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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Turkey and Dysfunction

It's November and you know what that means.  It's almost time for the home and hearth of Thanksgiving, when the family gathers around the table for a good, healthy serving of holiday dysfunction. There's nothing quite like gathering the troops to make you eat and drink with reckless abandon.

I actually love Thanksgiving, as I think most people do.  My parents are both gone, and my sister lives across the country, so we hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike for New Jersey and my cousins. Thanksgiving with my cousins is fun.   I am not kidding you.   This year, Gloria and Phil are hosting, and Gloria knows how to throw a party, even if the guest of honor is a turkey.  I'm excited, Charlie and Kate are excited, and even Ted, who is more reserved about such things than I am, is pumped.  As I said, I love Thanksgiving.

But, I do know first hand that it can be a lot of work being the host.  There's the cooking, the cleaning, the set-up and the clean-up.  There's the family drama, both unspoken and spoken far too loudly.  Let's face it.  Whenever you get a group of people together who have a lifetime worth of history, sparks will fly.  I know this from personal experience.

So, I want to make it easier for you.  Even though I'm not cooking this year, I have been in your shoes and I want to help.  (Don't I sound understanding?)  No, I can't come to your house to do the cooking, nor can I  clamp my hand firmly over your mother's mouth when she says "I know you didn't ask my opinion, but..." What I can do is give you some of my favorite recipes along with a couple of tips for making the whole ordeal as painless as possible.

Planning ahead is the key.

Start with the guest list.  Think about how many people you can comfortably serve.  No one really wants to try and eat a big Thanksgiving meal either on their lap or on the floor.  We're grown-ups here.  Make sure you have a place for everyone to sit comfortably.  If you have to invite more people than you have seats for, rent  or borrow some tables and chairs.  Believe me, your guests will thank you.  Only once you have figured out how many people you are having can you decide how much of what you are serving so invite everyone first thing.

Next you can plot out your menu.  The nice thing about Thanksgiving is that it's pretty formulaic.  There's the bird, the stuffing, potatoes or yams,  cranberries, a vegetable, and the pie. Decide on what you want to serve before dinner with drinks (and what you are going to drink, for that matter).  All the magazines with the Thanksgiving recipes have already arrived.  Lack of information is not an excuse to put this off.

Start your shopping list.  For me, there is absolutely nothing worse that hitting the grocery store the Monday before Thanksgiving with a shopping list two pages long.  Invariably, you'll forget some of your weekly staples because you're distracted by trying to locate the crystalized ginger.  And you'll forget the canned pumpkin for the pie because in the ordinary course you never buy canned vegetables and that's where the pumpkin is.  Then you'll have to haul back to the market and fight the crowds all for just a couple of items.  Get to the liquor store as far in advance as possible. After all, the family is gathering.  You'll need lots of booze.

What I like to do with the shopping is spread it out.  Pick up the staple items the next time you go to the grocery store.  You can even pick up the potatoes and the onions a week or so in advance. Believe me, they're probably the same potatoes and onions you'll buy closer to the holiday.  If you do it right, your big shopping right before the holiday should be limited to just perishable items.   Order your turkey in advance for pick-up on Tuesday or Wednesday of Thanksgiving week.

Now start thinking about the party itself.  Believe it or not, your guests are going to pay more attention to what everything looks like than how it all tastes, not that your meal won't be delicious.   I always say, if you have a great handbag and shoes, you can wear jeans from Target and no one will notice.  (I'm not comparing your Thanksgiving to Target.  I am comparing it to the really chic shoes and bags.)  It's a holiday.  Bring out the big guns.

Get out the crystal and china.  Why do you have it if you never use it?  Now is a good time to use all that stuff you registered for when you got married.  As my friend Deborah says "What? Are you going to be buried with it?"  Use it.  Enjoy it.  If you don't have enough of the good stuff, supplement with something you already own that mix and matches well.  If you're not into the "eclectic" thing, rent whatever you need.  It's not expensive, and you don't even have to wash anything before returning it.

The same is true of table linens.  If you don't have enough matching napkins, (and for heavens sake, it's a holiday, use cloth) rent something special.  My friend Susie owns a linens company, and they have many more choices than I have at home.  A good linens place can help you give your party a really special look. And again, you don't have to wash anything before you send them back so it'll cut down on your post party work.

Think about your centerpiece for the table.  If you're doing flowers, order far in advance.  You may be able to have them delivered which, as far as I'm concerned, is reason enough to order flowers in the first place.

Finally, make sure you have all the serving platters and bowls you'll need.  There's nothing worse than finding out that you don't have enough bowls ten minutes before you're sitting down to dinner.  Use large platters and bowls.  It makes everything look more sumptuous.

Remember, your guests will have a better time if you're actually at the party and not trapped in the kitchen the whole time.  (That is, unless you prefer it that way, and I'm not judging you.)  If you are well organized, you might even manage to have some fun.

This is just a little guide to help you get started with your planning. There's more to come, I promise.  In the meantime, here's my favorite (and foolproof)  recipe for pumpkin bread to get you into the Thanksgiving mood.

Spiced Pumpkin Bread
(Bon Appetit, 1995)


3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 16-ounce can solid pack pumpkin
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350/  Butter and flour two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans.  Beat the sugar and the oil in a large bowl to blend.  Mix in eggs and pumpkin.  Sift flour. cloves. cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and baking powder into another large bowl.  Stir dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture in 2 additions.  Mix in walnuts, if using.

Divide the batter equally between prepared pans.  Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes.  Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes.  Using a sharp knife, cut around the edges of the loaves.  Turn loaves out onto racks and cool completely.

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