Saturday, October 08, 2011

Tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving for most Americans is more than a month away. People are just now starting to make arrangements to travel home. They're looking forward to the family gathering or dreading this year's family drama. They're making peace with the fact that they won't be eating their mom's special turkey stuffing because they're spending it with the in-laws this year.

For me, it's different. I celebrate Thanksgiving a month and a half early because it's when the Canadian do it. This year marks my 9th year of celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in America.

My mom, though she dutifully hosted Thanksgiving for our family every year, must have hated the pressure to getting a giant bird and cooking a giant meal. I think it stressed her out to entertain a house full of people. The rest of us tip-toed around her, wondering whether her surly mood, which would magically disappear when guests arrived, would return once everyone left. One year, while I was in law school, my sisters used their college mid-term exams as an excuse not to go home for Thanksgiving. Inspired by their brilliant plan to avoid Mom's wrath, I followed suit and decided to stay in Washington, D.C. as well. Since Dad was out of town, Mom decided to ditch the rest of the relatives and come to D.C. And I decided to show her what it meant to throw a dinner party without becoming a basket case. That was the inaugural Canadian Thanksgiving Dinner at my house.

It was the first dinner party I'd had with more than 6 people in attendance. I'm not sure why I thought I could calmly host 21 for a seated dinner at my tiny 650 s.f. two-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment with my Tiger Mother breathing down my neck, but I was confident that I could. And I did.

I can't say I've never internally lost my cool while preparing for a big dinner party in the last 9 years. There have been a few disasters, one that irretrievably ruined my reputation (which included both an unfortunate slime of pureed onions and a hand spasm that caused an explosion of cinnamon to go flying into a curry just seconds before I served it to the features editor of the local rag at Speakeasy Kitchen). But I've never had a crisis that I couldn't work through and I've certainly never thought, "This isn't fun anymore." So what's my secret? No secret. I love feeding people. How could you ever not have fun doing what you love? But if you're not in love with feeding people like I am, I suppose there are still a few things you can do that will help you get through your next holiday dinner a little more stress-free.

Tip #1: Accept help.
If you're throwing a really big dinner party, go ahead and let people help out. People will always offer. You already know who's reliable and tidy, who's a good cook, who's the best pastry chef, who's a conscientious dish-washer, who brings the good wine, and who brings the crappy Yellow Tail. If you're hoping to throw the best possible dinner party, accept offers to help and maybe even enlist the competent help you know. If you're a perfectionist and trust no one to help out, you will suffer alone (or you'll make everyone around you suffer with you <ahem, Mom>).

Tip #2: Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.
This goes out to the perfectionist again. Hosting a big holiday meal is no small feat. Everyone knows that. No one is expecting perfection. And good is pretty damn good enough. So chill out a little bit, try to enjoy the warmth and lovely smells of the kitchen, and look forward to breaking bread with loved ones. Dinner is going to be just fine.

Tip #3: Self-medicate... moderately.
Hey, I get it. We can't all just chill out at the drop of a hat, especially when there's so much to get done in so little time. You know that wine you were going to deglaze that pan with? Take a sip. Take two. Just don't overdo it. There is, after all, a lot of work to be done in the kitchen. Tipple too much and you might not get it all done, much less competently. The turkey needs to be basted regularly and it won't get basted if you're wasted.

Tip #4: Deep-fry your turkey.
Since we're on the topic of basting, let's explore the issue a little bit. Seven of my last nine Thanksgivings were spent diligently basting the bird every fifteen minutes for several hours on Thanksgiving. It's a necessary evil if you want to roast an evenly browned bird that would be tender and moist. That, along with brining, injecting, salt-rubbing, flipping the bird halfway through the roasting, flipping the bird three times during the roasting, etc. I've tried every method under the sun and have never had a dry breast so long as I was diligent about basting. Yes, the bird is heavy. Yes, it barely fit in the oven when making turkey for 30. Yes, I burnt my hands, arms, and elbows on the roasting pan or the sides of the oven when reaching in to make sure every square inch of the bird got basted. But it must be done when roasting a bird. So I basted religiously. Until I discovered the deep-fried turkey. It's all the deliciousness (and then some) of the most perfectly basted bird without any of the hassle. All I use is an overnight dry rub under the turkey's skin consisting of freshly minced sage, orange zest, kosher salt, and ground pepper. Oh, and Mr. Rose's strong and steady arm to lower the bird into a vat of hot peanut oil. (See Tip #1). This is the recipe to the most delicious turkey you will ever eat.

Tip #5: Remember that this is supposed to be fun.
Turn on some good music. I don't mean that morbid emo shit. I'm talking fun, upbeat, makes-you-want-to-tap-your-toes-and-dance-with-the-dogs-music. If it's Don't Stop Believing by Journey because you're still not sick of that song, so be it. If it's some hippie bullshit like Grateful Dead and that stuff works for you, so be it. But make sure it's something that'll make you shake your booty. Dancing in the kitchen will lift your spirits and, if one were to believe what one saw in Like Water for Chocolate, your diners will taste your joy. For me this year, it was Don't Stop Believing (because I'm only a little bit sick of it) and the ensuing Genius mix, comprised inexplicably of Led Zepplin, The Beatles, Black Crowes, and Jimi Hendrix. The turkey this year will taste strongly of joy, with a little bit of cheese and a whole lot of rock and roll.

Tip #6: Give in to your inner voice.
Seriously, if you've gotten down to this tip and you're still skeptical that hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stress-free, entertaining is probably not your thing. If you're already signed up to host this year, consider ordering a ready-made turkey from Whole Paycheck or getting Chinese take-out. Hopefully no one will be terribly disappointed at the substitution of Peking duck for turkey. But you'll have done your duty for the year so you'll be off the hook for Christmas. And for goodness sake, don't volunteer to host Thanksgiving next year.


  1. LOVE this post! Can't wait to be a part of this magic when you come down for American Thanksgiving :)

  2. Thanks, Friend. I'm looking forward to it, too. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

  3. So grateful to you for sharing these tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner. I am totally impressed. My sister threw a small surprise Thanksgiving luncheon for entire family at some garden party Seattle venues. It was truly an amazing bash that we totally enjoyed.

  4. No doubt Seattle is temperate enough to enjoy Thanksgiving in the garden. Thankfully for us, Canadian Thanksgiving happens early enough for us that we were able to host 40+ people in our garden as well!

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