Thanksgiving My Way

Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday. It’s always been a big deal in my family, and Thanksgiving day was a major production when I was growing up.

We never had anyone outside our immediate family at dinner, so my mother did everything. She started early and only stopped long enough to have a freak-out sometime in the middle of the afternoon.

Like any self-respecting Sicilian woman who grew up in the 20s, she thinks it’s wrong to make your husband do anything other than pour the drinks and carve the turkey. The turkey carving is legendary in my family. As soon as the turkey came out of the oven, she would tell my father to get ready to carve the turkey. He was usually busy pontificating about some thing or another, and generally ignored her for at least 30 minutes. He would eventually stroll into the kitchen, get out his knife sharpening tools, sharpen the knives, pour himself a beer, move the turkey to the carving plate, walk around it and poke at it for several minutes, inspecting it for – something? – then with great flourish, start carving. My mother would stand six inches behind him, peering over his shoulder and telling him he was doing it wrong. He would make a comment about how she also likes to tell him that he’s brushing his teeth the wrong way. When she suddenly remembered that she still had to make the mashed potatoes, she would walk away, rolling her eyes and grumbling about how it takes him forever to do anything.

When we sat down to eat, my mother would announce that she had to try to turkey first to be sure it was OK. One bite and she would proclaim it dry and tasteless. That’s when it was officially Thanksgiving dinner.

Once we were all adults, Thanksgiving pretty much continued in this manner, except she let my eldest sister Catherine make the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pies. Then Logan and I bought a house in 1998, and I wanted to have dinner at our place. My mother was getting older. Thanksgiving had been wearing her out for years. Two of my nieces were married and had kids, and the number of people at dinner had gone from 6 to 17. My mother’s house is small and nieces’ kids were young and loud. However, winning a fist fight with Chuck Norris was easier than wrestling Thanksgiving away from her. Even as I tried to convince her that it was best for everyone if we had dinner at our house, I understood that taking it away seemed disrespectful. Thanksgiving was what she did, and suggesting it was too much for her to handle made her feel useless. When she refused to give me her stuffing recipe, and said she wasn’t sure I knew how to make decent gravy (seriously, being the youngest always means you’re incompetent, even when you’re 42 years old.), I asked her if she would make the stuffing and help with the gravy. Having never cooked a turkey before, I also needed her to tell me exactly how to do it. That essentially put her in charge, and she finally gave in.

We had dinner at our house the next year too. Both years I followed her rules to the letter. With my mother making the stuffing and delivering it to me on Wednesday, my sister making what she always made, and my nieces bringing their own special side dishes, I’m not kidding when I say all I had to do was stuff and cook the turkey, bake bread, set the table, and start the gravy. Of course, my mother was standing 6 inches behind me, peering over my shoulder, and telling me what I was doing wrong. At some point, I just handed the spoon to her and let her finish, which I’m sure was her plan all along.

Logan and I moved to North Carolina in 2000, but continued to go back to Pennsylvania for the next three years. In 2004, we couldn’t make it up to PA, and I decided to have my Thanksgiving orphan friends over. Like my mother, I think it’s gauche to invite people to dinner and expect them to bring food, but everyone wanted to contribute. I’m famous for being a control freak in the kitchen, but I’m not stupid. I knew I couldn’t stop them from bringing food even if I wanted to.

This will be my fifth year hosting Thanksgiving. After going completely traditional the first year, I swore I would never do it again. Too many things have to be done at the last minute, and I’m all about cooking ahead as much as possible. One year I made osso bucco; the next I made Italian food. Even then, there were hints of a traditional meal, and I think you just can’t get away from it. This year I’m back to a standard meal. I’m even making mashed potatoes, which 1) I hate to make; and 2) I’m not a fan of.

I always start out saying it’s going to be just a small group – no more than 10 – but by Thanksgiving morning, the guest list has grown to at least 15. It doesn’t matter. We have enough food to feed all y’all.

I start planning early. I use a spreadsheet for the menu, guest and shopping lists, and a timeline. People laugh at me for this, but it’s the only way to keep organized. The timeline is crucial. If I know I want to take the turkey out at 6 PM, I can figure out when it has to go in the oven. Work backwards. It’s as close to foolproof as you can get.

Some of my friends think I’m a little – uh – stringent about Thanksgiving. They’re not wrong. I do have rules. My standard party rules always apply:
No barfing (it’s happened)
No fighting (it’s happened)
Don’t let the cats out the front door (my guests are darned lucky that hasn’t happened)
Stay the hell out of our bedroom (it’s happened)
Variations like “barfing on or fighting with the cats in the bedroom” are also frowned up.

I do ask a few things of my Thanksgiving guests. I want to know what they’re bringing, and that includes extra people. I always say yes, but I need a headcount. And my cooking area is small, so I expect them to do all prep work at home.

There are no rules about when we eat. I always shoot for a time, but I seldom make it. I’m usually running late, and if my friends are having fun just hanging out around the table, eating marinated olives and spiced nuts, I’m not moving on to dinner until they’re ready.

Unlike my mother, I think it’s fine to expect my husband to help. I’m half Sicilian, but I’m also half Irish. No one can whip her men into shape like an Irish woman. Logan does all the cleaning, and I informed him this year he’ll be peeling the potatoes and the carrots. He also does manly stuff like carry the extra chairs down from the attic, and build a fire in the fire pit after dinner. I absolutely couldn’t do this without Logan. He’s my right arm, and he keeps me from having a meltdown sometime in the afternoon.

I also couldn’t do this without my friends, and that’s not only because they bring food. I want Thanksgiving to be loud and crowded. If it weren’t, it would be just Thursday, and I’d be watching a Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci-Fi channel. Especially now, when I don’t socialize often, having my friends around me makes me feel whole.

They’re an awesome bunch of people. When we inevitably run out of clean forks, someone washes the dirty ones. If they have dietary restrictions, they take responsibility for them. I hate to make my friends work for their dinner, but they’re always ready to help me. Even so, Thanksgiving at my house doesn’t look like a layout in Gourmet magazine. It’s too messy and raucous. If I saw my friends wearing pearls and cashmere twin sets, I would be sure I’d taken too many pain killers that day.

What it does look like is a crowd of people who don’t want to be anywhere else. Not because dinner is at my house, but because of the energy and the fun my friends generate. It makes me miss my family less.

I hope all of you have the kind of Thanksgiving you want to have. It doesn’t have to live up to a fantasy. It just has to make you happy.