Disasters happen. Especially when you host a bunch of people on one of the most important holidays of the year. Thanksgiving is no joke, since it’s all wrapped up in family history and warm (or not) memories. A host could really freak him or herself out at the thought of ruining it for somebody. I’m here to testify: Thanksgiving is not only survivable but it can actually be enjoyable too. As long as you follow a few rules.
1) Don’t dare look at Pinterest. Pinterest is the new Martha Stewart where everything is perfect, precious, and filtered through gauzy girliness. Forget it. Abandon all thoughts of making individual mason jars of layered pumpkin pies or painting gourds in gold leaf for a dazzling centerpiece. There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to holidays. There’s just too much family around for that. Real life is messy and so is a group of people feasting. Embrace it. Don’t worry about how it will look on Instagram. Just cook up food from the heart that tastes good and serve it up. And if your tablecloth isn’t a hot mess of gravy stains and mashed potato smears after the feasting is done, well then you’ve failed.
2) Drink plenty of wine. This sort of speaks to No. 1 because we all want our Thanksgivings to be perfection worthy of repinning, right? If being Zen about entertaining goes against your nature, drink enough wine to drown that niggling voice in your head. Tell that bitch to relax and leave you alone.
3) Learn the lesson of the oyster dressing. I started hosting T-givs about 10 years ago. I was determined to put my own stamp on it by starting new traditions, introducing new dishes, and making everyone forget my mom was a better cook than me. I collected local recipes and decided oyster dressing was the answer. It would be the new signature dish of Thanksgiving. I would be the hostess with the mostest.
It took nearly a week to construct. I bloodied my hands shucking a bushel of oysters, made a huge batch of cornbread (from scratch! no mixes for me), and finally unveiled my authentic Southern oyster dressing on Thanksgiving day. My mom hates oysters, so she passed on it. My father, brother, and husband all gave it good marks, taking a dollop and eating it with encouraging words. I thought for sure I had hit upon a winner, neglecting to accept a simple truth. Everyone liked my mom’s classic bread stuffing — made with stale bread, butter, parsley, and scallion — better. It got passed around the table again and again with scarcely any leftover. My fancy oyster dressing that took a week to make? It still had three-quarters of a pan left at the end of the day. Same thing happened for the next three goddamned years. On the fourth year, when the Thanksgiving crowd had grown much larger, and the bread stuffing still got eaten up and the oyster dressing still got left behind, I finally admitted that the oyster dressing was no match for mom’s stuffing. It hasn’t made an appearance since.
4) Keep it simple, stupid. If your mother has been cooking a meal that everyone loves for 30 years, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Be the shepherd of those family recipes. Help them live on to the next generation. That bread stuffing recipe? It was given to my mom by my Slovakian great-grandmother. Why would I dare question the wisdom of the great cooks in my family and try to upend their tradition with an oyster dressing? What a dumbass.
5) Don’t be afraid of new techniques. One way we’ve improved our Thanksgiving meal is by keeping the family’s favorite recipes but taking out some of the shortcuts. These days my mom and I share the cooking duties, which means we have time to roast fresh pumpkins instead of using canned filling for the pumpkin chiffon pie. The taste and texture is notably improved. We did the same with the potatoes in the sweet potato cranberry bake. The recipe always called for a specific brand and type of canned yams. We always followed the rule, until we didn’t and roasted farm fresh sweet potatoes. The extra care makes a big difference. Of course, if your family freakin’ loves that green bean casserole with the crunchy onion bits on top, by all means, keep it the way it is. This holiday isn’t about you, it’s about having a relaxed day with your friends and family and stuffing yourself sick. If your dad just can’t deal without a pile of gloopy green bean casserole, don’t ruin his day. Make it for him. Or better yet, have your mom make it.
6) Smile and say yes. In other words, don’t be a fucking hero. If you’re slaving away in the kitchen and you have guests offering to help — let them! I’ve learned to save up tasks. I get my guests to polish silver, crack pecans, mash the potatoes, help with the flowers, set the table, light the candles, carve the bird. Pretty much do everything but cook the turkey and time the meal. That’s my job, and if all the food ends up piping hot on the table at the same time, I’ve done the most difficult part, right? All that other stuff just makes everyone feel good about pitching in. I also think it adds to the communal experience. Or at least that’s my excuse.
7) When disaster strikes, drink more wine. And disaster will strike. Two years ago, my oven broke the day before Thanksgiving. That’s right. MY OVEN BROKE THE DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING. While I did a fair amount of freaking out, I also just sort of drank wine, rolled with the punches, and brainstormed the best way to cook my beautiful heritage turkey despite not having an oven. My house guests helped come up with a solution, and we had a blast figuring it out. We ended up cooking the turkey on the grill and having a memorable holiday that will go down in the history books as the “Remember the year the oven broke?” Thanksgiving.