Hosting Thanksgiving shouldn’t be anything rather than a blessing. However, that end needs some good planning.
Six years ago, on a chilly October evening, I was at the public library with my kids for a storytime. I ran into our affable librarian with whom I had a friendly conversation about the Thanksgiving holiday.
The straightforward, middle-age lady sorrowfully intimated to me that her Thanksgiving experience was never an easy one. “It is pretty stressful! It is almost a mission impossible to serve a handsome turkey along with a plethora of perfectly cooked side dishes to a hungry three-generation crowd,” she added.
Her statement was sad but held true. I totally understand how this blissful celebration could morph into a nightmare. I was there myself before I learned how to avoid the frustration, which comes with hosting a cross-cultural crowd with all sorts of dietary restrictions.
The first Thanksgiving I hosted was one year following my naturalization. I was living in Paris back then with my family. Our guests list consisted of a U.S. couple who was visiting the City of Light, along with other few single friends and co-workers.
Needless to say, I was equally intimidated and challenged. Ostensibly, I was under the pressure of high expectations from a full-fledged US citizen, who should efficiently host the quintessential American holiday.
It took me ten days to diligently research recipes and studiously consult French locals and U.S. expats on ingredients. Luckily, my efforts weren’t fruitless.
Neither all the dishes on that day were perfectly cooked, nor the pies were food magazine-worthy. Yet, my first herbs-butter turkey — cooked in a roasting bag — was nothing short of a miracle! My guests were wowed, and I was thrilled that I came to put together this celebratory American dinner, even with some imperfect dishes.
From then on, I was open to learning a few tricks every year that made the whole experience less onerous and more enjoyable. My Thanksgiving menu has evolved and matured over the years, the same way I did as an immigrant.
My holiday table went from complicated and laborious to genuine and practical. It seamlessly blends tradition with modern cooking and reconciles my origins with my evolved identity.
I am sharing here my two cents with those who are planning to do most of the Thanksgiving cooking themselves. Cheer up and fear not.
Hosting Thanksgiving: Lessons Learned the Hard Way
- Plan ahead. Invite your guests two weeks ahead and ask for RSVPs. Decide on the dishes ten days in advance. Get the turkey seven to five days prior to the dinner. Do your grocery shopping three days ahead.
- Consider a Kosher turkey. I prefer Kosher turkey as they are pre-brined. One step less to worry about.
- Defrost the turkey early enough. Every four pounds require one day to defrost. Do the math to avoid a turkey drama. I always bear in mind that I will additionally need twelve hours for brining — if the turkey is not pre-brined — and another twelve hours for marinating or seasoning.
- Serve light simple appetizers. Store-bought spicy nuts, pickles, and olives are my go-to appetizers for that day. Save the homemade cheesy artichoke-spinach and seven-layer dips for a lighter, casual meal.
- Consider your guests’ dietary restrictions and allergies. When I plan for the sides, I make sure my dishes are inclusive and sensitive to my guests’ dietary restrictions. Eggless, dairy-free, vegan and vegetarian sides bring variety to my Thanksgiving table and make everyone happy.
- Opt for diverse yet simple and quick fix sides. Each side should deliver a distinct aroma, texture, and color. Yet it should not be too complicated with tons of hard-to-find ingredients. Avoid too many creamy dishes. A big bowl of a crisp. zesty, cooling salad is always a plus on Thanksgiving table.
- Consider pre-chopped produce and semi-homemade dishes. I do rely on pre-chopped peeled produce, store-bought pie crusts, and appetizers. Shortcuts are necessary to save enough energy to properly entertain my guests for several hours.
- Go for disposable baking aluminum pans, disposable plates, and cutlery. That might sound insensitive to the environment but sensitive enough to my sanity on that specific day. Plus I would be saving water.
- Accept help if you are offered. If your guests offer to bring something, make things easier for them and specify what they should bring. You don’t want to end up with five pumpkin pies on your dessert table.
- Butterfly the turkey or use a roasting bag. The first will decrease the roasting time and leads to crispy skin and evenly cooked bird. The second will also decrease the cooking time, spare you the pain of basting every 20 minutes and will leave your oven spotless with no grease stains or splashes of drippings.
- Make the gravy ahead. One day ahead, I use the neck and giblets of turkey to make the gravy. After the roasting is over, I add to the gravy, a spoonful of butter, a splash of cream, and some of the dripping for a depth of flavor,
- A simple meal served with a smile is more treasured than an elaborate feast served by a depleted grumpy host. I get seriously organized so I can create some room to get enough rest and dress up before my guests arrive. I love to enjoy that day as much as my guests do, even if I have to decrease the number of dishes.
- Make the table the night before. A beautiful table is a feast to the sight. Do it the night before you get overly tired. Get your family members involved, and initiate the good vibes.
- Make one show-stopping dessert and order the rest. Pies are tricky and they become trickier, especially when you and your kitchen are both steaming. Therefore I strongly recommend focusing on just one make-ahead show stopper dessert while ordering the rest. Even better, ask the guests to bring over their favorite pies.
- Serve Thanksgiving dinner at a reasonable time. Don’t starve your guests. Serve dinner before kids become whinny and adults start to lose their cool and appetite. I like to serve mine at 6 PM. That leaves us with ample room to eat with no rush, clean up and retire to bed at a reasonable time for well-earned rest.
- Have disposable containers handy. There is seldom a Thanksgiving dinner without leftovers. Your guests will appreciate going back home with a slice of pie for breakfast, or some turkey slices for a lunch break sandwich on the next day.
- Don’t re-heat the turkey leftovers more than two times in a row. Poultry could develop poisonous bacteria when they are re-heated a few times in a row. I was personally a victim of food poising the next day after Thanksgiving. It wasn’t fun!
- Don’t worry too much. It is not going to be anything less than enjoyable. Cheer up and fear not. It is about giving thanks after all!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!