Stock up now and be relaxed later.EXPAND
Stock up now and be relaxed later.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Don’t Be a Jive Turkey: Tips For Hosting Thanksgiving Dinner

There are two types of holiday hosts; those who live for giving lavish feasts and those who dread it for weeks ahead of time. Whether you willingly invite 20 people to your home every Thanksgiving or have been conned into it by your mom who refuses to do it anymore, there are ways to keep it a day of pleasure, not strife.

Due to Hurricane Harvey, many people are not in their own homes this year, so our gatherings may be a little more haphazard than usual and include guests we haven’t hosted before. The more the merrier. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are hosting Thanksgiving dinner.

5. Start Planning Last Week
Many of us are procrastinators. A trip to any grocery store on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving is proof that Americans seem shocked that this uniquely American holiday has once again arrived on the fourth Thursday of November. Like it was out of left field. Do not be that person wrestling over the last can of cranberry sauce on the shelf. Cranberry sauce is available year round. It lasts a long time. If you buy a few cans in October, it will still be good by the holidays.

The canned cranberry sauce is already disappearing.EXPAND
The canned cranberry sauce is already disappearing.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Same for canned pumpkin. You don’t want to fight the crowds and stand in a 20-minute line to buy three dollars worth of canned goods. Instead, picture yourself at home drinking wine (which you wisely stocked up ahead of time) and watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, secure in the fact that you have all the jellied cranberry sauce you’ll need. The sweet potato casserole is in the oven, the stuffing is prepped and the coconut cake layers are cooling-all because you did not have to make a mad dash to the grocery store.

If, however, your turkey is still in the freezer, you’re a lost cause.

4. Organize the Kitchen
Two days before Thanksgiving, I stop cooking regular meals. It’s take-out and pizza for the family, or better yet, margaritas and Mexican food at the neighborhood restaurant. Trying to create a holiday meal for 20-plus people with dinner dishes in the sink or leftovers in the fridge is a recipe for stress.

The host needs a break from cooking.EXPAND
The host needs a break from cooking.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

My grocery shopping the week of Thanksgiving is limited to ingredients for the big bash. The Monday before is a great day to have a free-for-all fridge cleaning. Let the family fight over who gets the last piece of leftover fried chicken or who gets stuck with the three-day-old curry. Point is, get it all out of there and wipe down your fridge. Aunt Bertha will be giving it a once over when she goes to refrigerate her trifle surprise.

Also, wash your linens way ahead of time. Make sure there are plenty of clean dishtowels and paper towels for the inevitable messes. Have a stain remover handy for wine and gravy mishaps. Put the tablecloths on the tables the night before and forbid any people or pets from going near. Trying to set a table, while cooking a large fowl and five sides, will cause you to reach for the wine at 10 a.m. At least try to make it to noon.

Two turkeys are better than one.EXPAND
Two turkeys are better than one.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

3. Make Two Turkeys
This might sound like the absolute worst idea, but hear me out. I usually have upwards of 20 people at my feast which always resulted in me buying the biggest turkey I could find. There are few things in life more unwieldy than a twenty-five pound turkey. It’s like handling a slippery toddler. And getting it in and out of the oven for basting is a nightmare. My built-in oven is very low to the ground and it necessitates my doing a Sumo wrestler squat each time I have to pull something out of it.

A gigantic turkey can have you up at six in the morning in order to give it time to cook. If you were up late drinking wine and finishing up your famous coconut cake, this is no fun. Cooking a smaller turkey on the big day means less oven time for the turkey and more sleep time for you.

I buy two 12-14lb. turkeys instead and cook one the day before Thanksgiving. This is the Cajun spiced one, a flavor of which my Louisiana-East Texas family is very fond. Once cooked, I break it down in its disposable pan and cover it tightly with tin foil and refrigerate. The next day I take it out when the main turkey is almost ready and reheat it while turkey No. 2 rests. Or you can just reheat the turkey legs and save the rest of the meat to pack for take home containers.

There are a number of my family members who like to go all Henry the Eighth when it comes to turkey legs, so two turkeys double the offering. The first time I served the extra drumsticks, my uncle remarked “Where did you find a turkey with four legs?”

In the past couple of years my brother has brought a deep-fried turkey, so I am back to making just the one traditional turkey with sage and onion. Sometimes Cowboy Clint’s fried Cajun turkey gets more praise, but that’s okay. I’m still better looking.

2. Outsource and Delegate
One person should never be doing it all when it comes to a gathering of family and friends. Tell people what you need. Put them to work. Have someone else bring the green bean casserole and if it tastes terrible, you can place the blame on them. Okay, don’t do that. That’s not in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Just pick the people you know can cook and let them show off their skills. People may be getting tired of your version of cornbread dressing anyway. Just don’t let Aunt Bertha cut vegetables after her third Bloody Mary.

Make friends with people who will bring dishes like pimento cheese grits.EXPAND
Make friends with people who will bring dishes like pimento cheese grits.
Photo by Alex Ryan

While you’re at the grocery store (on Monday, because you are heeding tip No. 1), pick up a pie. They are dirt cheap this time of year and you have too much on your plate already to make pie crusts and core apples. I hate pumpkin pie, so this is my one outsourcing every year. I love my people, but I am not making pumpkin pie for them. Or homemade whipped cream for said pie. It will be squirted out of a can. Nobody seems to mind, especially the kids, who like to have control over how much goes on their slice (a lot).

Ambrosia, however, requires homemade whipped cream. Always. You can’t cheat on that one. Your grandma would roll in her grave- or slap you upside of the head, if you are lucky enough to still have her around.

1. Give Thanks
It seems obvious, but it is truly one of the things that we almost seem to forget. We stress over who is going to bring up politics or insult Aunt Bertha’s trifle surprise. Don’t worry. Aunt Bertha is probably loaded and won’t even notice. And if your cousin brings up politics, shove a spoon of hot mashed potatoes into his maw.

Take a moment and look around the table. This is your tribe. This is where you come from, this is who you are. The family you were born into and the friends you have gathered along the way. Some of those seats will be empty one day.

Billions of people in this world do not have the luxury of eating too much food with their friends and family. For those of us who have that blessing, we must take time to acknowledge it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Don’t Be a Jive Turkey: Tips For Hosting Thanksgiving Dinner
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

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