Did your beloved let himself get roped into to inviting his family for Thanksgiving Dinner without talking it over with you? That happened to our delightful new daughter-in-law, only it was even worse for her: we simply invited ourselves. Married less than a year and already the in-laws are piling in on holidays. (Listen, we’ve waited a LONG time for sonny to find the right woman. We’re not wasting a minute.)
Since I don’t have any cooking to do this year, I have time to offer some tips for the desperate who perhaps are doing this for the first time and choose not to order Dinner for 25 from the supermarket. This is beginner stuff, for folks barely into their first bottle of Worcestershire sauce. I’ve been there in the trenches, so you are not getting hints from a rank amateur here. I don’t like to brag, but I was the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow in high school. I have street cred. I’m bona fide.
You think it was because I knew how to open a box of cake mix? Au contraire! This was stuff like, “If your toddler tries to play with an electrical outlet, do you (a) put something in front of it (b) tell him NO or (c) let him get a little shock. There were even math type questions: how much paint one would need if a quart would cover so many feet, etc. but your husband stepped in the bucket and six ounces went into his shoe.
So, here are tips! We’re talking basics; we’ll do gourmet next year.
This one came from friend Martha, who is a hostess extraordinaire. When we met years ago, I liked Martha immediately because we had similar ideas about the futility of trying for a clean house. Her stacks of stuff made me feel comfortable. Her garage was practically old home week.
She invited us to a dinner party. I could not wait for Dearly Beloved to meet my kindred spirit friend. She opened the door in a long skirt and no shoes. Ah yes, meet Martha! The house, however was a betrayal. Spotless. No piles of papers, no stacks of books. . . .
What th’. . . ? I hissed at her.
She reassured me with her response:
For lord’s sake, don’t open a closet!
Tip: Don’t stuff the junk in the coat closet. Somebody may open that one. Go deeper. And go barefoot! Martha’s attire says: Just in case you see something out of place, you can tell by my barefoot state that I had just a few things left to do and whatever you see wrong was next on my list. Get it? Pure genius. (My mother left her vacuum cleaner sitting in the living room for twenty years using the same logic. People were supposed to think she was just getting ready to….)
But back to Martha’s turkey tip: If you’re feeding a crowd, most of those folks are going to want white meat. Buy a small turkey and a whole breast. That way you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to get Big Tom in the oven and the smaller hen turkey will be more tender. I buy fresh because I don’t have to worry with thawing it and because our son the gourmet insists it tastes better. I have one of of those electric roaster ovens for the turkey, so that frees my oven for other things. (It always takes awhile to find it–in the basement, probably, with someone’s last year’s Christmas present hidden in it.)
Don’t bother stuffing that bird. Bake it in a separate pan and call it “dressing.” Very southern. Much faster and safer.
Here’s another: Even if your mother, his mother, and the cafeteria served cranberry sauce from a can, don’t go there. Buy a bag of two of cranberries. Freeze them, because they’re easier to chop that way. My favorite is using them raw in cranberry-orange relish, throwing them in the food processor with an orange and sugar. It’s okay to use the recipe on the bag if you don’t want to dig through cookbooks. It wouldn’t make sense for them to put a crappy recipe on there if they want you to buy more, right? (Oh. . . make sure the bag isn’t full of white cranberries or squishy cranberries. They’re supposed to be red and they should bounce, but supermarkets frown on that test.) The recipe for whole cranberry sauce one is pretty good, too, and takes 1000 times better than the canned stuff. At my most energetic, I used to make both of those AND Mrs. Sam Ervin’s cranberry salad, which had lemon jello, nuts, celery, orange, apple, and I’ve forgotten what else. Three kids, each with a different favorite, of course. (Extra tip: Consider that when deciding how many children to have.)
Make all you can in advance! If you must have mashed potatoes, find that make-ahead recipe out there. So much less panic that way. Sister Schubert’s rolls in the frozen food department will make you proud, but I’m sure there are many others that will be satisfactory. I used to make my own. I got over it.
Remember that you don’t have to have so many different dishes; turkey takes up lots of room on a plate. Sweet potatoes? You can bake them whole ahead of time, then make them up in a casserole. Or you can open a can and jazz ’em up. If you have kids, add marshmallows and nothing else will matter. If sweet potatoes don’t excite you, carrot souffles are pretty, delicious, and folks are clueless that they’re eating carrots.
The first time I ever made gravy, I simmered the innards–you know, the neck, the liver, etc., with celery leaves and seasonings. You’ll find those parts in one of the turkey’s cavities. Hang tough and dig in both of them–head and tail. So far, so good. Then, Ms. Betty Crocker decided to take a short cut and put those innards in the food processor. I had no idea that a turkey neck had bones. I can assure you. . . it does. Bony gravy; not a good thing.
Son always asked for the same vegetable combo–okra, tomatoes, butterbeans, corn, bacon. Yes, it’s a bit of a pain, but I usually put it out there.
My mother used to serve celery sticks stuffed with pimiento cheese. Adds some crunch and takes little effort even when you string the celery like you should. And you’ll find it tasty because by the time you sit down to eat you’ll already be sick of everything you’ve been cooking.
Desserts? Dig up that old lemon pie recipe using the sweetened condensed milk for your tart lovers. It uses a crumb crust and can be made in advance. We have pumpkin pie and I’ve always used fresh pumpkin because our son is a pumpkin snob and doesn’t like it from a can. He also doesn’t like it spicy. (See why I’m looking forward to heading to HIS house this year?! )
Oh, Daughter-in-Law, these tips are not for you. We look forward to enjoying whatever you serve. Don’t be nervous because believe me. . . we’ll be back.
Our son is probably out leash-walking the free-range, no growth hormones or injections, grain-fed turkey around a farm right now while selecting just the right pumpkin from the organic pumpkin patch.