The following story ran in The Times’s Week in Review just before last Thanksgiving; I think it’s worth running here.
But first, another word. There has been a lot of talk, and a lot of press, about Thanksgivings that are “healthy,” or “sustainable,” or “vegetarian,” or all three. Leonard Lopate asked me questions about this during our chat on the Intrepid last night (which drew 1000+ people, a nice benefit for WNYC).
I think all of this misses the point somewhat. The idea – I believe – is to focus on the big picture. Are our diets sustainable in the long run? Are we eating wisely, intelligently, consistently? Because if we are, one meal, one day cannot possibly matter. Why would you want to do a “healthy” Thanksgiving if your normal routine was not consistent with that? Why, in fact, would you want to worry about anything on Thanksgiving other than putting a lovely meal on the table? This is a once-a-year day. If your diet is moving, has moved, in the right direction, Thanksgiving will follow; if it isn’t, or hasn’t, this is not the day to single out to make changes. Make the changes gradually, and let Thanksgiving take care of itself.
Thanksgiving Recipe: Just Chill
This week, more than 200 million of us will feast, mostly in the homes of friends and relatives. In the kitchens of those homes will be cooks, and in the hearts of those cooks will be fear.
I’m here to say, Please Calm Down.
Few relax completely when preparing food for others, of course. But Thanksgiving is a special challenge, one where panic, insecurity, and worry comprise a recipe for lumpy gravy.
Not that there aren’t good reasons to agonize. Do the math: Perhaps you run a kitchen for a family of four, and you cook five times a week. At each of those meals, let’s say you prepare two dishes (at most) from scratch. This means you might prepare 40 portions a week. At Thanksgiving, however, you have a party of 12, and you’re preparing 10 dishes: That’s 120 portions. In one meal. And if you have 20 people, well, now you’re running a restaurant.
It’s scary and it’s a lot of work — an undertaking most of us feel woefully unprepared to tackle. If the kitchen isn’t too small, the oven may be, and if the oven isn’t, then the roasting pan probably is. Even the refrigerator can suddenly seem undersized. There may not be enough serving spoons, and there certainly aren’t enough platters. We’ve lost our beloved aunt’s treasured gravy recipe, or wonder whether the one her daughter gave us is the ”right” one. We forgot that cousin Frieda’s daughter is a vegan.
This is the reality with which Thanksgiving cooks must cope.
What is not reality is your expectation to become The Next Food Network Star or, just as difficult, the fantasy version of your grandmother. (Mine, for example, never seemed to have a problem. How is that possible?) In this guise, you deliver everything to the table, piping hot and perfectly cooked, to thunderous applause.
Perhaps even more stressful is that in your role as The Modern Cook, you may feel obligated to make certain your food is politically and environmentally correct, or that you’re using only the ”best” ingredients.
Your grandmother did not have to worry about this; a turkey was a turkey. Your turkey, however, must be free range and organic, and your sweet potatoes should be heirloom and local. Not only should you pick our own pumpkin, you should process it yourself (while hearing the voice of Martha Stewart say that she would never throw away the seeds — such a tragedy that would be!), and not only should you make your own fudge, but you should use the appropriate (fair trade and high cocoa content) chocolate. It’s a wonder you’re not making your own marshmallows, though Martha thinks perhaps you should.
Put this all together, along with your own sense of inadequacy (if you don’t have one, congrats — but are you sure?) and you have a situation that cannot be other than overwhelming.
But friends, let’s pause for a second, and ask: When did performance anxiety and guilt become prerequisites for offering family and friends nourishment hospitality? At Thanksgiving, cooking should be one of the more relaxing things we do. Everyone is aware of the stresses of Thanksgiving, and nearly everyone — the in-laws’ odd friends aside — is appreciative of your time and effort. They really don’t care if your serving spoon is a spatula.
So, cooks: Say ”Om,”and pretend the situation is reversed. You are going to your cousin’s, your mother’s, your sister-in-law’s, your best friend’s. These are people you love, you’re happy to have been invited, and you’re looking forward to gorging, perhaps drinking too much, yelling across the table, laughing out loud. This is the spirit in which most of your guests will be arriving. They’re glad you’re cooking for them, and they’re rooting for you.
Forget your fears, relax, and enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.