don’t need to be gorgeous enough to show up on the front of Saveur magazine. They just need to be made from basic ingredients, as fresh as you can possibly find them, and hopefully cooked up with as much laughter and light-heartedness as you can muster. It’s good for your heart and soul.
The point is, have fun with it. Don’t ask your poor family and guests to analyze the heck out of your meal and critique every bite. Sink in and savor what you like and make note of what you don’t, and focus on the company around you, not whether you made perfection out of every item of food you contributed.
4. Piecrust thumbprint cookies. Yep. I’m skipping past the pie altogether because to me it’s such an OF COURSE THERE WILL BE PIE (pumpkin, apple, chocolate, you name it–or in our case when we actually get to make Thanksgiving dinner this year, it’ll be with this new-never-before-tried audition of this New York Times Cooking Cranberry Curd Tart. Because, I mean, who doesn’t want to try making a cranberry curd tart that’s this gorgeous? And also: Do you like cooking videos? This one feels like you’re meditating.)
But the point is: THUMBPRINT COOKIES. You know how you always have a little bit of piecrust left over? If there are kids around, this is their domain. Give them as many bits of it as you can muster, and set them free to design away. Sometimes they’ll use a muffin tin and make mini-pies with their own ingredients. But there must always, always (always) be thumbprint cookies. Simply show them how to roll the piecrust into a ball, press their thumbs into the cookies, sprinkle with a bit of brown sugar or powdered sugar, and fill with chocolate and peanut butter, white chocolate, and/or a dollop of jam (summer’s blackberry jam is a favorite over here), and bake for 7-12 minutes until the cookies are done. Set out to cool and let the kids bring them out at the end of the day to share with everyone.
5. Something from the outdoors. I’m not talking about running to the store to purchase a bouquet full of greenery. Set up a simple bouquet of pine or laurel or bay leaves, or holly, or an arrangement of rosemary sprigs, or a big bouquet of fallen maple leaves. It can even be a bowl of citrus or apples or scattered squash. It is wonderful if it smells fresh and clean and crisp and adds a pop of color or green. I am not decrying store-bought stuff here because I get it, it’s not always possible to find a scrap of nature anywhere in a deeply urban landscape, and I’m not advocating you run out and strip every tree you find and bring pieces inside, but I hope you get the picture. Something seasonal that brings the outside in.
If you’re feeling inspired, you can get crafty and press leaves in heavy books, and use the leaves to adorn name cards, or hang from a simple line of wire on your dining room wall.
And don’t be afraid of being green. Sometimes a shot of green is all you need.
6. Keep things cozy. This means keep the hot tea pouring, the coffee brewing, the cocktails refreshed, the wine bottles breathing, the seltzer water at the ready. Whatever your fancy, keep it on hand. Set up a few cozy nooks for folks to congregate. Offer some extra blankets, a couple old-fashioned board games and cards and funny conversation-starters, a pile of books and magazines, even a guest book for people to sign and contribute their favorite quotes or inspiration. Cozy fires are total bonuses, but you can easily find candles at a variety of price points and arrange them into a warm and cozy reminder of light during a darker time of year.
7. Rest and relax. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, and I’ve been there as the host and feel like I never sit down, but that’s not really the point at all. I’ve learned from this and I know it’s a day for everyone to relax. Give yourself this space, too. Put your feet up and enjoy some of the little islands of calm or laughter and community that you created for your guests.
8. Eat seconds. C’mon. Really. If that means that you take a small series of servings the first time around in order to enjoy a second set of servings, please do what you need to do to enjoy every flavor and every moment of this gracious meal. It’s a meal built on years of enjoyment and sacrifice and celebration. It’s not a day to complain about your body (um, is there ever a day you should complain about your beautiful body? No!) or worry about calories and fat content and whathaveyou as long as you’re not on a medically-restricted diet of some kind. Maybe it’ll be a turning point for you to enjoy the food as it goes into your body and gives you energy and sustenance and fuels you for more good work. The people around you love you as you are.
9. Remember those who came before you. At every Thanksgiving meal throughout my life, my family made a point to honor the generations that came before us. We said thank you for your presence; thank you for your love; thank you for raising us and caring for us; we are grateful to you. And ever since my sweet Grammy passed away, we make sure we bring her to the table with us in some way. Here are her beautiful arthritic hands holding a bird that had glanced off one of her windows, years ago, warming it until it was ready to fly away. Maybe you have a story about an ancestor that brings them to life. Tell it.
10. Eat leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eventually the long-awaited feast loses its charm, the gravy becomes commonplace, the highlights of poultry seasoning become a bit overdone, the food just doesn’t want to be reheated anymore. Enjoy those turkey sandwiches and leftover mashed potatoes and cranberries while they’re still delectable.
Anything you’d like to add? Any tips or tricks I should know about in my ever-evolving list to enjoy life, eat well, and celebrate gratitude?
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Much love & blessings to you all.